Habits — Tactics for Starting New Habits

This is the third article in a series of articles on habits, how we can understand them, how we can improve our chances of creating new habits that stick, and how we can challenge our bad habits. If you want to read the whole series, click here for the first article.

If you’ve read the previous articles in the series, you should have a good idea by now about how we establish positive habits (if you haven’t read them, then don’t worry — this article should still be able to help). Even if you follow the ideas in the previous articles, it doesn’t mean that starting new habits will be easy.

This is why I’m writing this article to explain a bunch of different tactics you can use to make creating new habits even easier than before. If you implement the ideas mentioned so far in the series as well as the ones from this article, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a habit machine!

Be precise in your plans

When we are planning to start a new habit, it is very easy to make a vague plan for your new habit.

Consider a plan that many of us have probably made at least once in our lives: “I’m going to revise every day for the upcoming exams.” This is good because it specifies how often we want to revise, but it doesn’t include many other details. With a plan this vague, we don’t know at what time we should be revising each day, we don’t know how long we should revise for each day, nor do we know what “revising” really encompasses on any given session.

Instead of the plan above, we could reformulate it to look something like this: “After dinner every day, I’ll revise for at least 2 hours. Monday will be for English, Tuesday for Mathematics, Wednesday for Spanish, …” This is a much better plan because it specifies when you have to do it each day, so you don’t get to the end of the day without setting time for it, and it is also great because it specifies how long you should be spending on it — so you don’t slack off too much.

Knowing what subjects you are revising each day is also a great benefit. Otherwise, you have to make a decision about what to revise each day, which can easily lead to spending too long thinking about it or deciding you’d rather not revise anything and watch YouTube instead.

With each of the new things that we added to the plan, we made it more precise. When a plan is precise, it’s way easier to get along and carry out than an incredibly vague plan.

By adding precision to your plan, you make it stricter in return for reducing the amount of thought you need to invest to get started revising each day. This reduces the friction of getting started revising each day, making you more likely to do it. If you have to put a ton of thought into how to start, then the starting itself becomes difficult. You need to make starting it easier because by making the start easier, the whole task becomes easier. And when the habit is easier, you’ll be more likely to create a successful habit.

Supporting habits

Habits are rarely alone. Many of your habits will have supporting habits that make other habits easier to carry out. When you are struggling to create a new habit or results from an existing habit are getting harder to come by, then adding or improving your supporting habits can help immensely.

Consider any habit that requires strong focus. That could be working, writing, reading, doing puzzles, revising, etc. If you improve your sleep habits and ensure you get a good eight hours of sleep each night, it will improve your focus — in turn improving those habits that require lots of focus. Meditation is also a good habit that will improve your ability to focus over time. Eating healthily, getting good nutrition, and exercising regularly will also improve your brain function, helping you become more effective at tasks which require focus.

With exercise-based habits, such as regular running, swimming, long walks, or sports, then perhaps a habit of regular yoga could improve your recovery times and reduce the chance of injury.

In general, most habits will have other habits that can support you in whichever habit you’re trying to improve. It can be like in the examples above, or a supporting habit could simply make it easier to start the main habit. Regardless of what habit you want to improve, eating healthily, getting regular cardio exercise, and having good sleep habits should provide a boost to all your positive habits.

Habit trials

When we’re considering starting a new long-term habit, it can seem a bit daunting. If you think you’re going to have a habit for the next few months, years, or indefinitely, it can be easy to get discouraged after the first few days of a new habit. Perhaps we could ‘test out’ a new habit by trialling it for a short period.

Consider if someone wanted to start eating more healthily, and they set a target of trying to eat healthily for the next 7 days. Motivation is usually high when someone starts a new habit, but over the next few days their motivation falls, and it becomes easier and easier to quit. But because they set the target of going for 7 days straight, motivation will stay higher because they know it’s only temporary and it’ll be over soon. When there isn’t a time constraint, it’s easy to get fed up with it and give up, partly because there is no end in sight.

After the 7 days are over, the person has eaten more healthily for the last week and will feel great for getting through it. Even though they don’t have to, continuing to eat healthily after the 7 days is now way easier than it was before, because they’ve started to get used to it. Counterintuitively, setting a target of having a new habit for only 7 days could make it more likely to become a permanent habit than if the target was to carry on forever, just because it helps get through the acclimatisation phase with more motivation.

Even if they do decide to quit after the seven days, they won’t feel as bad as if they were to have tried to stick to it indefinitely. And when they try to establish an eating healthy habit again, it would be easier because they’ve already stuck to the habit once before.

While 7 days may work, you can set the goal at a more ambitious 30 days. You get the same benefits as above, you are way more likely to have adjusted to a new habit after doing it for 30 days rather than just 7. The main downside to going for 30 days is the amount of discipline it will require. If you struggle to create new habits, I’d stick to trying habits out for 7 days. If you’ve already installed a bunch of positive habits before and you know you have enough self-discipline, feel free to trial habits for 30 days.

Here are some ideas of new habits you can trial for however many days you feel you can manage: daily meditation, running every (other) day, eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, journaling, etc.

At the end of the trial period, you can always decide whether or not you want to keep up the habit. This is why it’s only a ‘trial’, it’s a good way of testing whether a new habit is good for you or not. You may think a habit takes too much effort or time, or that you’ve started to enjoy your new habit and are seeing the benefits of it.

This habit ‘trial period’ is similar to the trial periods of many online services. With Netflix, you can test it out for 30 days and then decide whether you want to continue paying for your subscription. This is the same for tons of other online services because if you test something out, you’re way more likely to become a customer than if the company didn’t offer a trial. If huge businesses are using this method of the 30-day trial so prevalently, why don’t you try applying the method to creating new habits?

In this article, we’ve gone through a bunch of tactics you can use to increase the chances of starting a successful habit. If you read the previous article, consider which components of the new habits we are trying to optimise with each tactic we went through.

After I wrote this article, I took a break from writing blog articles due to university work and lack of good ideas for articles. This also means that this will be the last article in this series, though it may be continued again later if readers want it.