Get it on Google Play
Download on the App Store

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
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