How to Master a Habit
My short guide to how to master a habit from my experience over the last six months.
Habits really are, in my opinion, the quickest, most sustainable way to get the results you want. I used to be the person who didn’t believe in habits, I used to think they were a quick way to make life as boring as possible. The result was that I had a scattergun approach to life. Instead of trying to do things little and often, I would work very intensely at something (24 hours in a weekend-type intense) and then I would forget about it for two weeks.
What resulted was conquering the square root of nothing. I would forget the projects I started and revisit them a few weeks later not knowing what I was trying to achieve. The upshot of it all was being firmly where I started, just four months down the line.
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” John C. Maxwell
What I quickly realised is that habits were the quickest, most sustainable way to get the results I wanted. In short, I wanted to start exercising more. I also wanted to start something on the side of my day job that I would enjoy. Not big tasks by any means.
I’ve tried to start many side hustles in the past. They always resulted in me getting frustrated that I couldn’t commit the time or the effort to get them off the ground. I managed to resell on eBay for about a month until I got bored, I also bought an inordinate amount of socks, until I realised that I didn’t want to start that business anymore. Adding to that, I tried to start a sweet company (queue free sweets to my friends) and a card business that stopped before it started.
All these experiences were great grounding (although I spent most of my time feeling like a failure) to teach me what it took to really commit to something and what it’s like to commit to something you’re not interested in.
Don’t bother committing to something you’re not interested in. It’s a slow, painful exit.
Hacking Our Genetics — Habit Hack
The first step in how to master a habit is simple you need to understand how they work.
Habits work because they become ingrained in our system. They become part of our daily lives. They are, quite incredibly, performed on autopilot once we’ve embedded them properly. What that means is, for self-improvement junkies like me, is that you can achieve all your audacious goals through the power of habits.
There is something really quite special about just about chipping away at something every day, for hundreds of days to achieve what you want to. It’s the type of hard work that feels good and guaranteed to make you feel deserving of any success that comes your way.
The definition of a habit is quite literally 1) acquiring a behaviour that then 2) happens naturally without thought. Maybe it’s just me that gets excited by the prospect of habits but they are the key to your ambitions. They are the map to wherever you want to go. Using our habits to our advantage is essentially hacking our genetics.
We as humans have figured out that if a behaviour is repeated for long enough it becomes habitual or in other words, it’s no longer stimulating enough, or novel enough, to require our brains to pay it much attention at all. Instead, what happens is we go on autopilot. Our brains think “I’ve done this before, I don’t need to give it much thought”. It’s the same reason that if you’ve driven the same route to work a handful of times, you won’t need to think about it any longer. You’ll get to work and you might not even remember the drive. That’s because your habits took care of it for you. It’s the same reason you are able to multi-task i.e. you can drive to work and think about what’s going on in your day. However, if a car pulls out on you, you’ll switch to the current situation and no longer think about the day ahead.
That’s your habits taking care of things until they encounter a situation that is unfamiliar and your conscious brain needs to take over.
Once you realise that you are the sum total of your habits and you have the power to change them, the world is really your oyster. All of a sudden all your dreams are in reaching distance and you know the path to get there. It sounds intense and dramatic, and I’m neither of those things, so hopefully it tells you how impactful they are.
To Habit Master Your Habits, Create a ‘Why’
The second step in how to master a habit is focus on why you are starting it. When I first start anything, I’ve learnt the hard way to write down why I want to do it. This is about prepping now for what will inevitably happen later. At some point in the first 90 days of forming a habit, you will fall off the wagon (we’ll come onto that). You’ll question why you’re doing it and get frustrated with the lack of progress you are making. It’s pretty inescapable. At some point you’ll want to give up. When you feel like giving up, you will undoubtedly stumble onto the question:
“Why am I even doing this in the first place?”
When you ask yourself that question, you’ll need to have a decent answer to pull you through. It happened to me. I tried to start a sock business 3 years ago. When I first started trying to commit to working outside of work, I would do an intense weekend of working hard (designing the website, finding suppliers, designing the boxes) and then I’d forget about it for a couple of weeks. When I came back to it I would ask myself why I was trying to do this in the first place. My answer was always something superficial like:
“I want to make some money so I don’t have to rely solely on my income from work.”
What Suits You
For me, that wasn’t a good enough reason. Just trying to make money doesn’t suit my personality type. Don’t get me wrong, that might be a justified reason for someone that is motivated heavily by money but it wasn’t a good enough reason for me.
So, when you’re starting a new habit, ask yourself why you want to do it. Try and scratch past the surface if you can, the more concrete the reason, the more likely you are to be anchored to it when you start questioning everything. I find that reasons such as ‘make some extra cash’ or ‘to look good to other people’ are pretty superficial. If you can go a little deeper such as ‘create a life I’m proud of and a work life that suits my personality’ or ‘to feel good about myself and what I’m capable of achieving’ they seem to be quite powerful reasons (at least I’ve found).
Having a ‘why’ will also help you weed out the habits you are trying to create to please someone else. If your reason you’ve chosen to read a book a week for the next year is so you can please your mum, well then you might want to reconsider.
Focus on Getting in the Seat
Next on how to master a habit is focus on the easiest thing first. The best way I’ve found to get good at sustaining a habit is by flexing the habit muscle. So instead of picking up the heaviest weight in the gym and attempting to curl a PB (I don’t go to the gym so I’m in unknown territory here, but we’ll just go with the analogy), you go for a weight that suits you and focus on curling well, rather than fast. In fact let’s change the analogy, I have no idea if you can curl well.
It’s like football. If you want to get good at kicking a football, you need to turn up to training and practice kicking the ball. Once you’re at the training ground, you will end up kicking a ball at some point, so focus on getting to the training ground.
When you’re trying to master a habit, the first ten days or so, you need to build some credibility with yourself. So, focus on turning up. The habit I’ve recently cracked (touch wood) is writing. I’d set a fairly audacious goal of writing 200 articles this year. Last year I’d written 12. So I was going for a 16x improvement. No small feat. So far, I’m on 110. That’s not to gloat, trust me most of them are horrendous. My point is that to get here, I initially focused on trying to write an article every other day. Some weeks I found I was writing 3 articles, others just 1 and in a good week I would pump out 6. I wasn’t consistent in the beginning but that’s okay because I was just focused on getting my bum in the seat. I just needed to show up. Even if I only wrote a a few sentences or formatted part of an article — it was more about showing up over producing anything good.
By showing up for ten days in a row, you’re saying to yourself that this is important to me. That’s the credibility bit. You are saying in your head it’s important and you are showing yourself it’s important by showing up every day.
In the early days don’t worry about how far you run, how many curls (?), how many calories. Focus on showing up. Commit.
Consistency is king
Once you’ve built some credibility you’ll find it becomes important to get the habit ticked off your list. And that brings me to habit tracking. I’ve got a notebook in which I write down the habits I want to complete in my week. It’s a small thing but I feel a sense of achievement by ticking the habit off of the list. Quite quickly, doing said habit will be a pillar of having a good day.
Remind yourself that anything great is built over time, repeating the same thing over and over. There is no end game, this is about changing part of your day for the rest of your life (potentially). It’s about embedding things into your world that will add value to your life and help you achieve the things you want to. There is no magic potion to getting a six pack, you have to build habits to achieve a six pack. Unfortunately, there is no formula to success either. Well apart from figuring out which habits you need to cultivate to get to where you want to go.
A good way to embed consistency is track your habits and review on a weekly basis. I know, I know this seems a sure fire way to suck all the fun out of life but if you want to build some decent habits you’ll need to get a little stricter on yourself. Hold yourself to account when you don’t show up to do something you said you were going to.
Falling off the Wagon
Being practical in how to master a habit is being realistic. You will, fall off the wagon I mean. Don’t worry about it, it’s inevitable. You won’t start a habit tomorrow and continue to do it for the rest of your life and that’s it. Unless you do, in which case let me know. Instead it’s more about how you get back on the wagon. They’ll come a point, fairly unavoidable, whereby you become less passionate about what you’re doing. Or you get bored of the routine of it, or maybe you’re questioning whether it’s the best use of your time. You can refer back to your why and that will help. However, if the ‘why’ doesn’t help, you might find that mixing it up helps.
Our brains love novelty. It’s why charismatic people are better presenters. It’s why shock tactics work. We like new stuff. It’s stimulating. So, we can use that thinking to help us repackage our habits into something a little bit more fun.
How to Master a Habit – Make it More Fun
Creating a tracker, stick it on your fridge and tick it off, ten ticks in a row means you get a reward.
Play a game, can you top your PB or the amount of writing you’ve produced in one week.
Increase the reward, if you write 10,000 words this week, buy yourself a gift.
Pair up with a mate and compete against each other.
You will inevitably get bored somewhere between starting your habit and it becoming an embedded part of your day. Mixing things up a little can provide just the right amount of stimulation for you to get exciting about it again.
Another thing you might want to do is reflect back on how far you’ve come. For me, to be able to say I’ve written 110 articles this years feels like a huge achievement. It shows me how far I’ve come and motivates me to do better. If you’ve been at something for a while, take a look backwards and reflect on how far you’ve come. You might find it gives you some energy to keep going.
“Habit is a cable; we weave a thread each day, and at last we cannot break it.” ―Horace Mann
You’ll start to master the habit. After a while, you’ll benefit from the power of habits and you’ll find yourself turning up with ease. If it’s writing, you’ll find that you sit in the chair most mornings to write, if it’s running, you’ll find you put your running gear on with ease every morning (okay, not ease but you know, less pain).
So what’s next?
Next you need to focus on incremental gains. If you’ve started running round the block and it takes you 10 minutes, can you get it down to 9 minutes 50 seconds? If you’ve been trying to conquer writing and you normally write 200 words every time you sit down, can you manage 1% more?
These small, incremental gains won’t seem much in the first few weeks. After all, 2 words is really negligible, 10 seconds is neither here nor there. However, we’re not looking in the short-term here, this is strategising. If you continue to work at 1% more every time, you’ll soon be doubling you’re writing output.
Trying to improve by 1% is manageable and it also doesn’t feel that arduous. However, over a long period of time, you’ll start to see some huge improvements.
Be Kind to Yourself – Master a Habit
One of the things I’ve realised when building habits is it’s better to be kind to yourself over being ruthless. This is a long old life we’re going to life and being forgiving of ourselves is a better way to play it.
If you miss a day that’s fine. Try not to make a habit of it but life does get in the way of doing things. Sure, you probably could have found time if you really wanted to, but you didn’t. You could sit and tell yourself how crap you are and how this is never going to work, or you could just forgive yourself and move on. Tomorrow is a new day. There really is no point dwelling. Acknowledging something is a mistake and moving on is more beneficial, I’ve found, then getting worked up that you aren’t on track.
Like I said, we’ve got a lifetime to master the things we want, in the grand scheme of things, one day won’t matter. That goes for anything. You can have a takeaway once in a while, you can sit on the sofa and watch Netflix once in a while. You can.
Life is about having fun. If you feel like you need a break, go chill and watch Netflix, don’t feel guilty about it — do it. If you feel like you want a greasy burger, you do it.
You’ll probably find that the harder you are on yourself, the less motivated you are to continue on with your habit building. If you suck the fun out of it, you’ll have no inclination to carry on.
Be nice to yourself
Don’t take it too seriously. There is a difference between committing to a habit, tracking yourself and holding yourself to account and taking it too far.
One day in a whole month really won’t effect the grand scheme of things. Eight days in a month, that probably will. But once or twice, every now and then, won’t. Don’t worry about being perfect, worry about showing up most of the time. It will be dramatically better than where you were before and that’s real progress.
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Things to Remember – How to Master a Habit
I remember watching a documentary a while back about Kevin Hart. The interviewer asked him how does he keep going. They were on the topic of fitness, something that Hart takes seriously. His response was profound:
“The sun is going to come up anyway.”
What he was saying is, the world doesn’t care if you show up or not. The world doesn’t wait. The day is going to start and finish whether you like it or not. And seen as you are going to have to do the day anyway, you may as well make the most of it.
“Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” Vince Lombardi
Much like most things in life. If you really want to win, you can. People before you have done great things and people after you will do great things.
It’s up to you. You can master a habit, the real question is, do you want to?