I don’t have any particular natural skill, my willpower is lacking, and I’m not even all that motivated. Whatever limited success I’ve achieved can be attributed to forming good habits.
For every good habit I’ve formed, I’ve tried and failed to form at least another twenty. By now, I’ve been doing it for long enough that I’ve identified four key ingredients required to make a habit stick. And it mostly boils down to taking it slowly.
1: Start so small you can’t fail
When I started running, my goal was literally to put on my trainers, leave the house, and run any distance at all – even if just to the end of the road. However unfit you are (and I was), it’s difficult to fail at a goal like that. Within about six months, I ran my first marathon.
You can apply the same idea to saving money, learning a new subject, or anything else. Just identify the absolute smallest amount you can do while still being able to claim you’ve done it.
This works because the most dangerous time of a habit’s life is the first few weeks: it’s easy to get discouraged by an early failure and quit completely. The solution? Rig the rules so it’s virtually impossible to fail!
2: Do it daily, or find a non-negotiable time
Trying to form a habit for something you do a few times per week is ludicrously difficult compared to something you can do every day.
Why? Because when something needs to happen daily you can build it into your routine and have it triggered at a certain point (like go for a run during your lunch break, or study Japanese flashcards while the kettle boils).
When something isn’t daily, you have to think about whether today is the day – and it’s easy to find a reason why it shouldn’t be. If you want to go for a run three times per week, you can always justify skipping today and still being on track.
It also involves making some kind of adjustment to your routine so “the days when you do the thing” are different from “the days you don’t” – even if only slightly. This friction is a habit-killer.
So if you can break the activity into a smaller unit that makes sense to do every day, that’s optimal. Failing that, find non-negotiable points in your week for doing it and put it in your calendar (even if only your mental calendar). For example, reviewing your spending daily makes no sense, but you could set a non-negotiable appointment to do it on a Sunday morning before the kids wake up.
I’ve done this with interval training on the running track. It’s too intense on the body to do every day, so I have it in my calendar to do first thing every Tuesday. Why Tuesday? No reason – but now if I wake up and it’s a Tuesday, I go do my intervals. No friction.
3: Find achievement in the process, not the outcome
You won’t always achieve a new personal best, or make the progress you’d planned to. That doesn’t matter: you can count it as a win if you just do the activity.
I take this approach to writing. My expectation for myself is that I’ll sit down and write for at least 20 minutes every day. Some days I just type stream of consciousness nonsense until the time is up. Other days I start out with an idea I’m excited by, but can’t find a way to put it in to words in a form that’s any good. That’s OK – the goal is just turning up and doing it, so as long as I start I can’t fail.
4: Build up slowly
Just as there’s a real risk to starting with too much ambition, there’s also danger in trying to progress too quickly. If it’s a physical activity you could injure yourself and need to take time off, and you can sustain “mental injury” too: for example, by jumping too fast into advanced concepts where you can’t keep up and lose faith in the whole project.
The secret is just to do a tiny bit more each time. In running or lifting the common advice is to increase by 5-10% per week. Find the equivalent for whatever your activity is, and those small gains will build up quicker than you expect.