By Leo Babauta
We’ve talked about forming habits here on Zen Habits — it’s one of the central themes to this site [habits into goals, bad habits into good ones, motivate yourself to create habits, develop clean house habits, keeping track of them]. But forming habits is a skill that takes practice, and as with any skill, it’s best to start with the very basics, at the smallest and easiest level, and practice it until you’re good at it before moving on to more difficult levels.
Let’s get back to the most basic level possible: working on the habit of forming habits.
In Og Mandino’s self-help classic, The Greatest Salesman in the World, one of his more powerful concepts is how to form good habits:
I will form good habits and become their slave.
I will read each scroll for thirty days in this prescribed manner, before I proceed to the next scroll.
First, I will read the words in silence when I arise. Then, I will read the words in silence after I have partaken of my midday meal. Last, I will read the words again just before I retire at day’s end, and most important, on this occasion I will read the words aloud.
On the next day I will repeat this procedure, and I will continue in like manner for thirty days. Then, I will turn to the next scroll and repeat this procedure for another thirty days. I will continue in this manner until I have lived with each scroll for thirty days and my reading has become habit.
So basically, the habit is to read from the 10 Scrolls for 30 days each, morning, noon and night — but the challenging part is holding back so you only do one scroll per month. And the first month, you focus on the process of forming those good habits.
If you draw from that powerful concept, and start by first teaching yourself how to form a habit, and then focus on one habit for each of the following months, you will be more successful with each habit.
So here’s the secret: for the first month’s habit, you need to develop the discipline of reading a mantra morning, noon and night – the First Habit. It can be a mantra you write yourself, or one that I suggest below. If you can stick to that habit for a month, you can build on that success and start with a second habit — staying with another small one is best. Each month, you can work on a new habit, focusing on only one per month. But the key is to have the patience to work on only that First Habit for the first month.
Most of us have a bunch of habits we’d like to instill in our daily routine — from eating healthy, to exercise, reading, writing, waking early, organization, frugality and more — and it’s hard not to try to conquer them all at once. But if you can do this, and hold off on those habits until you’ve accomplished this one, you’ll have a much, much greater chance of success at all of them. Having the patience to do this won’t be easy, but remember: you have your entire life ahead of you. If you follow this program, and you’re successful, you’ll have eight more habits developed by the end of this year (starting with your next habit in May), and 12 more the next year, and so on. It’s worth the wait.
So how do you implement this First Habit? Here’s the plan:
- Commit Thyself. Commit to doing this First Habit for the rest of this month (or if you’re starting late, do it for 30 days).
- Morning Habit. Every morning, when you wake up, silently read this mantra (borrowed in part from reader Ann M., and in part from Og Mandino): “Today, I start a new life. Today, I create a new, positive habit. The only difference between those who have failed and those who have succeeded lies in the difference of their habits. Good habits are the key to all success. Thus, the first law I will obey is: I will form good habits and become their slave. Today, I take control of my actions and behaviors. With these, I create my life and destiny.”
- Midday Habit. Every day after you eat lunch, silently read the above mantra.
- Evening Habit. Every evening, just before you go to bed, read the above mantra out loud.
- Tracking Habit. Create a chart or log, and each day give yourself a checkmark, gold star, or other such mark so that you can see that you’ve done the habit every single day. Don’t miss a day, no matter what — if you can do it every day, without fail, you will have create a 3x-a-day habit that you can use to build upon for your next habit.
- Future Habits. Make a list of what habits you’d like to work on each month, once you’ve successfully completed the First Habit.
- Motivation Hacks. If possible, use as many of the Top 20 Motivation hacks to help you stick to your habit for the rest of the month.
- Celebration Time! Celebrate your successes along the way, and celebrate when you’re done!
Resolve yourself to this First Habit, and you’ll be inspired by your own success. From Og Mandino:
And I make a solemn oath to myself that nothing will retard my new life’s growth. I will lose not a day from these readings for that day cannot be retrieved nor can I substitute another for it. I must not , I will not, break this habit of daily reading from these scrolls and, in truth, the few moments spent each day on this new habit are but a small price to pay for the happiness and success that will be mine.
So here’s your challenge: Commit to doing this First Habit, morning noon and night, for a month. That simple. Then you can move on to other habits, once this one is established.