In the last post, I talked about three common misconceptions around forming habits and making a change to your daily routine: discipline or will power alone is needed; inspiration should be enough, and having a fixed routine ruins spontaneity.

This post looks at some ingredients to forming a new habit, and making it stick. These are by no means conclusive – there are other things that help, but  I have found these 5 points to be key.

1. Know the difference between a goal and the activity. I realized that the main reason I wasn’t writing more regularly was that though I had a goal, I didn’t have a specific activity targeted. “Writing a post” is not a specific activity. Nor is “exercising” or “meditating” or “eating healthy.” 

A habit is an activity that supports your goal. If our goal is exercising, then we have to specify what kind, when, and for how long. Or if I say I want to write, then I have to know when, for how long, and what I will write (a post, outline, draft?). Probably this is the biggest mistake people make when trying to start a new habit. They confuse the goal with the activity. But goals are long chains of behavior, and in order to make one step, we need to know what activity we begin with. Start with the most simple activity. For instance, if my goal is to write twice a week, I have to make a concrete activity: write a 1000 word draft for a new post on Monday morning between 9 am and 10 am. Or, if my goal is exercising three times a week, then I need to specify, I’m going to run (walk, bike, swim) for 30 minutes, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 am.

2. Don’t wait to you feel like doing it. In fact, don’t think you have to feel like doing it. I don’t brush my teeth because I feel like it. I don’t write because I feel it. I don’t even exercise because I feel it. I feel better having done it, and it feels good to do it, and sometimes, yes, I do feel like it. But my habit doesn’t depend on me feeling like doing it. Thinking you have to feel like doing it is a trap. Habits are routines that have become a part of your life, and I know it sounds counter-intuitive to say, but feeling doesn’t have much to do it. The amount of psychic energy it takes to contemplate whether or not we feel like doing something minute by minute is energy we could be using towards something else. All we need to feel is that, in the long term, this habit is part of a really meaningful goal that serves, and is supported by the deepest part of ourselves. If that’s the case, then just do it, and don’t worry about whether or not you feel like doing it.

3. Prepare the soil. Habits don’t live in isolation from all the other habits and activities in your life. In fact, the habits that are most sticky are the ones that are deeply entangled with and supported by all your other habits. I’m an early riser and I wake up very alert, so my habit of answering emails first thing in the morning is supported by the habit of getting up early, drinking coffee, reading the paper, and going online. But if I decided to meditate first thing in the morning, that would mean I’d have to rearrange all my other early morning habits. Right now, meditating first thing won’t be ‘sticky,’ because all the other morning activities run counter to meditating. I’d  have to get up and not drink coffee, not turn on my computer, and sit in my living room, or any other room besides my office which pulls me right into my computer. What I’m doing now, in this discussion, is preparing the soil – thinking about the whole context that the new habit has to live in, and asking myself whether it’s supported there, or what other changes I have to make in order for it to thrive.

4. Repetition. This one is pretty basic. I used to hear that it takes 6 weeks to make a habit, but researching for this post, it seems the consensus is that it takes longer, about 90 days on average. That’s three months. That’s a pretty long time. The thing is, repetition builds the strength of a habit and that’s what’s important. The stronger the habit, the more likely you are to stick with it, even when you miss a couple of days. If I miss a few days exercising, because of traveling, sickness or I’m just too busy, I might hate the feeling that comes from not exercising, but the overall habit isn’t threatened by missing a few days, even a week, because the habit is so strong.

5. It’s a habit, not a regime change. It’s often the case that whatever habit we’re working on, we’ve already tried and failed several times. Chances are we’re pretty frustrated about it. The danger is we go overboard out of frustration, so instead of “exercising three times a week,” we decide we’re going to run a marathon, and run 5 miles every day. Or we have failed for 5 years to take off those extra 20 pounds, so now, we’re not just going to lose the weight, we’re going on a total cleanse, no coffee, alcohol, sugar, bread, dairy, etc. This isn’t starting a new habit, it’s an overcompensation and a set up for failure. We set our sights way too high, or try to accomplish something unrealistic. We have to check in with ourselves what’s driving us. Look at the long term, and decide for yourself, what’s realistic? What’s something that can stick around for the next 20 years easily. That’s a habit.

Let me know what works or has worked for you.

And for those of you who like thinking about this stuff, there’s a wonderful article in this month’s Bicycling Magazine called “90 Days,” on forming an exercise habit.