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How to Form New Habits in 5 Easy Steps

According to a study conducted by Duke University, habits make up approximately 45% of the actions we perform every day. This means that half of our lives are essentially a programmed set of routines that happen on auto-pilot.

There’s good and bad to this phenomenon. If you can learn how to form new habits that move your life forward, then positive behaviors happen on auto-pilot – they simply become part of your identity.

The problem is that bad habits are formed through the same automatic process. Smoking, drinking, oversleeping, and procrastinating, can just as easily become a part of your identity.

Everyone knows the importance of building good habits, yet most of our efforts to build them fail before they ever really get off the ground. If this resonates with you, know this:

There’s nothing wrong with you, there’s something wrong with your system.

In this article, we’re going to talk about how to form new habits using a simple five step framework that makes it easy.

Why Most People Can’t Form Good Habits

Before we talk about how to form new habits, it’s important to discuss some of the common mistakes that most people make when trying to build new habits.

The first mistake people make is letting ambition take over. If you pull up any motivational video on the internet, you’ll likely hear that the best way to change your life is to set huge goals and then do whatever it takes to achieve them. 

This may provide you with a quick hit of motivation, but it’s not practical. It goes against the fundamentals of behavior change.

Big goals don’t motivate us, they overwhelm us. They serve as a constant reminder of how far we are from our desired state, which actually demotivates us. The sheer magnitude of the challenge prevents us from ever making any meaningful progress.

The second mistake people make when trying to shift their behavior is not being specific enough. 

Oftentimes, we tend to think we lack willpower when what we really lack is clarity. If you’re trying to build an exercise habit, but don’t specify when and where that habit is going to place, your brain will go into analysis paralysis mode:

  • What workout am I going to do?
  • Should I workout before or after work? 
  • How long am I going to workout for?

When we don’t give our new habits a time and space to live in your life, we’re not preparing to win the day. We’re simply hoping that we’ll just remember to do it at the right time, which leads to missed days and inconsistent behavior patterns.

With both of these mistakes, the result is the same – we don’t take action consistently enough to turn a new behavior into an ingrained habit.

 

how to form new habits by avoiding big goals

 

How To Form New Habits In 5 Easy Steps

At this point, you should be aware that your inability to change isn’t about your lack of motivation or willpower, it’s your system.

That’s why I’m here! Each step of the habit creation framework I’m about to walk through with you is designed to work with your brain’s tendency for inaction, not against it. 

You can change. You can improve your life. But you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing and expect different results. 

Let’s get into a simple five step plan that will teach you how to form new habits and create the life that you want.

Step #1: Focus On One Habit At A Time

The other day I got an email from someone who told me that she was in a rut. The email said:

 “I am in a complete rut and I feel like my feet are cemented. I know I need to make changes to my habits, and I have so many of them I don’t know where to begin! EVERYTHING in my life has changed the last few years, and my life just feels all over the place now. This is causing me to literally stand in place not knowing where to start. Ugh.”

This resonated with me heavily, because for the longest time that’s exactly the pain that I suffered through too.

I’d realize there were things about my life that needed to change, and then craft a plan for changing them that was dead before it even started.

Armed with supreme motivation, I’d tell myself that I was going to activate superman mode. I was going to start waking up early, lifting weights every day, and meditating all at once. And while writing down all of these intentions felt good in the moment, I was no superman.

It was an act that I could pull off for a few days, but eventually the missed days started to pile up and my motivation waned. But luckily, time heals all wounds – so six months later I’d dust myself off and try again.

You can have everything you want, you just can’t have it all at once. A better way to approach your habits is to put all of your energy and focus into developing one at a time. 

Will taking this approach limit your potential progress? Maybe, but at least you’ll give yourself a better shot at making that habit stick.

Would you rather commit to one change for a few months and make it stick in your life, or spend years trying and failing to integrate multiple changes at once? 

The answer seems pretty obvious to me.

 

kid playing with blocks

 Step #2: Clarify The New Behavior

Now that you know that the easiest way to form new habits is to choose one and not look back, the next dilemma is about picking the right habit.

Because at the end of the day, you can’t shut off the part of your brain that informs you of everything that’s wrong with your life.

You probably have several different habits that you want to ingratiate into your daily routine, which is completely normal. Now we need to tame that urge by picking a habit that will deliver maximum impact.

Habits are like investments. Not every habit provides an equal return on the time and energy you spend building it.

First, we need to work backwards by taking a look at the goals you want to achieve. 

Prioritizing Your Goals

Here’s a simple framework for prioritizing your life goals and deciding which area of your life to dedicate your attention towards.

  • Start off by writing down all of the long term goals that you’re committed to achieving over the next 12 months. My recommendation is to get down at least 10 goals that you want to achieve over the next year.
  • Go through each goal and give it a score from 1-10. Base the scores off of how important it is to you at this moment. Feel free to use decimal points in your score if you want to be even more precise.
  • Take the top three goals from your list based on their score and erase every other goal
  • For the final part of this process, think about the ripple effects of achieving each goal and then pick the future that sounds the most exciting to you.
  • Use this question to help you out during this process, “If I achieved this goal, what else would be different about my life?”
  • The key is to pick the goal that delivers the highest degree of change in your current life circumstances

This process can work just as well if you go based off of your inner wisdom too. Deep down, most of us have that one goal that we think about all time. We all have that one change that we’ve been wanting to make forever but just haven’t figured out a way to make it happen.

It’s typically the last thing that we think about before we go to bed and the first thing that we think about when we wake up in the morning. 

If you feel like you already know the goal you want to commit to based on your internal dialogue, just pick that goal. Your inner wisdom is smart, so just trust that it’s leading you in the right direction.

Either one of these methods is effective for determining the one goal that you want to commit to achieving for the next 12 months.

Choose The Habit

Now that you’ve got the goal you want to focus on, it’s time to choose the habit that you believe will help you reach that goal.

This should be a pain-free process, because narrowing down your focus to one goal eliminates a lot of the potential habits that you’re thinking of building that don’t directly relate to that goal.

Ask yourself the right question. and you’ll get the right answer. Here’s the one you should once you’ve chosen the goal you’re going to dedicate your time to achieving.

“What’s one new habit you can build that will all but guarantee that you achieve your goal or exceed it?

Use your inner wisdom and pick one habit to focus on, then proceed to the next step in this guide.

 

how to form new habits in 2021

 

Step #3: Shrink The Change

You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.

I heard this quote while reading Atomic Habits, and it’s stuck with me ever since.

Fundamentally, we resist radical change because our brain hates it. Our brain hates it because change, big or small, represents uncharted territory. 

Our brains don’t want us to venture outside our comfort zone, and there’s nothing more uncomfortable than committing to achieving a huge, Mount-Everest like goal.

Shifting your outcomes means shifting your identity. It means convincing your brain that you are a completely different person.

The problem is that our brain doesn’t buy into this narrative without evidence. That’s why attempting to make huge, tectonic shifts in our behavior rarely pan out. The daily targets that we set for ourselves are often so incongruent with our identity that our brain manufactures resistance towards them.

For example, let’s say that you want to lose 50 pounds, and the habit you’ve chosen to reach that goal is doing pushups every day. If you were to set your daily target at 50 pushups per day, you’ll immediately start feeling internal resistance towards this behavior.

Your brain will start conjuring up a thousand different excuses about why you shouldn’t do it, or why you should “just start tomorrow.”

However, what if you set yourself a daily target of just five pushups? Well, that’s something that your brain will be more open to.

It’s still a shift in your identity, but it’s nowhere near as drastic as the idea of sitting down and hammering out 50 pushups. You might still feel a little resistance, but it’s not nearly as likely to stop you from taking action.

That’s the true power of small habits, they attack your ego. They’re almost too easy to say no too.

So you’ll likely humble yourself and knock out the five pushups. You won’t feel amazing about it, but you’ll have just casted a small vote for the type of person you want to become.

As you repeat this small action daily, your identity will start to shift. Your bigger, more ambitious targets will start to feel attainable after consistent, focused action. 

As an added bonus, you also have the law of physics on your side too. Once an object is in motion, it will stay in motion unless acted upon by another force. This means five pushups can turn into 8, 10, or even 20 depending on how far you want to push yourself.

In the first month of your new habit, how far you push yourself is irrelevant. It’s simply about showing up and getting a win, which will cement the neural pathways in your brain that make this behavior into a habit.

How To Form New Habits By Shrinking The Change

The advice that we need to start small and build ourselves up is advice that’s old as time.

However, it’s still hard to put into action because after all, we’re naturally wired to aim for the moon. Even when we try to start small, we often still put ourselves in a position to fail.

A good rule of thumb to apply to your new habits is the two minute rule. When you’re starting off with implementing a new behavior into your life, it should take you less than two minutes to do.

  • Walking for one hour each day becomes putting on your running shoes and taking 50 steps. 
  • Writing 1,000 words per day becomes writing 50 words per day. 
  • Reading for 30 minutes every day becomes reading just two pages every day.
  • Meditating for 10 minutes per day becomes meditating for two minutes every day
  • Talking to 5 new people every day becomes talking to one person per day
  • Lifting weights every day becomes putting on your exercise clothes and walking out the door

Committing to achieving your biggest goals starts with humbling yourself to the smallest possible actions that represent progress towards those goals. 

These small, seemingly insignificant daily shifts are ultimately what build you into the person you want to become.

 

ladder in the sky

Step #4: Create a Trigger For Your New Habit

Once you’ve scaled down your new habit, now it’s time to get specific about when and where it’s going to take place. The best way to do this is to create what psychologists refer to as an implementation plan for your new habit.

Your brain is easily susceptible to indecisiveness. However, most of the time this indecisiveness comes from a lack of clarity. An implementation plan will remove foggy notions of change and arm with you a clear plan of action.

Specifying a time and place for your new behavior also speeds up the process of it becoming a habit. Think about all of the habits that you have currently and you’ll notice that they are typically preceded by certain cues.

Some people deal with stress by pulling out a cigarette. Other people decide to go on a run to blow off some steam. Some people may decide that their outlet is video games. In any case, the cue is the same. 

What about your morning routine? It happens seamlessly and automatically and in the blink of an eye you’re ready for the day. You brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed, and make your morning coffee. It happens on auto-pilot, completely outside of your conscious awareness.

That’s because each action acts as a trigger for the next one. Brushing your teeth tells your brain that it’s time to take a shower. Taking a shower tells your brain that it’s time to get dressed. Getting dressed tells your brain that it’s time to make your morning coffee.

Creating habit triggers is often the missing link in our efforts to change our lives, and there are two types of triggers that we can use.

The first strategy is to create a time based trigger. This involves writing down the specific time and place that your new behavior will take place. 

The formula for creating a time based trigger is as follows – I will perform {new habit} at {time} in {place}

The second strategy is to create an action based trigger. If you go this route, you simply stack your new habit behavior after a current one that you already have. 

The formula for creating an action based trigger is as follows – After {current habit}, I will perform {new habit}

Here’s what the difference between the two looks when actually applied to the same habit.

  • Time Based Trigger – At 6 o’clock, I will go outside and walk 50 steps.
  • Action Based Trigger – After I put my bag down on the counter, I will put on my running shoes and walk 50 steps.

Either kind of trigger can be effective for forming new habits. However, there are certain situations where time based triggers work better than action based triggers, and vice versa.

If you plan on implementing your new habit at the start of your day or at the end of your day, time based triggers tend to be more effective. That’s because we have more control over the way our day starts and ends.

The beginning/ending hours of the day are more flexible because certain things  come up throughout the day and derail our plans. Let’s just call it what it is – in the middle of the day, shit happens. 

That’s why if you plan on implementing your new habits in the middle of the day, it’s best to tie them to the routines that you’ve already established. 

Step #5: Scale Up The Behavior:

Small habits are incredibly effective for shifting your identity, but there’s a catch. At the end of the day, the bare minimum isn’t gonna cut it if you want to achieve the goal you just committed to.

Your small habit acts as a target that you can hit on any day no matter how you feel. But the reality is that as you consistently repeat this habit every day, your willpower and motivation will increase naturally.

It’s practical to take advantage of this shift by upping the ante a little bit. That’s why we’re going to discuss a way to gradually increase the difficulty of your new behavior without sabotaging your progress too quickly.

If you put too much on yourself too quickly, then your new habit will wither and die out. Here’s what sample plans would look like for a few different habits

New Habit – Daily Meditation

  • Weeks 1 & 2: Meditating for 60 seconds per day
  • Weeks 3 & 4: Meditating for two minutes per day
  • Weeks 5 & 6: Meditating for four minutes per day
  • Weeks 7 & 8: Meditating for six minutes per day
  • Weeks 9 & 10: Meditating for ten minutes per day 

New Habit –  Daily Writing

  • Weeks 1 & 2: Write 50 words per day
  • Weeks 3 & 4: Write 100 words per day
  • Weeks 5 & 6: Write 150 words per day
  • Weeks 7 & 8: Write 200 words per day
  • Weeks 9 & 10: Write 300 words per day

New Habit – Making Sales Calls

  • Weeks 1 & 2: Make two sales call per day
  • Weeks 3 & 4: Make five sales calls per day
  • Weeks 5 & 6: Make eight sales calls per day
  • Weeks 7 & 8: Make twelve sales calls per day
  • Weeks 9 & 10: Make fifteen sales calls per day

Take your new habit and come up with a 10 week plan for scaling it up using these three sample plans above as a reference. 

Now, if you start missing days then that’s totally fine. That’s actually a good thing, and what this whole process is designed to do.

The reason you create a 10 week scale up plan is because you’re trying to find your minimum sweet spot. 

You find that sweet spot by gradually raising the difficulty of the habit until you run up internal resistance that stops you from taking action. When you find this level, this is the habit that becomes your new minimum requirement.

Once that baseline is set, that minimum requirement doesn’t change for as long as you perform the habit. If you do, you open yourself to missing days and losing the consistency that you’ve fought so hard to build in the first place.

 

how to form new habits by climbing the ladder

Final Note On How To Form New Habits

We’ve just covered a simple 5 step framework teaching you how to form new habits and make them stick in your life.

If you follow this framework, you’ll be amazed at the impact that small habits can have on your life. 

Here’s a perfect example from my own life. When starting my blog, the biggest obstacle that I faced was writing consistently. 

To combat this, I decided to take my own advice and start small. I committed to a mini-habit of writing 50 words per day. Fast forward almost a full year later and now I consistently write at least 1,000 words per day without breaking a sweat.

That’s how the compound effect works. First, you start small and humble yourself. Then, as you cast votes for your desired identity, that identity becomes solidified. Finally, you get to the point where you don’t need to rely on willpower or motivation to change your life. 

When you get to that level, you’re simply acting in accordance with the type of person you already believe yourself to be.

What does it take to get to that level? Sustained consistency. It takes showing up day after day even when you don’t feel like it, and that’s why small habits are so powerful.

They attack your ego. We’re programmed to take the path of least resistance, but small habits are so pathetically simple that you almost feel obligated to do them so that you wake up with a shred of dignity in the morning.

Just to recap, here is the five step framework for how to form new habits:

  • Focus On One Habit At A Time
  • Clarify The New Behavior
  • Shrink The Change
  • Create A Trigger For Your New Habit
  • Create A 10 Week Scale Up Plan to Find Your Minimum Requirement

If you follow these three steps, you’ll be able to get off the self improvement hamster wheel and finally start re-inventing who you are.

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