How to Build a New Habit: A Brief 5 Step Beginners Guide To Change
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
― Jim Rohn
Habits are the underlying driving force of either success or failure and— greatness or mediocrity.
Studies have shown that more than 40% of our daily decision-making processes are unconsciously driven by our habits. In other words, our habits literally create our reality. (1)
Consider for example, Ernest Hemingway, one of the greatest 20th Century Novelists, who had the habit of writing first thing every morning with no distractions—this habit was a driving force behind his success.
There is a good reason why the popular best-selling book, ‘7 habits of highly effective people’ (audiobook) has sold over 25 million copies in 40 languages worldwide. It’s a timeless book that highlights a very important truth — if you can change your habits, you can change your life.
Let’s begin to explore some of the most effective strategies to build new habits that will help you improve your health, productivity and ultimately achieve your goals.
1. Focus On The Big Picture
The first step in building new habits that last is by simply taking a step back and refocusing on your big picture.
In other words, what is your long-term goal? If for example, you want to build a new habit of writing every day, your big picture could be that you see yourself in the future as a New York Best Selling Author.
One effective way to focus on the big picture is by simply visualizing your end goal everyday. There have been some fascinating studies showing that ‘abstract thinking’ can help you develop the necessary willpower and self-discipline to build and sustain new habits. (2)
There’s a caveat though.
To avoid mindless daydreaming, the visualisation exercises should be paired with an actionable plan and a ‘why’ driven by intrinsic motivation i.e. desire for internal rather than external rewards. (3)
A powerful question to ask yourself is…
Why do I want to build this new habit?
Take some time to really think about your driving motivation or ‘why’ behind this desire to create the new habit. Once you’ve established your core reason, think about how you could create more ‘intrinsic’ motivators behind it—then create an actionable plan to take action.
By focusing on a big picture goal with a strong ‘why’ paired and an effective action plan, you can create and sustain your new habit.
2. Start Small…Really Small
The biggest challenge with building a new habit is that it can take up so much energy and willpower. The worst thing you can do is dive into the deep end and — make a massive commitment straight away.
This is a silly mistake i’ve personally made over and over again. For example, recently I listened to a successful entrepreneur on a podcast mention that the key to his success was his habit of reading a book a day.
So what did I do?
Full of excitement and enthusiasm, I made a quick decision that I would commit to reading at least 30 pages everyday *facepalm.*
In short, I only managed to sustain this for a week and then I finally gave up.
Shortly after my failure, I came across the strategy of ‘Tiny Habits’ from Stanford University researcher, B.J. Fogg. This really helped me kickstart my new reading habit. (4)
The general idea is simple—make it so easy to get started on a new habit that motivation and willpower don’t matter as much.
For example, if you want to build a new reading habit, you can begin by reading just one page everyday— It’s really that simple.
Once the ‘tiny habit’ goes on autopilot, you can then gradually increase the number of pages you read daily.
Look back on the habits you’ve been struggling to build, how can you make them small enough to take effortless action towards.
3. Get Back Up A.S.A.P
We have a natural tendency to give up on a new habit especially after we fail to take action or make a mistake.
Particularly, in the very early stages of creating a new habit, your mind will find any possible excuse to abandon ship and revert back to your old habits.
As an example, a recent experiment on this tendency showed that participants who thought they had eaten more than their daily diet calories, later overindulged in eating even more food.
“ When the cookies were weighed it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they’d blown their limit ate more of the cookies than those who weren’t on a diet. In fact they ate over 50% more!
On the other hand, when dieters thought they were safely within their limit, they ate the same amount of cookies as those who weren’t on a diet. This looks a lot like the what-the-hell effect in action.” (5)
The more aware you are of these tricks your mind plays on you, the faster you can squash them and get back on track with the new habit.
Personally, I still struggle with consistently reading everyday, but whenever I miss a day or two I always make sure to get back up quickly.
Instead of dwelling on your mistakes, focus on all the great moments you actually stuck to and followed through on the habit. Practicing self compassion can go a long way.
Just like a baby learning to walk, building habits takes time, patience and persistence through failure.
4. Piggyback Off Old Habits
Instead of wasting a boatload of energy and time creating a new habit from scratch, you could instead piggyback off old habits.
For example, when I first picked up a new habit of playing the guitar, i simply ‘stacked’ this on top of my old habit of watching comedy shows on my laptop after coming home from work.
As soon as the comedy show would begin playing, I would grab my acoustic guitar and start practicing. Since then, I’ve maintained a regular habit of playing the guitar for almost five years till date.
This idea of ‘stacking’ habits on top of each other follows the simple technique below:
After I [EXISTING HABIT] I will immediately [NEW HABIT] (6)
You can use this to build new habits.
- After I wake up I will meditate for 2 minutes
- After I open my laptop I will write two paragraphs
- After I finish a meal I will drink two glasses of water
- And so on
The best part about this is that once you build a new habit, you can then ‘stack’ another one on top of this and so on.
It’s like riding a wave, you use the momentum from old habits to drive the creation of the new one.
5. Use ‘Stakes’
Have you ever seen a soon to be newly wed workout? You would think they were training for the olympics.
In the past, they may have been a lazy about exercising—but as soon as the wedding ceremony date is round the corner, exercise all of a sudden becomes a priority.
They watch their diet carefully, invest in expensive personal trainers and training programmes—why? Stakes. Up to 75 percent of our personal motivation towards achievement may be driven by the rewards we perceive are at stake. (7)
The soon to be newlyweds have invested so much into their dream wedding— the worst thing that could happen is they don’t look their best on that day. The stakes are the driving motivation for building their new habit of exercising regularly.
In your own life, you may notice several examples of stakes as a driving force for your habits. For example, if you are a full-time employee, my guess is you show up at least five days a week to the same office location, same desk and same tasks.
You may not like your job or boss, but you show up anyway—because if you don’t the negative consequence will be that you get fired and lose your financial stability.
By using ‘stakes’ you keep yourself accountable, stick to new habits and tap into a core driving force behind human motivation— to avoid pain at all costs.
Habits are the key to achieving the health, wealth and achievement you dream of. They drive our daily actions and steer the direction of our lives—just like a pilot steering the direction of an airplane, so do your habits.
Simply pick one of these strategies and try it out for a month. Take that first step to change your habits and transform your life for the better.
- Habits: A Repeat Performance by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn. During my research I also came across this interesting interview on Harvard Business Review of Charles Duhigg author of bestselling book, ‘The Power Of Habit.’
- Credit to Gregory Ciotti for finding this study.
- Intrinsic motivation study. In some of my other articles, i’ve written about how fear of pain and negative consequences can also be a driving force for sustained motivation. I’d be interested in seeing a study showing the effects of combining the two on levels of motivation over several years.
- Special thanks to Bj Fogg, Leo babauta and James Clear on the power of ‘Tiny Habits.’
- Polivy et al., 2010 – What the hell effect study.
- Study from The British Journal Of Health Psychology.
- Credit to Eric Barker on first bringing this to my notice. The full study was highlighted by Dickinson, D. (1999): “An Experimental Examination of Labor Supply and Work Intensities. Here’s another interesting article I found on working staff motivation and stakes, if you’d like to read more on this topic.