zen habits : breathe

The Four Habits that Form Habits

By Leo Babauta

My daughter wants to work out more, but she has a hard time forming the habit (many of you might be familiar with this problem). From having to get dressed to go to the gym, to actually going to the gym, to the thought of a hard workout … our minds tend to put off the habit.

The solution is exceedingly simple: just do 3 pushups. Or tell yourself you have to walk/jog for just one minute.

Make it so easy you can’t say no.

Of course, most people will think that’s too easy, and tell themselves they have to do more than that. Leo’s advice is for other people! Unfortunately, it’s this mindset that causes people to fail at habits — we think we can do more, despite past evidence to the contrary, and so we aspire to greatness. We try to climb Everest before we’ve learned to walk.

Learn the fundamentals of habits before you try to do the advanced skills. If I could convince people of that, I could get millions to change their habits, be healthier, simplify, procrastinate less, start creating amazing things.

Today we’re going to go over the fundamentals of habit — four key habits to form habits. If you can learn these four habits, you’ll have the foundation to form pretty much any habit.

Habit 1: Start Exceedingly Small

Another common habit that too few people actually do is flossing daily. So my advice is just floss one tooth the first night.

Of course, that seems so ridiculous most people laugh. But I’m totally serious: if you start out exceedingly small, you won’t say no. You’ll feel crazy if you don’t do it. And so you’ll actually do it!

That’s the point. Actually doing the habit is much more important than how much you do.

If you want to exercise, it’s more important that you actually do the exercise on a regular basis, rather than doing enough to get a benefit right away. Sure, maybe you need 30 minutes of exercise to see some fitness improvements, but try doing 30 minutes a day for two weeks. See how far you get, if you haven’t been exercising regularly. Then, if you don’t succeed, try 1-2 minutes a day. See how far you get there.

If you can do two weeks of 1-2 minutes of exercise, you have a strong foundation for a habit. Add another week or two, and the habit is almost ingrained. Once the habit is strong, you can add a few minutes here and there. Soon you’ll be doing 30 minutes on a regular basis — but you started out really small.

Try the flossing habit — try to floss every tooth every night, and see how far you get. You might succeed … but if you fail, try just one tooth per night and see how far you get. Your mileage will vary, but on average most people get farther with a habit when they start small.

One glass of water a day. One extra vegetable. Three pushups. One sentence of writing a day. Two minutes of meditation. This is how you start a habit that lasts.

Habit 2: Be Mindful of Negative Thoughts

Most people will skip this habit, because they don’t think it’s necessary. Then they wonder why the habit failed.

When I quit smoking in 2005, I finally learned to watch my thoughts. I saw that I had a lot of self-talk I wasn’t aware of. My mind would start rationalizing the idea of smoking just one cigarette. “One won’t hurt!” “Why are you torturing yourself?” “Is this really worth it?” “Just give in, it’s much easier.” “You can’t do this, it’s too hard.”

Think about those thoughts for a second. How many did I have that I wasn’t aware of? How powerful were they, when I didn’t realize they were there? How many times did they cause me to smoke when I had previously tried to quit? And how often do these kinds of thoughts act on you?

The same thoughts happened when I tried to start running the next month — my mind would say, “You should stop now. It’s too hard. You’ll feel much better when you stop.” And of course, thoughts like these are very tempting, very powerful.

Then I started to learn to eat healthier, and repeatedly failed because I would give in to chips and pizza and ice cream. My mind would say, “You’ve been doing good, and this food is your reward!” Or, “Why are you denying yourself pleasure — life isn’t supposed to be hard!”

I learned to let these thoughts go. They are just thoughts — they don’t control me. They are just things that happen, like a leaf falling from a tree as I run by. Interesting phenomena, but not a determination of my life.

Watch the thoughts. Learn to let them go. Get good at discomfort. Triumph over the childish selfish scared mind.

Habit 3: Savor the Habit

This is the converse of Habit 2, but just as important. Your new habit isn’t some sort of sacrifice, some sort of chore you need to get through to get to your better life.

Your new habit is your better life.

The new habit, whatever it is, should be something you enjoy. Otherwise, don’t do it.

If you want to eat healthier, learn to enjoy the taste of this delicious, fresh, healthy food. An apple can be just as delicious as any junk food snack, if you pay attention and savor it.

If you are exercising, pay close attention to and enjoy the moving of the body, the feeling of exertion, the flow of blood through your brain, the focus.

If you are writing, sit with the words and enjoy the quiet concentration, the exhilaration of creation.

Learn to enjoy the habit, and the habit will become its own reward. The goal isn’t some distant achievement, but the process itself.

Habit 4: Have a Plan for When You Falter

This is really key — I can’t count how many people I know who have done really well with their habit for 6-7 days, and then when some disruption happened (it’s incredibly common), and then never re-started.

Get in the habit of re-starting when you falter.

How do you do that? Get some accountability — promise a friend or your spouse that you’ll pay $25 if you miss your new habit two days in a row … and then double that the next day ($50), and double that if you miss four days in a row ($100), and double every day you miss in a row after that. Or promise to mow someone’s lawn or wash their car if you miss three days in a row. Tell everyone on Facebook that you’ll personally clean their bathrooms if you miss three days in a row.

Missing one day in a row is not the end of the habit. Missing two days isn’t great, but you can recover. Miss three days, and the habit is shot. So don’t allow yourself to miss three days, and try your damndest not to even miss two days.

Forming the Four Habits

So how do you form the habits that form all other habits?

As simply as possible.

Choose one incredibly easy habit to do in the next two weeks. Floss one tooth. Drink one glass of water. Eat one fruit. Exercise or meditate or write or do yoga for 2 minutes a day. Just two minutes.

Then apply all four habits to those two minutes, every day. You’ll start to learn how to form a new habit, and that’s a skill that will pay off for a lifetime.

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.



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