Lessons from a year of experimenting with habits

For the last year or so, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with habit formation. It started as a personal journey to be more productive and was amplified after reading Atomic Habits by James Clear. This year, instead of setting brand new goals, I’ve taken a look at my habits over the past year and looked for ways to improve. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

Start small. Really small

Most New Year’s resolutions don’t last. It’s tempting to use this as an excuse for not setting any resolutions at all. But the start of a new year is actually a great time to start new habits. A new year has the cathartic feeling of a new beginning (new year, new me!) and that can translate into extra motivation to change your behaviour for the better.

But here’s the kicker: that motivation will likely run out. As the year progresses, most of us will regress to the mean and revert to our old habits.

Since your motivation will run out, it is important to start small – with the tiniest deviation from your current behaviour. If your goal is too big, you are more likely to fail, and failure will discourage you from further efforts.

Take, for example, the cliche but common resolution of “getting in shape”. This often manifests as “start going to the gym”. This might be easy for some, but if you have lived your whole life not going to a gym (like me), it will be a hard habit to maintain once your motivation runs out. I’ve done this many times in my life. Get some workout clothes, buy a gym membership, keep up the habit for a week or two, miss a day, miss a few more, feel like a failure, lose motivation, give up.

Last year, however, I started smaller. My tiny resolution was “do at least one pushup a day.” Lower expectations make for easier wins, and easy wins will encourage you to do more. By keeping the low expectation of one single pushup, there is very little psychological friction to starting (plus, I don’t have to leave my apartment!). Even on the days where I’m lazy and low on motivation, I can muster up enough will-power for one measly pushup and call it a successful day.

In 2020, I’ve added “do at least one pull-up a day” to my list. It’s a bit easier since I can stack it in on top of my existing pushup habit. I’m now actually using the gym in my condo building (If I had to leave my building, this goal might be beyond my current motivation). It’s easier to make myself go there daily since I know I’ll be in and out in a matter of minutes. Once that’s a habit, I can start stacking on more exercises. Eventually, I’ll have a full workout routine!

Explicitly schedule time for your new habits

Playing guitar has been a hobby and my main creative escape for most of my life. But as my career and personal life have gotten more time consuming, playing guitar regularly has gotten harder. Last year, I set a goal of playing guitar every day. I missed this goal quite often.

My mistake was not setting an implementation intention. A plan for specific time in the day that I would play. Instead, I was relying on future me to find the inspiration at some point each day to pick the guitar up and play. Most days, that inspiration failed to appear.

Part of the reason my “one pushup every day” goal was so successful was that I had explicitly scheduled it into my day. I would do a pushup after breakfast every morning. In 2020, I’m stacking “play guitar” onto my morning routine. I don’t have time to play for very long (for now), but I can at least do something every day and the difference between zero and something is huge.

Scale back if you need to

Last year, I set out to write more – in the form of blog posts. By mid 2019, I was writing every day. This was a major win, but I was still reluctant to publish anything I wrote. To put some pressure on myself, I set a goal of publishing one blog post per week. This turned out to be misjudgement of my ability. I managed for a few weeks, but I soon started falling behind.

Because I was failing at this goal I had set for myself, I started to identify as failed blogger and this was taking a toll on my confidence as a writer. The result was less motivation to write anything at all, and my habit of writing every day started to suffer.

I still think publishing for others to read is important but the main benefit of a writing habit, in my opinion, is the act of writing and editing. It’s what helps me clarify my thoughts and explore new ideas. I’ve decided to scale back my expectations around publishing in order to preserve my daily writing habit.

In 2020, I’m modifying my goal from one blog post every week, to one blog post every month. Consistency is more important than scope, and writing everyday is more important to me than the number of blog posts I actually publish. I’m already noticing that it’s easier to open the editor every day. Sometimes I only write or edit one one sentence, but it is still something, and I do it every day. That’s how I wrote this blog post – a few minutes every day.

The meta-lesson: How to form new habits

With each new habit I add to my life, I tend to learn the same lessons over and over again. One important thing to mention is that these lessons were not obvious until I started tracking my habits on a daily basis. With a historical record, I could look back at which habits I was missing often and reevaluate. Measuring your output with a habit tracker or daily journal might be the most powerful meta-habit you can have. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.

Habit formation, in my experience, boils down to four main points:

  1. Lower your expectations and start with the smallest possible change in your behaviour.
  2. Be specific about when, where, and how you will perform the habit.
  3. Measure how well you are doing by tracking your habits over time.
  4. Adjust your strategy if you’re not meeting your expectations. Scale back or pivot if you need to.

Happy new year, and good luck with your new habits!

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