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The Smart Way to Stick to Habits

Sticking to a new habit isn’t easy — but if you set up your habit change smartly, you can make it stick.

Starting a new habit isn’t too hard — we often get excited about starting an exercise plan or diet or waking up early, for example. But a number of obstacles get in the way of sticking to the habit long enough for it to become automatic.

Here are the usual obstacles:

  1. You lose enthusiasm: Probably the No. 1 reason people fail is that the enthusiasm they feel when they first start the habit, when they’re fantasizing about how great it’ll be, fades away after a few days or a week. The habit isn’t as great as you fantasized, usually. So you drop the habit before you see the benefits.
  2. You forget: After the habit becomes automatic, you don’t need a reminder. But in the beginning it’s easy to forget if you don’t have reminders set up.
  3. Your mind tells you that you can’t: When things get tough, your mind says, “This is too hard!” or “You don’t need to do this!” or “Why are you punishing yourself?” or “Skipping it this time won’t hurt!” These are just weaselly ways to get out of discomfort.
  4. You miss a day or two and then toss in the towel: It feels good to get a streak going, but if you miss a day or two, you get really discouraged. You feel like quitting, because now you have to start all over.
  5. You get distracted by other things: The Internet, for example, is so distracting that you might never do your habit. You have so many choices of fun or easy things to do that the habit seems like a less attractive choice.
  6. Illness or travel or a crisis gets in the way: Sometimes something comes up that takes priority, and the habit gets pushed to the background … which is fine, if you started again when the illness goes away or you get back from your trip. But because you missed it, it’s hard to get back on track.

Let’s figure out a smart system that gets around these obstacles.

Addressing Each Obstacle

Let’s address each obstacle one by one, before putting it all together into one system:

  1. Enthusiasm: The answer to this is making a big commitment. Let’s say you decide you’re going to eat carrots at dinner every day … after you lose your vim and vigor for this new diet, you just stop. But what if you had $10,000 bet on whether you’d stick to this habit for a month? You’d forget about your lack of enthusiasm and just eat the carrots, no matter what. Other ways to make a big commitment: tell 1,000 people about it, and commit to a really embarrassing consequence if you fail.
  2. Forgetting: Set up 5 visual reminders, and tie it to an existing part of your daily routine. For example, every time you take a shower, you might do the new habit of flossing … so put up signs and sticky notes everywhere, put your floss on your towel, put reminders in your phone, have your spouse remind you, etc.
  3. Negative thoughts: Don’t negotiate with these terrorists. Notice when these thoughts come up, and banish them. Don’t let yourself fall victim to them. Recognize them for the habit-killers that they are, the lies they are.
  4. Missing a day or two: Set up accountability, so that if you miss a day, you get back on track immediately. Figure out what went wrong, and address that problem. Have someone hold you accountable for getting back on track.
  5. Distracted: Remove choices. Don’t have any visible choices other than what you want to happen. Set up a choice architecture.
  6. Illness or crisis or travel: Again, set up accountability so that you get back on track immediately. Have a planned break if needed, and start again as soon as the break is over.

Let’s take these elements and combine them into a smart system for sticking to habits.

The Smart Habit System

If we have a system that overcomes all those obstacles, we’ll be more likely to stick with the habit.

So let’s put our best practices together:

  1. Start small. Keep the habit very small. As small as possible, until it becomes your new “normal”. Just floss one tooth. Just run for a few minutes, or get your shoes on and get out the door. Just meditate for 2 minutes.
  2. Commit big. Tell as many people as possible about your new habit, and commit to them big time. Set up an embarrassing consequence for failing (missing 2 days in a row, except for an emergency).
  3. Have a trigger. Something you already do daily — wake up, go to bed, take a shower, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, open your computer, eat lunch, eat dinner, arrive at work, drop the kids to school, etc. Commit to doing your habit as soon as the trigger happens — if you eat breakfast, then you will run. No questions about it.
  4. Lots of reminders. Have physical and digital reminders around your trigger — near the shower, on top of your laptop or car keys, etc., so you don’t forget in the first week or two.
  5. Set up accountability. When you commit, ask a friend or group of people to check in on you regularly, to make sure you don’t slip up. Tell them your commitment (from No. 2 above) and ask for their help keeping you accountable. More than one person is usually best, unless you know for sure that this one person won’t forget or let you off the hook.
  6. Remove choices. If there are distractions or temptations you usually go for instead of this habit, remove them from the picture so that your main choice is to do the habit. For example, if it’s time to write, set up an Internet blocker to go off during your writing time. Or if it’s time to exercise, give your laptop and phone to your partner and tell them not to give it back. Or your router or cable device. Remove tempting food from the house if that’s distracting you. Or commit to meeting someone at the park or gym to workout or run, so you won’t be tempted to skip the workout.
  7. Get back on track. Ask your accountability friends to make sure you get back on track if you miss a day. If you do miss a day, let them know and ask for help making sure you don’t miss two days.
  8. Watch your negative thoughts. Practice noticing when you’re making excuses or telling yourself you can’t do this. And see that they’re wrong. Add a “But” to the sentence: “I’m tired, BUT I’ll feel better if I do this” or “I deserve a break, BUT I also deserve to take care of my body with this exercise”. And so on.

If you set up this smart system, and do one habit at a time, really putting your focus and energy into this habit change, you’ll be much more likely to stick to it.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
Chapters
Neither Averting Nor Craving in Each Moment
How Taking Care of My Finances Changed My Life
Tips for Traveling with Kids
My Grand Travel Experiment
The Parent I Aspire to Be
The Best & Less-than-Best Motivations for Learning
The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People
Finding Motivation on Important But Non-Urgent Tasks
Learning Tips for the Top 8 Learning Challenges
The 30-Day Learning Challenge
The Place Where You Are
Feeling Determined to Change
Practicing Non-Judgment
Hold Your Own Feet to the Fire
Don’t Waste Your Opportunity
How to Beat Procrastination with Daily Training
The Time When We’ll Be Present & Content
A Simple, Powerful Self-Compassion Method
When Others Frustrate You
Your Internet Habits Create Your Reality
The Case for Replacing Exercise with Play
Leave Yourself Wanting More
Fail Faster at Habits
The Anti-Bucket List
Getting Started with the Discipline Habit
The Case for Caring About Your Work
Questions of Priority
The Futility of Always Pushing Myself to Be More
Pare Down with the Declutter Habit
You’re Not Doing Life Wrong
Getting Lost in Just Doing
An Addict’s Guide to Overcoming the Distraction Habit
The Source of Contentment
Savor Discipline: Merge the Interests of Your Future & Present Selves
What You Can Say Instead of “I Don’t Feel Like It”
The Things That Get in the Way of Doing
The Girl Who Saw Through the Illusions
A Gradual Approach to Healthy Eating
Unconditional Acceptance of Yourself
My Typical Day: How I Get People to Think I’m Productive
The Contentment Habit
The Delightfully Short Guide to Reading More Books
In Praise of Limits
The Art of Being My Dad
5 Ideas to Create an Amazing 2015
Essential Zen Habits of 2014
Karate Chop
Practicing Slowness & Being Present
Overwhelmed by All the Changes You Want to Make
My 2014 Successes and Failures
Finding the Motivation to Change Your Entire Life
When You’re Lonely
The Brain’s Fast Mode
5 Questions to Simplify Your Life During the Holidays
The Zen Habits Holiday Gift Guide
The Four Hidden Habit Skills
The Power of Delay
Overwhelmed & Rushed? Do a Stress Assess
Writer as Coder: The Iterative Way to Write a Book
Please Support the Zen Habits Book
Are You a Lift or Drag Force?
When Resistance Smacks You in the Face
When Your Plate is Too Full
The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit
The Zen Habits Book is Almost Done
A Quick Guide to Gaining Confidence When You Socialize
The Empty Container
The Realization
A Guide to Changing Self-Destructive Behaviors
Pushing Past the Terrifying Dip in Motivation
It’s Not Too Late to Change Bad Habits
The Smart Way to Stick to Habits
My Most Effective Learning Tools
What I Do When I Fail
How to Put Your Writing in Public
The Productive Sprint
The Biggest Reasons You Haven’t Changed Your Habits
Seized by the Thunderhold of Fear
What to Eat for Fat Loss
The Heartbreaking Cruelty of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Brief Guide to Overcoming Instant Gratification
How to Get Motivated After a Vacation
7 Strategies for Facing Your Internet/TV Addiction
How to Breathe
7 Discipline-Mastering Practices
7 Rules That Keep My Life Simple
An Education in the Majestic Sierra Nevada
The Lies Your Mind Tells You to Prevent Life Changes
How to Believe in Yourself
Don’t Waste a Moment
How to Find Your Life Purpose: An Unconventional Approach
How to Be Great
Making Yourself Work
Inhabit the Moment
How to Master the Art of Living
The Delusional Fantasies We Live With Each Day
Living the Simple Life
How to Be Prepared for Anything
Turn Toward the Problem
The End of the Day Philosophy
The Painful Beauty of Impermanence
How to Change Other People
Pursuing Happiness When It’s Already Within You
The Quickstart Guide to a Decluttered Home
Parental Zen: How to Keep Your Cool as a Parent
Looking for Love
How to Stop Your Habit Changes From Getting Derailed
Why We Have Regret
The Essence of Fatherhood: 6 Simple Lessons
A Call for Revolt: Advertising is the Anti-Minimalism
The Frustratingly Slow Pace of Making Changes
My Struggles with Eating Boring Food
The No Procrastination Challenge
Creating a Lovely Morning
A Father’s Manifesto: Raising Young Men Who Respect Women
Turn Inspiration Into Action
Coming Back From a Setback
The Gift
A Guide for Young People: What to Do With Your Life
No Excuses: Minimalism with Kids
How to Make a Marriage Work
Love Notes
Flavorless: My Month of Food Boringness
The Letting Go Ebook, Free
The Miracle of the Self-Compassion Habit
How I Tackle a Big Writing Project
The Habit Action List
The Reality of This Moment
Confidence in Your Business
10 Ways to Do What You Don’t Want to Do
On Making It Through Tough Journeys
The Hard Stuff Often Matters Most
What to Think About During Exercise
You’ll Be OK
The Most Important Two Minutes of Your Life
A Call for Compassion for the Defenseless
The Cure for Your Distraction Syndrome
You’re Not Worse Than Other People
Being Mindful of Your Stress
What if You Didn’t Have to Worry About Yourself?
The Universe of a Single Task
Simplifying Is Painful
Becoming Emotionally Self-Reliant
How I Cleaned House & Simplified My Work Life
The Busy Person’s Guide to Reducing Stress
My Month Without a Smartphone
What I’ve Learned as a Writer
What the Exercise Habit Did For Me
Fear is the Root of Your Problems
This Moment
36 Lessons I’ve Learned About Habits
The 3 Do-What-You-Love Conundrums
How I Conduct My Business
Constant Task Switching
The Habits of Five Amazing Founders
The Incredible Importance of Sleep for Habits & Motivation
What Really Motivates Us to Stick to a Project?
I Tried to Quit & It’s Too Hard!
Unwired: A Month With Limited Internet, & Now No Cell Phone
Procrastination is a Mindfulness Problem
Letting Go of Judging People
Don’t Scratch the Itch
Become Happy in the Face of Physical Misery
How Repetition Can Kickstart a Habit
Zen Productivity
When You’re Feeling Self-Doubt & a Lack of Motivation
The Child That Holds Us Back
Stateless Mindset
My Month of (Almost) No Internet
12 Changes for 2014
Essential Zen Habits of 2013
The Fear of Being Alone
The Calm Approach
Things Every Man Should Own
Family Gatherings: The Ultimate Mindfulness Training Ground
Letter to an 18-year-old on the Career Path Less Traveled
A Method to Find Balance
16 Surprising Lessons from My First 50-Mile Ultramarathon
The Simple Fitness Habit Holiday Challenge
Struggles with My Morning Internet Fast
Surrender, Mindfulness & Entrepreneurship
How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, & Love Letting Go
Finding Focus
When You Run Out of Ideas
The Necessary Art of Subtraction
Jealousy & Suffering
How Creativity Works, & How to Do It
Self-Discipline in 5 Sentences
Make It Your Job
Developing Selfless Compassion
Lyrical Learning, & Why We Learn Habits Wrong
A Month Without Sugar
Why I Read (+ a Dozen Book Recommendations)
12 Indispensable Mindful Living Tools
Burn Down the Farm
My Most Minimal Travel Setup Yet
The Exquisite Habits of the Founder of Blue Bottle Coffee
3 Little Tricks to Deal With People Who Offend You
My Healthiest Travel Routine Yet
Startup Founder Megan Casey’s Habits of Priorities
My Pursuit of the Art of Living
A Month Without TV or Video
The Way of No Debt
Letting Go: How to Live With the Loss of a Loved One
The Way to Be
Ramit Sethi’s Entrepreneurial Habits
The Time to Shut Down
The Pain & Beauty of Life Changes
8 Creativity Lessons from a Pixar Animator
Zen Mountain: Leave It All Behind
Overcoming the Social Costs of Being Different
Finding Quiet and Mindfulness Through Food
My Failed Month of ‘No Sitting’
The Thinking Habit That Changed My Life
Liking Healthy Foods is a Choice
Unschoolery: My New Blog on Unschooling
My Advice for Starting a Business
Creating Your Habit Environment
Travel Lessons with My Family
Easier Decision-Making: Conduct Experiments
Simplify: Let Go of Your Crutches
The Fear of Being Found a Fraud
The Flexible Mind
Declutter Your Life
A Month Without Coffee
The Healthful Vegan Diet
Living the Quiet Life
The Art of Tasting Chocolate Mindfully
Why Fear of Discomfort Might Be Ruining Your Life
The Habits of Happiness
How to Keep Habits Going During Travel
A Year of Living Without
The Key Habits of Organization
I Failed
Vegan Guide to San Francisco
The Futility of Comparing Yourself to Others
A Secret to Dad Greatness
Habits: A Simple Change in Mindset Changes Everything
The Worry That You’re Doing the Wrong Thing Right Now
6 Steps To Being More Creative
How I Finally Faced My Weight & Debt Problems
Working with the Obstacles in Your Path
9 Rules for a Simpler Day
The Little Book of Contentment
The Obstacle is the Path
5 Lessons in Contentment from Billionaires Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger
Smile in Each Moment
A Guide to Practical Compassion
6 Steps To Healing Yourself
The 7-Day Vegan Challenge
Why You Should Write Daily
Achieving Without Goals
Flowing with the Stresses of Kids (or anyone else)
Habit Mastery: Creating the New Normal
Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose
Expanding the Envelope: A Method for Beating Anger
A Guide to Practical Contentment
The Practice of Work Mind & Vacation Mind, Simultaneously
How to Eat Real Food Without Spending Hours in the Kitchen
Quitting Your Habits
The 38 Best Methods of Successful Exercisers
How To Make It Impossible To Fail
The Not Knowing Path of Being an Entrepreneur
How to Change Your Life: A User’s Guide
Getting Your Family On Board with Life Changes
How to Stick to a Habit When Life Falls Apart
Zen Mind in the Middle of Chaos & Stress
Create a Sacred Space in Your Heart
Meditation: The Most Fundamental Habit
Creating the Genuine Connections We Long For
Tremors of Psychitude: One Little Trick to Find Purpose and Motivation
Create the Habits of Being Lean, in 7 Years
Walled-in: Life Without Facebook
The 7 Habits of Calmness
The Four Habits that Form Habits
Advice to My Kids
My 10 Essential Email Habits
The Daily Checklist
Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide
The Meditation Diet: How I Lost 60+ lbs. by Savoring
The Power of Habit Investments
Discomfort Zone: How to Master the Universe
The Most Successful Techniques for Rising Early
Do Less: A Short Guide
How to Savor Life
What We Lack in a Hyperconnected World
Simplify the Internet
12 Rules to Live By
The New Rules of Fitness for 2013
52 Changes for 2013
The Unprocrastination Month, and the Relaunch of the Sea Change Program
Essential Zen Habits of 2012
The Other Person is Never the Problem
The Do Plan, or Why We Know But Don’t Do
28 Brilliant Tips for Living Life
The Clutter-free Holiday Guide
The Little Trick to Make Any Moment Better
Tim Ferriss vs. Leo Babauta Showdown: On Whether Goals Suck
The Work You Love is Waiting For You
The 7-Step Method to Find Focus for Writing
The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide
Challenge: Buy Nothing Until 2013
How to Learn Anything
Shaken By Life’s Beauty, Shaken
Untrack: Letting Go of the Stress of Measuring
15 Great Excuses Not to Form the Fitness Habit
How to Make Health Insurance a Bad Bet
Why the Fitness Habit is More Important Than the Plan
The Willingness to Think Differently
Create a Superhealth Community
A Vegan Tour of NYC