I’ve read a lot of books on habits, ranging from “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, to “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin, to “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, to “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg.
I’ve also listened to numerous podcasts on the subject (my favorite being a recent one from Dr. Andrew Huberman).
Not only have I learned a lot about habits, I’ve practiced them. I’ve built up numerous good habits in recent years that have allowed me to become fitter than I’ve ever been, richer than I’ve ever been, and happier than I’ve ever been.
So what is the secret to building good habits? I’ve got a few.
Based on what I’ve read, listened to, and practiced, here is my top advice about how to form good habits.
Ultimate Guide to Forming Good Habits
Below are my best tips on forming good habits. I’ve asterisked the steps that I believe are more important than any others, so pay particular attention to those.
1. Determine a Cluster of New Habits You Want to Start
The first step to forming a new habit is to consciously decide what that habit should be. You’ll want to start with anywhere from five to eight.
For reasons we will get into later, it’s actually easier to try to form several new habits all at once and see what sticks. So, instead of just choosing one habit, choose several.
2. Break the Habit Into Something Small and Specific
Take your cluster of habits and ensure that each one is a really, small manageable habit. This habit should require less than two minutes of effort.
For example, if you want to eat healthier, your habit could be to eat vegetables with breakfast each morning. If your habit is to get stronger, it could be to do three push-ups each day. Or, if your goal is to spend less on groceries, your habit could be to remove one “want” item from your cart before you head to the checkout line each week.
Break the habit you want to form down into one really simple habit.
3. *Make the Habit Incredibly Easy to Accomplish
Not only should the habit be small and short, it should also be doable. This is very different from the amount of time the habit takes.
It only takes a minute to do one 300lb deadlift, but that’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination. So, in addition to making your habits something that can be done quickly, make them something that is easy for you to do.
4. Determine What Other Habits You Will Link the New Ones To
This is one of my favorite concepts from BJ Fogg that I’ve practiced for years.
Consider what habits you already have in your life, such as turning on the coffee pot or tea kettle in the morning or brushing your teeth at night. Now use these habits as anchors to link other habits to them.
For example, I have an allergy supplement that I struggled to remember to take daily. I put the medicine right next to my toothbrush and take it every night before I brush my teeth.
Everyone has some habits in their life they do every day, no matter what. So figure out which habits those are for you and start to link your other new habits to them.
5. Identify Other Sub-Habits You May Need
Larger habits, like exercising in the morning, often need additional habits to help you get there. So make sure you also develop the habits that get you to the bigger habit.
For me, one habit I have to help me to exercise in the morning is to put my exercise clothes out every night. This pre-habit or sub-habit greatly reduces the friction of getting to my exercise habit each morning.
6. Have the Appropriate Environment and Tools
When forming good habits, don’t set out to start a new habit if it requires an environment you don’t already have or tools you don’t have. This may sound obvious, but it takes recognition.
Get the items you need and the setup in place to help the habit become as easy as possible.
7. Remove Barriers
Think about what barriers there might be to your new habit, and consider how you will overcome them.
For example, we only buy whole carrots. But, this means that eating more carrots is a challenge because I have to peel the carrots before I eat them. So, I use my weekend time to prepare veggies for the week.
Similarly, once you’ve identified barriers, use your weekend time (or another time where you aren’t stressed or rushed) and remove the barriers to your habit.
8. Understand That Your Setup Matters More Than Motivation
Motivation is great when you have it, but it’s not something you can rely on to keep you going. What you need is discipline, and systems and environment help with building that discipline.
When you have a system in place to make forming good habits almost effortless each day, you won’t require motivation.
9. Aim to Complete New Habits the First Eight Hours of the Day
This one is straight from science, thanks to Dr. Huberman.
You don’t have to do all your new habits right when you wake up in the morning (though if that works for you, great!), but you should aim to do them within the first eight hours of waking as it will be easier to overcome barriers.
The science literature finds that even if you are a night person, setting up your habits to do during the first eight hours after waking will help ensure your success.
10. Provide a Reward Each Time You Complete Your Habit
Giving yourself some sort of reward after completing a habit is one of the most crucial pieces to your success.
Personally, as a list person who thoroughly enjoys checking things off, I have found that the reward of crossing something off my list is extremely rewarding. I can feel a small dopamine rush when I get to check a new habit off my list.
Other rewards may be just saying “Yes!” or asking your kids, your spouse, or your dog for a high five. Find a small reward that works for you.
11. *Learn to Love the Process
Some authors talk about enjoying the process forming good habits as part of the reward, but I believe it should stand on its own. Enjoying the process of something will get you much farther than focusing just on the outcome.
Why? Because once you achieve your desired outcome, you are going to set new goals, and learning to love the process will make it much easier for you to get there. This will allow you to crave the process more than just the outcome.
12. *Visualize the Process to Complete the Habit
I’m a huge fan of visualizations as I think they are the key to success in many aspects of life, not just when forming good habits.
But for habit formation, here is what you need to know. Visualize everything you need to do leading up to the habit, during the habit, and afterward, including the reward. Imagine what various parts of the process feel like, look like, even smell like.
Even just doing this visualization once this will make you much more able to achieve it.
13. *Make the Habit Part of Your Identity
Who are you? Is your identity that you are messy, fat, lazy, or a big spender? Change the words you use to identify yourself to someone who is tidy, healthy, hard-working, thrifty.
If you are trying to form good habits, find a way to think of yourself as the person you want to become. So, if you are trying to spend less and save more, think of yourself as a saver. If you are trying to eat better, think of yourself as someone who eats nutritious foods.
Or, if you want, you can even write some affirmations to yourself about who you are and read them every few days. The more your good habits tie to your identity, the easier they will be to do.
14. *Give Yourself Grace
Know that even if you miss a day, or *gasp* two days, you have not failed, you’re not a failure, and the habit can still become a habit.
This is where I think identity matters so much. If you start calling yourself a runner and you miss a day of running, you are still a runner. No athlete participates in their sport every day. No writer writes every day.
Research shows that frequency doesn’t matter as much as you might expect when it comes to forming good habits. So give yourself grace.
15. The Amount of Time Takes to Form a Habit Varies By Person and Habit
Some habits you may form quickly, but it might take your spouse a lot longer to form the same habit. Similarly, even if you form Habit A quickly, Habit B may take a lot longer to form.
Give yourself some time to form the habit. Some people can form a habit in six days. Other people can take years.
I recommend trying to stick with your habit for 21 days, then re-evaluating to see if it’s sticking or if there are things you need to change.
Bonus Steps to Developing Good Habits
In addition to the steps above, which I believe are key to forming any new, good habit, here are a few bonus steps that will really help you to create habits that stick.
16. Find a Community
Having a group of people who are doing what you want to do will help you form good habits.
It doesn’t even have to be an in-person community, like a gym, but it can instead be a virtual community like a Peloton Facebook group focused on strength (thanks #HardCORE for keeping me motivated). Or, if you are becoming a writer, finding a virtual writing group can help.
Figure out where the people are that you want to become and start interacting with them or following them to improve.
17. Listen/Read/Watch Motivating Media
While motivation isn’t going to get you all the way to your goal, it can help a lot. One way to stay motivated is to immerse yourself in motivating media.
If you are trying to start a business, listen to How I Built This. If you are trying to eat less sugar, watch That Sugar Film. Find some media that you can watch, read, or listen to on a regular basis to keep you motivated.
18. Understand Your Personality and Adapt Accordingly
This is part of Gretchen Rubin’s framework. She breaks personalities into four groups, including Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels.
Some people do things if they are told to. Others will do it only if they are told not to. Certain people need accountability from others.
Find out what type of person you are, whether through her quiz or any other type of personality assessment and adapt accordingly, like by finding an accountability partner if you need one.
19. Start Now, and Don’t Break the Chain
Wait to start until you are prepared, but don’t wait to start until you are ready.
What do I mean by that? Get your systems, tools, and visuzational in place, but don’t wait to be more motivated. Then, once you start, try not to break the chain.
This means that you should keep your streak going every single day if you can. There is something incredibly powerful about streaks. Once you have one going, it’s a reason to keep going even on days you don’t want to.
That said, if you do have a day where you just can’t get it done, remember #14 and give yourself some grace.
My Personal Habits
This month I’ve been working on building some of my own new habits. They include daily yoga, doing real full-body push-ups, some sort of daily breathwork or meditation, completing key tasks for my business every day, and writing daily.
I have created a checklist that I use each week, and then I get to cross items off when I’ve accomplished them. I also added to my checklist a few things I know I will do, as sometimes crossing off one thing helps me get excited to start on the next.
The Most Important Step to Developing Good Habits
This post contained a lot of information with different steps and a framework for you to start on your new habits. If you are wondering which step I think is the most important to creating lifelong habits that stick, the one thing that I think matters above all else is finding your identity.
Words matter. You will become the person you tell yourself you are. So change the words inside your head to start creating a new you.
When to Start a New Habit
As I’ve previously written about, Dan Pink writes about temporal landmarks in his book “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing.” He says that starting things around a temporal landmark, like a new year, a new week, or a birthday, can help you achieve your goals.
But, even without a temporal landmark, most people will tell you that the best time to start a new good habit is yesterday.
So when is the next best time? It’s now.
The Bottom Line
Forming new good habits can be a challenge, but it should be a fun, achievable challenge.
Change the words you say inside your head → change your habits → change your life.