How to Install a New Habit – Part 2: Mini-Guide

Part 1 outlined some of the key principles for successfully installing a new habit. In Part 2, it’s time to get your hands dirty. This is a step-by-step guide on how to actually do it.

Step 1: Pick a goal or new identity

Here are three examples of performance and identity based goals:

  1. Lose 5 kg til summer (performance based)
  2. Write a book by the end of the year (performance based)
  3. Become a regular meditator (identity based)

The first two are your typical SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound). The third one is a bit vague, so it might require thinking in a different way.

Goal setting is a science on its own. The important thing to keep in mind is not to set socially conditioned goals. You might think something is a good idea or useful habit because other people say so. Turn off your smartphone and go for a walk. Think about which goal would really be fun or beneficial to YOU, not to someone else, or someones advertising department.

When you think about that goal, include all your senses. Imagine it as completely and totally real. You’re there right, and have been for a long time. What does it feel like? When you imagine that goal as real, you should feel something downstairs. (I meant your gut, idiot. 😛 )

Step 2: Educate yourself

This is the early game. Take a few days and become a veritable guru on the subject. Check out what resources you’ll need, the best mindset to cultivate for success and look up best practices, tricks and hacks.

Find answers to atypical questions that will give you an edge, like:

  • What are the most common mistakes and wastes of time when doing X? How can I avoid them?
  • How can I apply the 80/20 rule to X?
  • What are the best instructional books or resources on the subject? If people had to teach themselves, what should they use?
  • Who are the best in the world regarding X? How do they do it? What makes them different? Who trained or influenced them?
  • Who is a world-class performer in X but shouldn’t be (based on common standards and techniques)? How does she do it then?
  • Who are the most impressive lesser-know teachers?

These are also great questions to ask a friend, colleague or anyone who has already succeeded in what you’re trying to do. Find an expert in your proximity or online and ask him. Try to find a mentor to help you with making the change and sticking to it.

Step 3: Prepare

Preparation is part of your middle game. Now it’s time to design your environment to support you and get all the stuff you’ll need. The idea is to be like a doomsday prepper. Have all your supplies ready, all contingencies planned for and hope National Geographic calls with an episode proposal. 😀

For our weight loss goal, you would buy gym clothes, become a member at a local gym, create an exercise plan, throw out all unhealthy foods, update your shopping list etc. Plan for shitty days when you won’t feel like it and try to outmaneuver yourself. Prepare an inspirational music playlist, stick badass motivational quotes everywhere and get a buddy to go running with you.

For the book writing goal, find a website where you can write daily and be prompted to do it, like 750words. Schedule a block of your time every day for writing. Get books to read for inspiration and learn 10 methods to overcome writer’s block. Ask friends to bounce ideas off of them or have them proofread for you. Eliminate distractions so you can’t do anything on your computer except write. I use Freedom for that.

And for the regular meditation goal, chose a time and place when you won’t be disturbed. Tell your family or roommates what you’re doing so they won’t disturb you. Experiment with poses, chairs, cushions and clothing before your first session. Find a good guided meditations and have it ready. Download a meditation app or timer.

Decide on a cue that will trigger you to do your habit. Most common cues fall under five categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional State
  • Other People
  • Immediately preceding action

So pick a trigger and set up reminders you can’t miss, like post-its on your forehead when you go to sleep or an embarrassing song as your smartphone reminder. Trust me, you’ll remember your habit just before that shit start’s playing within earshot of other humans.

Step 4: Execute

Now you’re totally prepared and can do your routine without a hitch. This is a good time to kick off a 30-day trial. If you don’t want to burn out and quit very soon, start super small. The first few weeks should be used to get the ball rolling and build momentum that’s very easy to maintain. You can build upon the habit once it’s on autopilot and you no longer feel resistance.

Example:

  • Exercise for just 5 minutes a day
  • Write just 3 sentences per day
  • Meditate for only 2 minutes every day

Be patient with yourself. It takes about 66 days before a new behavior becomes automatic, but it can vary wildly depending on the habit and person (study).

Step 5: Track your progress and refine

Establish a feedback loop to keep you on track. Print a 30-day calendar and stick it to your fridge. Cross off a box each day you complete your routine. Smartphones have apps for that as well. Challenge: Never miss two days in a row.

Pick a useful metric that will show you how well you’re doing. Open up a spreadsheet and write down, for example:

  • How much weight you lifted at the gym or how many miles you ran
  • How many words you’ve written each day
  • How many minutes you have meditated

It’s also a very good idea to journal about the process. Write down your thoughts and feelings before, during and after doing your routine. When you review it later, it can point to some potential problems or improvements. My software of choice is Evernote.

If you’re not good at writing stuff down, you can talk to someone, a friend or a spouse. Or a pet! In software engineering, there’s a practice called Rubber Duck Debugging. You take a typical bathtub-variety rubber duck, and explain your code to it, line by line. Yes, I’m serious. XD Explaining something to someone else forces you to use a different part of your brain and look at things from a different perspective. It can often trigger an Aha! moment that leads you to a solution for a certain problem.

Step 6: Mess up and recover

Life can be unpredictable, causing you to fall off track. You forget about your habit, or literally couldn’t find 5 minutes in a given day to do it. That’s fine. It’s something you’ll be doing a looong time, so no harm in missing a day. But do everything you can not to miss two days in a row.

If you get sidetracked for a longer period you’ll start losing motivation. It’s normal to avoid thinking about the habit, to spare yourself feeling bad about it. That’s a red flag, and it’s good to remember the reason you started doing the habit in the first place. You can also talk to a friend and ask for help or support. Re-start as small as possible. Do one push-up. Write one sentence. Meditate for 30 seconds. Then continue building from there.

Step 7: Improve

Once you get comfortable doing your habit, it’s time to step up your game. Increasing the challenge keeps things interesting. But don’t overdo it. Increasing the difficulty by just 1% won’t overwhelm you, and yet it will have a massive snowball effect over time. If you improve by 1% every day for a year, you’ll end up improving by a factor of 37.78 by day 365.

Here’s an article on marginal gains and how Dave Brailsford, a Britich cycling coach, made 1 percent improvements that lead the team to win Tour de France in 3 years.

Final thoughts

For every new habit you install, you also build self discipline and focus. You’ll see the benefits ripple across multiple areas of your life. Just make sure you install one habit at a time. It’s tempting to try and turn your whole life around at once, but it usually fails. Be patient and enjoy the process. Good luck. 🙂


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