Building a new habit is hard. I usually stumble into habits, both good and bad. When I’m deliberate about a habit, it sticks for several days, but if I stumble off track – because of work, travel or life in general – I usually stay off track. Travel disrupts my routines the most, likely because my ‘triggers’ disappear and friction increases. More on that later.
I read ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear and decided to put his ideas to the test in a 66 day challenge to build new habits. I chose 66 days because Research from UCL tells us that’s how long it takes to build a habit and have it stick.
If you don’t care about how to build habits and just want to know how I did, you can skip to the results.
Why do I want to build new habits?
The last few years have been challenging. A global pandemic turned our lives upside down. Some people found the time and space to refine their goals and work towards them. Others, became a little lost as they juggled caring for family, working from home, changes in living conditions and more. I fell into the latter category. For example, pre COVID I worked out at least 3 days a week, usually at the office gym. A rapid move to work from home and change in living conditions meant I lost access to the gym, and a space at home to work out. I am writing this post because I lost a lot of the habits that made me feel good and struggled to rebuild them.
Reading Atomic Habits, I liked how the author broke down the ‘science’ of forming a habit. It made sense. So many books, podcasts, etc say what you should do, but don’t give you the tools to create meaningful habits that stick. Sometimes I try things, but they quickly fizzle out when life throws me a curve ball e.g. travel, injury or a stressful time at work or home.
The book offers an actionable set of tools you can use to form habits and keep them. I decided to try them out. I’m writing this post at the end of day 33. Honestly, I’m surprised so many days have passed and that means I’ve intentionally build 3 new habits. I’ve only broken my ‘streak’ twice.
I’m starting to see how deliberately forming helpful habits makes it easier to reach your goals, one day at a time.
How? The theory of building habits
There are a few key principles that stuck with me from the book:
- Stack your habits
- Make them small or ‘reduce it to ridiculous’ as my dad would say.
- Make it obvious.
- Reward yourself / have a feedback loop / instant satisfaction.
- Never miss 2 days in a row.
- Fake it till you make it.
Let’s take a look at each one.
It’s easier to add new habits onto existing habits. For example, if you want to read more, do it right after you brush your teeth in the morning or evening. Brushing acts as a trigger for the reading habit.
Make it obvious & remove friction
Put the book next to your bedside table, kettle, or sink (where you brush your teeth). Make it easy to remind yourself to do the thing you want to do. Also, having the book ready to go removes a lot of the friction. You don’t need to go into another room, fish in your bag, find the book *and then* read. Set yourself up for success by placing the book in the right place the night before.
Reduce it to ridiculous (make it small)
Saying you want to build a reading habit may be overwhelming. It may seem like a big chore to find your book and read it. Sounds silly, but it happens. Atomic Habits suggests making habits really small. Figure out what the first step is and make that the habit. If you want to run, make a habit of putting on your running shoes.
To build a reading habit, the first step could be to find the book and put it on the bedside table each night. Eventually you might want to upgrade from just putting the book on your bedside each night, to actually reading. Set your target to read just one page. One page a day and you will eventually finish the book. Definitely better than no pages. It reduces the burden of reading to something you can do quickly and there’s no reason to make an excuse not to. I almost did make an excuse but that’s because I didn’t like the book I chose. I swapped the book and success, I’m reading everyday. I’m halfway through my challenge and have already finished one book and started a second.
Reward yourself by tracking your progress
You’re more likely to stick with a habit if you have a positive reward after completing it. Something simple like a calendar or an app where you mark your progress each day is a simple way of rewarding yourself each day. As you build your streak, it feels more rewarding to continue. Atomic Habits talks about a sales rep who starts each day with two jars on their desk. One is empty, the other full of paperclips. After each sales call, the rep moves one clip from one jar to the other. At the end of the day they can ‘see’ their achievement, making it more likely they will make more sales calls the next day.
Never miss 2 days in a row
We are all human. Sometimes we are tired, lazy or something else comes up. What’s important is that you never miss 2 days in a row. With each day of progress, you cement your new habit. Skipping 2 days in a row starts to cement the opposite habit, the one where you avoid the habit you should be doing. In my experience, making your habits small makes it really easy to stick to them. When I didn’t feel like doing a habit, I promised myself to do the minimum. It’d only take a second after all.
I missed reading and journalling on two occassions so far (late nights). It’s weird, but after 10 or so days I started to crave my new habits. I would make sure I did the reading and journalling the following morning, because it felt weird not to.
Fake it till you make it
Habits are a lot about identity. Changing your identity has to come first. Decide who you want to me. If you want to write more, consider yourself a writer. What does a writer do everyday? If you think of yourself as a healthy person or a runner, you’re more likely to adopt habits which match your vision of yourself, eating healthily or running everyday.
The practice of building new habits: how I built 3 new habits
I decided to focus on 3 habits. To exercise more, read more and journal more. Pre-COVID, I exercised at least 3 days a week. Now I’ve completely fallen out of all my workout habits and do almost nothing.
Reduce it to ridiculous (make it small)
To reduce inertia, I’ve made my habits small (AKA reduced them to ridiculous):
- Do 1 push up per day
- Read 1 page per day
- Write 1 line in my journal per day.
I downloaded an Android app called Loop Habit Tracker. It’s open source, free and has no ads or paid upgrades. I added each of my habits above and a reminder each day to ask if I did the habit. The app faithfully asks me each morning if I did my 1 push up, and each evening if I did my journalling and reading. This has been working really well for me. I just tap a reply on the notification for yes or remind me later.
I also set up a widget which shows me my streak over the week. It’s really motivating to not want to break the streak.
Make it obvious
I moved my yoga mat to my bedroom and placed it by the bed. Each morning I roll out of bed, onto the mat. I started with a push up and a few stretches. After a couple days, my routine increased to stretching and at least 10 push ups, squats and single leg deadlifts. On a rare morning where I was running late, I did a few push ups and checked off my progress on my habit tracking app.
My journal and Kindle are on my bedside table. Now I look forward to digesting the day and getting it down on paper. I write more than one line everyday. I note my highlights and try to find one thing I’m grateful for or that made me laugh.
Stacking habits, I then pick up my kindle and read. I always end up reading more than one page. When I’m tired I don’t feel guilty for stopping after 2 or 3. It’s definitely better than zero. Today is day 33 of my challenge. I’ve read 15% of the book I didn’t like and gave up on, finished the second book and am 11% through the third book. I’m now starting a third book. I’m surprised with myself; before, I hardly read. There were some positive side effects too, I use my phone less before sleep, I get tired while reading and can fall asleep within seconds of putting my kindle down.
Quality vs Quantity
A class of pottery students was challenged to make their best vase. They were split into two groups, quantity and quality. The quantity group was asked to make as many vases as possible. The quality group were asked to make just one vase and make it their best. Surprisingly, at the end of the challenge, all of the best pieces came from the quantity group.
This story gives me hope. I struggle to write consistently. I don’t think I’m a great writer, but if I put myself in the quantity group and aim to write a little bit each day, I’m sure I’ll improve.
Building systems, as I have, make habit creation easier. Habits, combined, help you to achieve big goals. Every big goal starts with a single step.
I opened the Loop Habit Tracking app and was pleasantly surprised to see I’m on day 33 of my 66 day habit making challenge. The screenshot is from yesterday. Over the 33 days I’ve kept up all 3 of my new habits. I did miss reading and journalling a couple of nights because I was out late, but made up for it the following morning.
Although I reduced my habits to ridiculous, I never did the bare minimum. In fact, I found that I increased the amount of exercise, reading or journalling I did each time. I am human though, so sometimes I allowed myself to do a little less but still tick off the progress. For example, one morning I didn’t feel like exercising. I told myself I’d do just one push up. I mean, it would be really quick. Once I did one, I did a few more, but not a full workout. Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part.
I can feel the positive impact of the morning exercise on my body. It’s a great way to start the day, my posture’s improving and I can do way more push ups than I could a few days ago.
Working from home, every day feels like a blur. The weeks go by so fast. Taking a few minutes each day to reflect on the day has become a highlight for me. I try to think of one thing that made me laugh or that I am grateful for and write about it. Although my goal was to write a single line each day, I find myself running out of space in my journal for each daily entry.
Reading more has been my favourite part of this challenge. My good friend Thomas has recommended me some great books. Thanks to him and this challenge I’ve rediscovered my passion for reading. Here’s what I read:
- Will by Will Smith (15% complete; abandoned because it didn’t hook me. Will try the audiobook).
- Nexus by Ramez Naam (100% complete by day 30)
- Crux (The Nexus Trilogy Book 2) by Ramez Naam (11% complete)
It’s not over yet
I was conscious to not start too many habits at once, but now I’m eager to see if I can form more challenging habits, ones that I’ve never had before e.g. write everyday. I’d sure write more blog posts if I did! I am also thinking about doing more creative things like coding, photo/video editing or learning how to cook.
I may update this post on day 66 with my full results, or, if I start some new habits, I may write a new post. If you want to know what happens next or just want to know when I write something new, please use the form at the end of the post to subscribe 🙂
Writing this article, I found it interesting that we say ‘build new habits’. When I think about building, I think about laying bricks, one at a time, to build a wall. Your goal might be to build a wall, but what’s actually important is that you show up everyday and lay a new brick. On a given day your focus is to lay another brick as perfectly as you can – that’s all. Eventually, you’ll look up and see the wall you built.
In the same way, I think you can achieve any goal you set for yourself, you just need to build a habit that takes you there. If you want to be in better shape, then set a goal to move your body each day. Even if you move for just a few minutes, those minutes add up. 10 push-ups a day add up to 300 a month. That’s more than you would do otherwise. Similarly, writing a book or a blog post may seem insurmountable. Writing a sentence or a paragraph everyday is a great way to make progress.
Will Smith tells a similar story about building a wall at the start of his autobigraphy ‘Will’. If you’re interested in his story, I recommend checking it out, particularly the audiobook.
What habit will you build?
I leave you with my favourite take-away from Atomic Habits.
“To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself. You need to build identity-based habits.”
The goal is to not write a book, but become a writer. The goal is not to read a book, but become a reader.
Let me know if you found this post helpful and are tempted to challenge yourself to build a new habit, or three. I’d love to hear about your experience and progress. If you know someone else who might like this post, please feel free to share it 🙂