by Niall Doherty

“Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” – via The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Below is a list of habits that I’ve instilled in recent weeks/months/years. As of this writing, I’m maintaining them all.

  • Quick, one minute stretching routine every morning, first thing.
  • Second thing every morning: Write out my key habit for the day.
  • Twenty minutes of touch typing practice every day (I use and recommend TIPP10, it’s free).
  • Free write 1000 words every day.
  • Publish two blog posts per week.
  • 10-minute stretching routine every day.
  • Practice handstands every day.
  • A dozen myotatic crunches every day.
  • Running or gym 3-4 times per week.
  • Floss every night before bed.
  • Read an average of one book per fortnight (actually on a one-per-week pace this year).
  • Five minutes of meditation daily.
  • Text my mother every day, Skype once per week.
  • Write out six things I’m grateful for every day.
  • Note any kindnesses that come my way each day.
  • Track and record all my income and expenditure daily.
  • Daily review every night before bed (six questions).

It seems like a lot when I write it out like that, but I don’t find it particularly difficult to maintain all these. Everyone maintains many habits. It’s just that the habits of most people haven’t been formed consciously. Most of us never examine our existing habits and decide to replace those that aren’t serving our best interests with alternatives that will.

Many people might have a habit of watching TV for an hour a day. I decided that such a habit wasn’t going to help me live the life I want to live, so I dropped it and filled that hour with better habits, like reading and exercise.

Yes, forming a positive habit or dropping a negative one can be tough. I’ll give you a few tips below to help with that. But right now I want to say this: Once you have a foundation of good habits instilled and running on auto-pilot, you can’t help but improve yourself every day.

Lately I’ve been feeling amazingly good about myself and getting a lot of shit done. Not just ho-hum shit either; I’ve been taking regular action and making big strides on several projects that are important to me. And I credit it all to these habits I’ve formed. They’re working for me. I don’t even have to think about many of them any more. I just let them run, safe in the knowledge that they’re helping me become better, faster, stronger, smarter.

One key habit

Before I get into the nuts and bolts of forming good habits, a question for you:

What one thing could you do every day, that would result in your life being tremendously better one year from now?

Think about it and come up with something before you read on. Whatever it is, it shouldn’t take more than an hour each day, and preferably only twenty minutes or so. But if you did this one thing every day, you’re confident it would transform your life in a hugely positive way within a year. Success would be inevitable.

Might be something you start doing, like exercise or writing. Or it might be something you stop doing, like smoking or watching TV.

I came up with an answer to this question myself: Reach out to one person every day to either offer my help, or thank them for some positive impact they’ve had on my life.

I suspect that if I did that every day for a year, I’d make many people feel valued and appreciated, build an immense amount of goodwill, and form dozens of mutually-beneficial connections.

A dozen thoughts and ideas on forming strong habits

I’m not going to give you a five-step formula or anything like that. Instead I’m going to throw out a bunch of different thoughts and ideas on forming strong habits, in no particular order. Go down through them and pick out the ones that you think will help you the most, then try implement them. Some will work better for you than others.

1) Start small

Leo Babauta recently wrote about how to form the flossing habit. His advice: Start by flossing just one tooth each night. Sounds ridiculous, right? But it works. If you just have to floss one tooth, it doesn’t sound like a big deal; you’re more likely to stick with it because it’s so quick and easy. Once you’ve made a habit of flossing one tooth, then you start flossing two, then three, and so on. Before you know it, you’re habitually flossing your entire cake hole each night.

You can apply this to any habit. Instead of launching into a daily, 30-minute exercise routine, commit to just five minutes per day in the beginning. Once you’ve stuck with that for a few weeks, then increase it to ten minutes. Keep building like that.

2) Stack

I had a hard time forming the meditation habit, even if I was only trying to do five minutes per day. What eventually worked for me was to stack it on top of another habit I’d already formed. So now, every morning before I free write 1000 words, I sit down and meditate for five minutes. One habit acts as a trigger for another.

3) Change your environment

This is another way to remind yourself to do something until it becomes a habit. Sebastian Marshall would unplug his laptop and turn it upside down at night, so in the morning he’d be reminded to plan out his day in a notebook before jumping online and mindlessly checking email/facebook/whatever.

Another implementation of this idea would be to lay out your gym gear before bed so you can’t help but see it in the morning. If instead you have to go through your wardrobe and find some gym shorts and gym shoes, you’re less likely to go to the gym.

What we’re talking about here are barriers. They can work for you or against you. Build barriers that encourage the behaviors you want to habitualize. Destroy barriers that discourage them.

4) Practice doing things even when you don’t want to do them

Tynan wrote a great article about this a couple of months back. As he puts it…

The most important time to do something is when you don’t want to do it. That’s the mark of a champion– someone who knows what he has to do, doesn’t want to do it, but does it anyway. Anyone can write when they want to write. That’s easy. The hard part is when you’re not motivated, uninspired, and distracted.

The point of writing this post wasn’t to get another post on the blog. The point was to reinforce the habit of taking that “I don’t want to do this” stimulus and using it as a trigger for immediate action. I’m always trying to rewire that connection in my brian. Should do this, but don’t want to -> DO IT WITHOUT THINKING.

With any habit worth instilling, you’ll go through periods where you just won’t want to do what it takes. Most people will quit and fail at this point. Dig deep and do it anyway. You’ll be building two habits in one.

5) Key habit for today

Another tip I picked up from Sebastian, and this has been working phenomenonly well for me. Simply start each day by writing out what habit you want to work on. It might be something specific, or it might be more general.

For example, some key habits I’ve written out in recent days:

  • Write! Get Habits post finished, and about half of Population post
  • Get things done, avoid laziness and procrastination
  • Work on Project Gonzo
  • Strike up conversations with at least five strangers
  • Make every meal healthy today

Writing it out makes it way more tangible. But I also recommend combining this tip with the next to really get your ass in gear.

6) Daily review

I’ve only started doing this in recent weeks, and I’ve started small. My daily review consists of these six questions:

  • Did I achieve my key habit for today? ….. Y/N
  • Approx hours of sleep last night + naps today …..
  • Did I exercise today (stretch/run/gym/sport/long walk) ….. Y/N
  • How healthy was the food I ate today (scale 1-10) …..
  • Average energy level today (scale 1-10) …..
  • General productivity today (scale 1-10) …..

Takes about a minute to fill that out, and then I can look back over time and track my progress, see where I need to improve. The best part though is that it holds me accountable. I can’t just write out some big goal for my key habit in the morning and then forget about it. I know I’ll have to report back later, even if it’s only to myself.

7) Accountability and consequence

If you struggle to hold yourself accountable, then rope in someone else to help. Pick five people in your life that you really hate to disappoint, and tell them all that you’re going to have the first manuscript of your book sent to their inbox two months from today. Add some kind of monetary penalty if you think it will help (e.g. should you fail to deliver, you have to donate to a political candidate you despise).

I’ve used public accountability many times to help me form habits and reach goals. I simply write a blog post about what I want to achieve and as a result I end up pushing myself harder to succeed. I don’t want to have to report back that I got lazy and didn’t follow through.

The added benefit of letting other people know about what you’re trying to do is that they often pitch in with encouragement or helpful suggestions.

All that said, some people fare better by keeping their intentions to themselves. Test for you.

8) One habit at a time

Don’t try to form several habits at once. One per month is a good pace. If you can stick to that, you’ll be forming a dozen strong habits each year, enough that you’ll be leveling up your life significantly every twelve months.

9) Surround yourself with positive role models

Say you want to build a habit of doing yoga 3-4 times per week, but all your friends are party animals who go out drinking most nights. Plain and simple: Hanging out with those friends isn’t going to do your yoga habit any favors. You’d be much better off making new friends who are into yoga and letting go of those old friendships that don’t serve you anymore.

Many people get upset with me when I talk about leaving old friends behind. They think it’s selfish.

Here’s how it works though: Many people in your life won’t like it if you start changing, and some will actively resist or belittle your efforts. But you have to change in order to grow and learn and improve. So either stay the same, try to please everyone, and never become the person you really want to be, or willingly let go of relationships that aren’t mutually-beneficial so you can become that person.

Ultimately, you’ll be able to help more people and be a more positive influence in the world if you prioritize working on yourself and building good habits. So no, letting go of those so-called friends who hold you back isn’t at all selfish.

10) Don’t beat yourself up about failures

Every now and then, you’ll fail. You won’t go running when you were supposed to, you’ll go a whole week without writing anything, you’ll forget to do your daily review.

Happens to the best of us. The important thing is to not let that one-time failure turn into its own habit. And the best way to prevent that is to not get down on yourself.

The day before I finished this post, I didn’t achieve my key habit for the day. But instead of beating myself up about it, I resolved to get a good night’s sleep, wake up refreshed the next day, and rip through my to-do list like a man on fire. And that’s precisely what I did.

Besides, if you’re not failing occasionally, you’re not setting the bar high enough. Keep close to that edge.

11) Commit for 30 days

30-day trials are powerful. Try commit to doing something (or not doing something) every day for thirty days, and promise yourself afterwards that you can quit if you want to, or give yourself some kind of reward.

Usually what happens with 30-day trials is that it sucks for the first two weeks or so, but then you get into the rhythm of your new routine and start to habitualize the new behavior. Once the thirty days are up, you find that it’s really no big deal to keep going, so you do.

My vegetarian diet started as a 30-day trial. I used a similar approach to quit pornography. Later this year I intend to do 30-day trials of yoga and blog posting.

12) Use reminders

I’ve mentioned triggers already, and making changes to your environment. These can be effective ways to remind yourself to do something or avoid doing something until the behavior becomes automatic.

Mostly what I use though is my to-do list (I use Things for Mac). I set recurring to-dos in there for all the habits I want to build, and even those I’ve already instilled and wish to maintain. Feels good to check them all off, one-by-one as I go through the day.

You might prefer to use a pen-and-paper to-do list, or a calendar, or post-it notes all around your house. Experiment and figure out what works best for you.

If you ever catch yourself forgetting about a habit you’re trying to build (accidentally skipping a day or week or whatever), then your reminders simply aren’t strong enough.

UPDATE: I’ve added four more important productivity tips here, plus some important ideas to avoid burnout in this post.

Two things and we’re done…

First: That habit I asked you to think about? That one thing you could do every day that would transform your life in twelve months? Yeah, start doing that. Start yesterday if you can. Failing that, today will do. You have a dozen tools above to help you. No excuses.

Second: What am I missing above? Anything else that’s helped you build strong habits over the years?