Build Habits that Stick


We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

I try to keep things EVE themed, but how could I ignore the poignant, sobering words of Aristotle?

In our day-to-day lives, habits can often be tough to build, as there are plenty of distractions that can lead us off the “straight and narrow” and right back to our old ways. Let’s talk about motivation, discipline, and habit building, and break it down into actionable steps that any aspiring habit-builder can put into place.

Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals”

Abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. In the most basic sense, “dreaming big” is pretty good advice after all. And since a variety of research around the self-determination theory shows us that creating intrinsic motivators (being motivated to do things internally, not through punishments or rewards) is an essential process of building habits that stick, you need to find a way to balance this desire to dream big with your day-to-day activities, which often do not result in quick, dramatic changes.

The answer is to create what some call “micro quotas” and ”macro goals.” Your goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish, but your quotas, are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.

 Create behavior chains

Creating sticky habits is far easier when we make use of our current routines, instead of trying to fight them. The concept of “if-then” planning is built around environmental “triggers” that we can use to let us know that it’s time to act on our habit. Also known as implementation intentions, this tactic involves picking a regular part of your schedule and then building another “link in the chain” by adding a new habit.

Eliminate excessive options

There is great power in being boring. Take, for instance, Barack Obama’s insistence to never wear anything but blue and gray suits. According to the POTUS, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Making repeated choices depletes, even if those choices are mundane and relatively pleasant. If you want to maintain long term discipline, it’s best to identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane and then implement those aspects into your existing routines as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.

For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule. Stop buying snacks if you want to stop snacking (no willpower needed), pack a very similar lunch every day of the week, and embrace the power of routine to get the necessary done each day.

Process plan

The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is they never clearly answer why they want the change to occur. It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping our motivation up until the habit forms. Excessive fantasizing about results can be extremely detrimental to the stickiness of any habit.

The mistake is in what we visualize. If you engage  in visualizations that include the process of what needs to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, by visualizing yourself practicing every day after work) is more likely to stay consistent than visualizing yourself speaking French on a trip to Paris. The visualization process works for two reasons:

  • Planning: visualizing the process helps focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotion: visualization of individual steps leads to reduced anxiety.

Eliminate “ah-screw-its”

New habits are often very fragile, and it is for this reason that we must eliminate any source of friction that may lead us astray. These “ah-screw-it” moments  are the specific moments where you find yourself saying, “Screw this, it’s not worth the effort!” A more scientific take on this phenomenon is called the What the Hell Effect, which explains why we are so likely to abandon ship with a new habit at the first slip-up.

The solution? Examine your habit and find exactly where things start to break down.

What about you?

How do you create new regular habits?

3 responses to “Build Habits that Stick

  1. I don’t have much to add – only two things come to mind at the moment.
    When building new habits, I am not above using reminders like calendar reminders or post-it notes in strategic places.
    But I think on of the best aids in building a new habit is in-person peer pressure: somebody who when necessary reminds you of your goal without judging, especially in those ah-screw-it moments. Web and computer tools go in this direction, but are not quite as effective as a real life person.

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