If you’re like most people, you struggle to form a new habit, regardless of how motivated you are to establish the new habit. Some say that it takes discipline, and if we just had more of it, we could follow our dreams to new habits.
I won’t deny that discipline can help to establish a new habit. But saying one just needs to learn discipline to form a new habit is like telling someone who is drowning that they need to learn to swim. The advice is both obvious and un-useful.
The good news is that we can fake discipline if we use tools, techniques, and technology to our advantage. Following are five techniques that I’ve used to establish new habits.
If you struggle with discipline, the good news is that you can fake it until you make it. By recruiting the aid of your technology, you can institute new habits. When I wanted to get serious about meditating, I looked to the app Calm, which offers many guided meditation sessions, to remind me to meditate each day. Initially, the app would remind me at noon, but I found that midday was too late for me to remember to do it. For your new habit, find the best time that works for you, and set your reminder to alert you at that sweet spot.
Your work or personal electronic calendar can provide similar functionality as the Calm app. Need to do something at the start of each day? Just add a calendar invite for each day. You’ll have a visible reminder, but you can also block off time on your calendar to get the task done.
If you use a personal organization system, like the classic Getting Things Done (GTD) or more modern tools like the Bullet Journal or Panda Planner, you already have a system in place that provides you the structure you need for new habits. For instance, I use the app Facile Things to organize my list of Next Actions. This app has a routine function that I utilize to add various weekly reminders of new habits. For instance, I have a routine to remind me to check for any birthdays on my team once a week so I can get a card around for them. By using an existing structure already in place, I can establish a new habit.
When we start our day and survey the landscape of the day in front of us, what’s the biggest, scaries thing we have to confront? Whatever it is, we should do that first. Or, in the words of the best selling book, we should Eat that Frog, the biggest frog we have in front of us.
If that frog is a new habit that you want to establish, then commit to yourself to tackle that frog first each day.
My friend Aimee taught me this technique, and it is one of the many techniques outlined in Atomic Habits. Habit loading, as Aimee defined it for me, is when you build a new habit on top of an existing habit. For instance, while waiting for the shower to warm up for my morning shower (existing habit), I brush and floss my teeth (new habit).
You can also try this with 2 new habits like I did last year. I wanted to start a daily meditation practice while also learning something new each day. I would start each day reading a page from The Intellectual Devotional, then proceed to meditate for 5 minutes or more. These 2 new habits, by relying on each other such that I couldn’t do one without the other, gave me more motivation to do both. And I’ve been doing them for over a year now.
For this technique, you need a wall calendar and a marker. If you are young enough that you don’t own a wall calendar (or, you don’t even know what one is), ask you’re parents - they’ll have a couple of spare ones lying around.
This technique was created by Jerry Seinfeld as advice to aspiring comics. They key to comedy, Jerry would say, is to write jokes every day. So he would inform comics to get a calendar, write a joke today, then put an ‘X’ through today’s date on the calendar. Then, repeat the process tomorrow, then the next day, and so on. The goal is to not break that streak. Keep ‘X’-ing out days by following through on the new habit, day after day.
I use this technique to ensure that I write at least half a page a day, plus a half page of journaling the highs and lows of the day. I started on January 1st, 2019 with a new calendar and only missed 2 days so far - January 10th 2019 and May 15th 2019. Two years later and this new behavior has become a habit.
Success breeds success. So if you are struggling to start a new habit, start with a small habit. What is the simplest thing that you can do for your new habit? Let’s say that you want to establish a habit of exercising daily. Instead of stating that you want to exercise daily for an hour a day, choose a much smaller time frame, such at 5 minutes. By setting a more achievable goal, it will be easier to find time to do the new habit each day. After stringing together a few weeks of successes, you may be able to set a higher goal. When I started my daily meditation practice, I started with just 5 minutes a day. Once I had done this for 6 months or so, I aimed to increase to 10 minutes a day, and later to a total of 90 minutes a week. By slowly raising the bar, I gave myself room to establish the habit and I had confidence when I raised it that I could continue to succeed, because of the previous successes I had.
New habits can be hard to form. They take discipline to stick with a new behavior long enough for it to become a habit. Structure, habit loading, starting small, tackling the new habit at the start of the day, and tracking the habit visually can help establish the new habit. Success with other habits also leads to further success. If you find yourself struggling to establish a new habit, remember to try a simpler habit first. Build up your own confidence, establish structure to support you, and people will start to call you ‘disciplined’.