Seven tips for establishing new habits

A few years ago I was riding my bicycle along the Loire river in France with my family and realized I was out of balance. This wasn’t anything new, every few months I would make a list of things that I wanted to start doing. Things like working out, studying a language, playing the piano, and so on. Each attempt ended in failure after a few days or weeks. It was discouraging.

I knew I needed to do something different. I made a new plan that I felt would guarantee long lasting change. This new plan and mindset around my routine helped me establish these new habits, and hopefully the principles can be helpful for you as well.

1) Habit change requires willpower. Change is hard, and our natural tendencies may not send us on a path towards success. We need to be intentional about how we spend our time.

2) Willpower is a muscle. Willpower can be developed and strengthened. The more willpower is exercised, the stronger it gets and the more a person has.

3) Willpower is limited, spend it wisely. I like to imagine willpower as a pile of coins. Many things we do require willpower, so it’s spent throughout the day. Each action takes a coin from the pile. Once willpower is spent, it’s much harder to do things that we don’t want to do. Cyclists talk about “burning matches”, meaning short bursts like a sprint to catch up to a leader, or being part of a break-away. Matches aren’t unlimited, and you can run out. Once you’ve spent your matches, they’re gone for the race. Why is the temptation at the end of a long day so strong to just sit back and watch Netflix? I’m proposing it’s because your willpower is exhausted.

It’s easier for me to do hard or complex work when I’m fresh. In another article I wrote about time management, (See it here) I shared a technique about tracking your time every 15 minutes throughout the day. This exercise helped me learn that I am much more productive in the morning hours, and that I should maintain control of how I spend the hours in the AM. When possible I schedule meetings in the afternoon instead of the AM. I also plan any other activities that require less willpower for times when I am worn out.

4) Habits don’t use much willpower. I always wanted to be a good journal writer, but I was unsuccessful in creating a habit. In mid 2014 I started writing every day as a challenge with my wife. For the first month or two it was difficult to remember, and took quite a bit of willpower to get myself to do it. Two years later, It’s not hard, and I can easily do it even at the end of a long day. Once a habit is established it takes less willpower to maintain.

5) We are like computers that can be re-programmed. Habits are a way of reprogramming how we work. Once a habit is solidified, our “hardware” is permanently altered.

6) It’s okay to start small. Whether it’s committing to sit down at the piano for a minute a day, or reading a verse from the Bible; just get started. It will be easier to scale up the frequency or duration once the roots of the habit are planted. I could share an analogy about how habits are like seeds, I’ll spare you.

7) Do what your hero does and you’ll eventually be like your hero. Thoughts and actions heavily influence who we become.

Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions.

Watch your actions; they become habits. Watch your habits; they become character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

Lao Tzu

Bonus tips

  • Make personal time. To make time for my new habits I started waking up at 5am. My personal morning routine includes working out, cleaning the kitchen while listening to the scriptures, language study with 2-3 Duo lingo lessons, and then if i’m not at the gym playing Table Tennis I get something started for Breakfast for the family. Starting this way makes me feel like a winner. I needed to do this first thing in the morning, because I have a really hard time stopping in the middle of the day to slow down and do any of this stuff. I just get too wrapped up in work, or in any of the other distractions that are around. at 5:00 a.m., it seems most of my distractions are still asleep…
  • Tell a friend. Tell others of your new commitment to a certain habit. Give them permission to follow up with you, and ask them to encourage you along the way.
  • Set consistent time frames for completion. It’s easier for me to be consistent with tasks that need to be done on a consistent basis at the same time each day or week.
  • Make a “Don’t do” list. What things don’t you want to do? These are the habits you want to break. I went two years not accessing Facebook on my phone, because I felt I needed to be all or nothing.
  • Charles Duhigg in his book “The power of habit” says that it can take about 60 days to establish more complex habits. Stick to it long enough to create the habit. This book is amazing, if your in to self improvement and habit change, it’s a great read.
  • Did I mention to start small? When I started playing the piano, I made a goal to sit down at the piano every day for at least five minutes. Many days Id only play for five minutes, but I gradually started staying longer, and it became less of a chore.
  • Wake up early. There’s something magical about being awake before the rest of the world is. The phone is off, emails aren’t coming in, and you own your time. Waking up early starts at 5 pm the following day. Going from six to seven hours of sleep was a game changer for me, I personally feel much better sleeping seven hours than I did when I only slept six. Getting to bed on time is a major factor in keeping a good routine.
  • Make it a Streak! There’s a runner named Ron Hill that has averaged over 7 miles of running for 50 years straight. As your streak increases you’ll naturally sacrifice more in order to keep it going. I use an app called streaks to help remind me of new habits I’m trying to start, it tracks how many days in a row I’ve done the new activity.

One very real example for me of these principles being put to work is my journal writing. I’ve ALWAYS wanted to be a good journal writer. I know others who are, and I always admired others who were good journal keepers. For so long I wasn’t able to maintain a consistent routine around journal keeping. As of this writing I’ve written in my journal for 830 days in a row. It was hard to remember for the first week, the first month was a bit tricky as well, but after several months it was second nature. Even after a long day, it didn’t take much work to open up my Day One app and dictate a journal entry and add a few pics. This stuff works, try it for yourself!

What has helped you establish new habits?

Not sure how to fit this in to your busy schedule? Check out the article I wrote on Time Management.

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