The Beginner’s Habit Program
By Leo Babauta
Many people, including new members of this Sea Change Program, make the common mistake of attempting difficult habits before they have basic habit skills.
Imagine attempting to build a house before learning how to hammer a nail, saw a board, or lay concrete. The house wouldn’t turn out too well. The same applies to habits: taking on difficult habits (like procrastination, healthy eating, exercise), or doing advanced skills like multiple habits at once or changing thinking habits (negative thinking) or quitting a tough bad habit like smoking … is a recipe for a house that will collapse.
So what’s a better way? Start by learning the basic habit skills.
That’s what this Beginner’s Habit Program is for. It’s a month-long mini-course designed to teach you how to create habits without having to tackle anything too hard. We’ll take on a very easy habit at first, just to learn the basics.
Now, I realize that it will seem too easy to most people … and so most people will skip it. That’s probably a mistake. You might still be able to create harder habits, but you will likely have a much harder time, and future habits that you try to create will also probably be harder.
Who should do this beginner program?
Skip the program if you:
- Have successfully created a habit in the last two months;
- Or have successfully created several habits in the last year;
- And, if you’ve done either of those, you feel you understand how habits work.
You should do the program if you:
- Have failed one or more of habits in the last few months;
- Or seem to struggle with habits in general.
I realize that some of you might fall in both categories, or neither … in that case you’d have to make a judgment call. Do you feel you have a decent grasp on the basics of habit formation? If your gut says no, do this Beginner’s Habit Program.
When & How Often to Do This Program
I recommend that anyone who signs up for Sea Change do this program first, unless you are in the “Skip the program” category above. If you’ve been in Sea Change for one or more months already but have struggled, you should probably go back to basics and do this program.
There is no shame in doing the Beginner Habit Program! It’s not a class for “failures”, but simply a smart way to learn some fundamental skills that will help you for the rest of your life.
You should do this program for a minimum of a month. However, if you still feel a bit shaky about forming habits, or if you struggled during the month and didn’t do well, you should probably repeat it a second month, and even a third. There is, again, no shame in that.
There’s also no rush — you’re not trying to form habits asap, but for life. Take your time and get it right.
This program is very simple: you’re going to take a very easy habit, and put it into practice each day. You’ll “level up” each week. You’ll use the forum (or another social tool) for accountability. You’ll make sure you don’t forget. And in the process, you’ll learn how habits are formed — not conceptually, but in practice.
This is a really valuable thing to learn, and so no matter how silly this program seems, you should be proud of doing it, and of your progress.
Step 1: Pick a very very easy habit. Choose ONE of the following (or another similar habit that is just as easy):
- Drink a glass of water each day.
- Put your clothes in the hamper before/after you shower.
- Wash your dishes after breakfast.
- Eat one fruit for breakfast.
- Write down one Most Important Task when you start your workday. (You don’t have to do the task.)
Step 2: Pick a reliable daily trigger. A trigger is something already in your daily routine to which you will attach the habit. So every time the trigger happens, you’ll very consciously do the habit, immediately after the trigger. With enough conscious repetition, the habit will become mentally bonded to the trigger, so that you will need less conscious effort and reminders and accountability.
Pick a trigger you do every day of the week. Some examples: waking up, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, drinking first cup of coffee, showering, eating lunch, eating dinner, leaving for work, arriving at work, leaving work, arriving home, turning on computer, going to bed. The work ones might not be ideal because most people don’t work 7 days a week. Even if you have an irregular schedule, you probably wake up and go to bed every day, and eat at least one meal regularly, and probably brush your teeth and/or shower regularly.
Step 3: Make a commitment. One of the best motivators — the best way to actually do the habit and stick with it — is social accountability. To do that, pick a group of people whose opinion you care about, and make a commitment to doing this new habit every single day this coming month. Why a month? It’s a convenient amount of time, and it’s around the amount of time it takes for an easy habit to form if you’ve consistently done it every day. That’s not set in stone and depends on consistency and difficulty of habit and how much you enjoy the habit.
First pick a group — you can commit to other Sea Change members on the forum in general, or join an accountability team on the forum and commit to them. I suggest the latter, as committing to a smaller group who is actually paying attention to what you’re doing is generally better. You can also commit to friends, family members and/or co-workers via email, Facebook/Twitter, etc.
Then make a public commitment to the group. Simply tell them that you are going to do the new habit (tell them what it is) every single day for a month, and ask them to hold you accountable each day. Tell them you promise to report to them daily. You can even set consequences for success or failure if you like (that tends to work for many people).
Step 4: Set reminders. Have one or more reminders set around your chosen trigger — multiple reminders are a good idea. For example, if your trigger is breakfast, put paper reminders on your cereal box and the table/chair where you eat breakfast, or on your cereal bowl. Set a phone reminder to go off a little before you eat breakfast. You might also ask a family member or roommate to remind you if they are usually around at that time.
Step 5: Focus on starting the habit each day. Many people make the mistake of mentally picturing the entire habit. If the habit is hard, you will then be de-motivated. Instead, picture only the beginning of the habit — with this beginner habit, but also all future habits. If it’s exercise (in the future), just think about getting your shoes on and getting out the door. If it’s meditation, just get your butt on the cushion. If it’s drinking water, just get the glass out.
Each day, with the help of your reminders, focus on starting your new habit. Put all your energy into this. You can do it!
Step 6: Report each day. As soon as possible after doing the habit, report to the group of people you committed yourself to. Just a simple “did it!” will suffice. If you like, report on your stats as well: “Day 6 is done, I’m 6-for-6!” It’s important that you report each day, whether you failed or succeeded. Even if you fail, commit yourself even more to doing the habit the next day.
Consistency and getting a good streak going is important, so for this program, think of each week as a “level” (like in a video game). What you want to do is get 7 straight days each week. If you do, you’ve “leveled up”.
- If you do 7 straight days the first week, you’ve leveled up … you’ve gone from White Belt to Yellow Belt in the Beginner’s Habit Program. If you missed 1 or more days, you should shoot for 7 straight days in the second week so you can get to Yellow Belt.
- If you level up and then do 7 straight days the second week, congrats! You’ve now moved from Yellow Belt to Orange Belt! If you missed a day or two, stay at Yellow Belt and shoot to advance to Orange Belt in Week 3 with 7 straight days. If you missed 3 or more days while a Yellow Belt, you’re now back to White Belt and should try to level back up to Yellow Belt with 7 straight days in the next week.
- If you move to Orange Belt and then do 7 straight days in the next week, you are now a Blue Belt! That’s amazing. If you are Orange Belt and miss one or two days, you stay at Orange Belt. If you miss 3 or more days as an Orange Belt, you move back down to Yellow Belt.
- If you are at Blue Belt and do 7 more straight days in the next week, you are now a Purple Belt! This means you’ve mastered the Beginner’s Habit Program. If you missed a day or two as a Blue Belt, you stay at Blue Belt. If you missed 3 or more days as Blue Belt, you move back down to Orange Belt.
If you get through the month and reach Purple Belt, you should definitely move on to a harder habit and do the current habit module with us the next month.
If you reach Blue Belt by the end of the month, you’re pretty decent and can also move on to the current module next month if you want, or try a new easy habit and repeat the program in the following month. Go by feel.
If you get to White, Yellow or Orange Belt, you should do the program again … but start the next round at the belt you reached! Then you can easily reach Purple Belt by the end of the 2nd month.
There are some common sticking points when attempting to form a new habit. Here are some solutions: