4 Tips for Making Habits Stick 1

New habits aren’t only for new year’s resolutions! Let’s make them stick for good. Here are some essential things to remember when creating new habits.

  1. Find your own motivation (or it won’t stick).
  2. Create a positive replacement.
  3. A little something is better than nothing at all.
  4. Make it easy.

*Note: Another version of this article was published to elephantjournal, but this version is at least 20% better. :)

Find Your Own Motivation

I’ve been guilty of this before. I hear something from a friend, or I see something on TV, and I think “Man, I want to do that too!” So I jump right in and decide to start a fruit and vegetable juice fast, or I decide to do as many pushups as I can every day for a month to work up to 100/day, or I decide to only say positive things all day long. Then, alas, it doesn’t last! I get super hungry after my apple/carrot juice mix, super tired and bored after my third day of pushups, and I start cursing super negative things to myself about how ridiculously hard it is to improve myself. Then I start asking “Why am I doing this again?” When I give it some more thought, the inevitable outcome is “Ugh, why bother?” and I end up eating whatever the hell I want, never exercising, and cursing those other folks for being so successful. Of course it didn’t work for me – my goal was about being like someone else instead of it being about myself! I don’t need to do 100 pushups a day and go on a juice fast to be happy if all I want to do is feel a bit better about myself. Those other options are great for other people, but for me they’re extreme. We can only make long lasting personal change if we’re self-motivated. That means doing it because of our own self-interests and desires. There’s a thick gray line between “super motivated” and “eh, kind of.” Sometimes knowing the difference takes time and practice. Usually it’s easier to just start doing something instead of giving it a lot of thought beforehand. Without that extra reflection beforehand though, when a new habit does become difficult, willpower is all that’s left over. When we know our personal motivation, willpower won’t have as much to do with it, because working towards our goal will be enjoyable. It can be the difference between “Yes! I just drank puréed beetroot juice and I feel spectacular!” and “Dear me, this tastes like a sweaty gym sock.

Create a Positive Replacement

So here’s the thing about habits. People often decide on habits such as “watch less TV,” or “don’t eat any food after dinner,” or “eat less sweets.” These are great things to do! They’re also horrible, awful ways to phrase creating a new habit. Think about this: If I usually watch TV four hours a night after dinner every evening while eating cake and ice cream, and I’ve been doing that for the last ten years, what the hell else am I going to do instead? Just sit there and stare at the wall? Habits are like songs that are stuck in our heads and we can’t get them out of there. The easiest way to get rid of them is to replace them with a different habit that we want instead. No, I don’t suggest taking up smoking. I mean a GOOD habit. You know, like reading a non-fiction book, exercising, or watching a reputable, scientifically based documentary instead of watching Game of Thrones. Watching less TV is awesome, but why do we want to watch less TV? What else do we want to accomplish? Let’s use that non-TV time to work towards a different goal and our “watch less TV” goal will become much, much easier.

A Little Is Better

Meet Charlie. Charlie’s been exercising every day for a week, except yesterday he didn’t because something bad happened. I don’t know, maybe his cat farted on him and he was so mad he decided working out was “stupid” and “hard.” Anyway, he skipped last night and his goal was to exercise every day, so he’s already failed and might as well give up right? Of course not. As it turns out, making a few mistakes along the way “has no measurable impact on your long term habits.” A habit like meditating every day isn’t about how long we do it, it’s about doing it. It could be only 5 minutes, but it’s the act of spending that 5 minutes that forms the habit. It’s not the “thing” itself. Meditating doesn’t form a habit for meditation and exercising doesn’t form one for exercise – it’s about doing it regularly, not about how well we do it. So it doesn’t matter if we suck at it, as long as we do it. Even if we get sick and have to stop working towards our new habit for a week or more, so what? What do we want to spend our time doing, the new habit, or the old ones?

I have to spend some more time on this one because I feel it’s important. People have their minds set on getting things done right away and as fast as possible! Too many commercials maybe. All of this expectation of immediate gratification is really annoying when it comes to actually doing something well. Generally things are done better, and some things can ONLY be done right, when done a little bit at a time on a regular basis instead of all at once. Look at cleaning for example. How clean will our house be if we spend 48 straight hours cleaning it once a year? 360 days out of the year it won’t be clean at all! If we want a clean house, we spend at least 5 to 10 minutes every day cleaning it. It’s the only way to have a clean house most of the time. The concept works for exercise, of course. We can’t just run 12 miles one day and expect to lose weight. A mile a day 3 times a week for 4 weeks will get better results. As I’m sure you know, the concept works for studying. We can’t pull an all-nighter before an exam and expect to retain that information for more than a short period of time. When learning something it’s got to reviewed regularly. There is an abundance of other examples out there. The concept works for investing, self-control, creating good relationships, spending wisely, being kind, etc. At the moment I can’t think of anything it doesn’t work for.

There are two books I’ve read that come to mind as I explain this. Mastery by George Leonard and Rich Kids by Tom Corley. Mastery really drives home the idea of living for the process and enjoying it – work at the process, not towards an end-goal. Rich Kids has some advice about what kind of new habits to form.

Make It Easy

When first getting started, of course it’s easier to come home and flip on the telly instead of practicing the guitar, or reading a book about finance. The remote is right there and the book is sooo far away on the shelf. Changing this up is a great way to make it easier to do the habit than not. Put the TV remotes away in a far away place. Put the guitar or the finance book on the table or couch instead. When you get home and sit down, your new habit will be there waiting for you instead of your old one. If you get up every day and take a shower, eat, and brush your teeth, change that routine by adding meditation to it. For exercise you can put your workout clothes next to your bed for when you wake up, or set your sneakers and clothes out for when you get home. For eating healthier you can prepare a meal ahead of time for days when you won’t feel like cooking. Making it that much easier to get started has a great effect!


So there you have it. It’s not all there is to forming new habits, but this is a good start.

What new habits would you like to have?

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One thought on “4 Tips for Making Habits Stick

  • Four Pillar Freedom

    Making it easy is definitely the most important aspect of making habits stick for me personally. I also find that if I can just get past the first week or two of a new habit, I can make it a permanent habit. Starting is the hardest part, but continuing is much easier.