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Sticking to a Habit: The Definitive Guide

The hardest thing for most people, when it comes to building habits, is sticking to it long enough for it to become ingrained.

Duh, Leo.

It’s why most people don’t exercise or eat healthy, why people procrastinate or have clutter or debt, why people smoke and drink soda, why people don’t meditate or learn new languages or write everyday or read more books.

Simply put: if you can learn to stick to a habit, you can do almost anything. I’m a good example of that.

So how do you stick to a habit? I’m going to make this as simple as possible — let’s dive in.

Why You Don’t Stick to a Habit

The most common reasons people don’t stick to a habit:

  1. Habit is too difficult.
  2. You don’t enjoy doing it.
  3. Too many habits at once (habits are hard!).
  4. Too many other things going on.
  5. Changes in routine (sick, travel, visitors, big project at work).
  6. Not really motivated to do it.
  7. You talk yourself out of it.
  8. You miss a day or two and get discouraged.

There are other reasons too: people actively discourage you from changing, or you think negative thoughts about your ability to change, or you overdo it in the beginning and then run out of enthusiasm.

The Rules for Sticking to a Habit

Now that we know all that we’re up against, it seems pretty tough, no? Actually, it’s not easy, but it’s definitely doable. Anything worth doing is going to take some work. You just need to set your mind to doing something tough, and be OK with a little discomfort.

That said, I have a set of rules to follow if you want to actually stick to new habits. Now, you can ignore these rules, as most people do, and increase your likelihood of failure. Or you can try the rules, and see if they work for you (each person is different, so you have to figure out your own formula).

Here are the rules:

  1. One Habit at a Time. This is incredibly important — most people ignore it because they underestimate how much focus it takes to actually stick to a new habit. It’s easy to start a habit, or even 5 of them at once. Sticking to them is another story. Please note that this is one habit period — don’t think you can do one fitness habit, one social habit, one work habit, etc. One habit only. Do not break this rule.
  2. A Tiny Habit. Do not focus on results as you’re forming the habit. I recently mentioned that I’m doing 3 yoga poses every morning — doing more than an hour is too difficult for me and I tend to quit when I do long classes. Will I get a good workout with only 3 yoga poses? No! I’m not trying to get a good workout, get flexible, become more mindful, or get in shape. Eventually, yes, those results will probably come. But for now, I’m only doing one thing: forming the habit of doing yoga each day. Make the habit as tiny as possible. Whatever you think you should do, cut it in half. Then, if possible, cut it in half again. Maybe once more if your time to do it is longer than 2 minutes.
  3. Once a Day. You might think you can change your entire diet all at once. Not bloody likely. Only do the habit once a day, and again, just for a minute or two each day. Once the habit is ingrained, you can expand, but wait at least 3 weeks before you even consider that.
  4. Focus on Starting. The only thing you need to do is start. That’s the part of the habit that matters in the first month or so. Later on, you’ll run a marathon. For now, just put all your effort into lacing up your shoes and getting out the door. If you’re meditating, just get your butt on the cushion. If you’re eating healthy, just get your healthy snack (carrots & hummus?) in front of you, and take the first bite. If you’re writing, just close your browser, open a text document, and type the first sentence. Just start.
  5. Enjoy Doing It. It’s really important that you get positive feedback for doing the habit, right away. Many people do a habit they hate, which is built-in negative feedback, and then wonder why they can’t stick to it. Do a habit you love, or find a way to enjoy doing the habit. Focus on the positive aspects of it. Also, as my friend Tynan does, praise yourself for doing it. Feel good about doing it. This is immediate reward, and it’s necessary.
  6. Watch Your Thoughts. If you start to avoid the habit, or do the habit but feel discouraged, or ever feel like quitting … pay attention to these thoughts. Where are they coming from? Are you rationalizing quitting? Are you giving yourself some negative self-talk? Those thoughts aren’t real — they’re just defense mechanisms your brain uses to avoid discomfort. Let them go, and don’t let them have power over you. You can beat them with some positive self-talk.
  7. Don’t Miss Two Straight Days. This is the key. If you let yourself miss a day, be absolutely sure, incredibly and powerfully sure, that you don’t miss a day again. Miss a day, and let all kinds of alarms go off: you should put yourself on emergency status and do everything possible to not miss the 2nd day. Tynan suggests doubling down, but whatever you do, don’t let yourself slip up again. If you do, you are never going to get good at habits. Don’t do it.
  8. Be accountable. Tell at least one other person about your habit change, and ask them to keep you accountable. A group of 4-5 people is even better (as in my Sea Change Program). It increases your likelihood of sticking to the habit by about 50% in my experience.

How to Learn the Habit Skill

That might all seem like a lot to learn at once. That’s OK. We’re going to learn it simply and easily. Here’s how:

Do the easiest possible habit when you first start.

If you’re not good at habits yet (and if you’re reading this guide, you probably aren’t), then start with the most basic skills — don’t try to do ninja habit skills yet.

You want to practice the habit rules by doing something crazily easy. It will seem a little ridiculous, but spend a little time doing something ridiculous if you really want to be good at it.

Some ideas for habits to start with:

  • Drink a glass of water each day.
  • Put your clothes in your hamper.
  • Wash your bowl when you’re done.
  • Say thank you every morning.
  • Drink tea each afternoon.
  • Eat one piece of fruit.
  • Write one sentence a day.
  • Floss one tooth.

Too easy? Try something harder, and if you fail, then promise me you’ll try one of these.

Need Help?

If you need some help with forming habits, consider joining my Sea Change Program. I’ll give you the accountability and reminders you need, along with some guidance each month, and you can form new habits along with everyone else in the program.

The Sea Change Program for forming habits.

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