How to change a habit

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In my new “15 Life Hacks” ebook (free download here), I talk about the one little habit I created that boosted my gym attendance 300%.

My mentor, BJ Fogg, contributed an article about how to change your behavior around one of the most common goals — flossing.

And there are other entries from people like Neil Strauss, Mark Sisson, Noah Kagan, etc.

But what do you do when your new habits fall apart?

I got a great question from Claire who wants to know how to KEEP a habit once you’ve created it. What happens if you fall off the wagon or just lose motivation?

Check out my answer in this new video:

What about you? Once you start a habit, how do you KEEP doing it? Leave a comment below.

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34 Comments

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  1. Whatever habit you are changing, you need to start small. BJ’s small goal of flossing one tooth made him floss the rest. You can’t switch overnight to a vegan diet, but you can remove beef one week, then pork the next and so on. In order to keep doing the new habit, it needs to become a habit through progressive small goals implements. And don’t blame yourself for failing, just keep doing it the best you can.

  2. Two things that I’ve helped me maintain certain habits:

    (1) For habits that seem to be working well, I try to improve upon them ever so slightly to not lose momentum, especially as circumstances change and pose new challenges. For example, I started eating a much healthier breakfast, and it wasn’t too hard in the morning during the summer when my two young boys didn’t have to be dropped off at school. Once school started, one thing I started doing was setting up all the ingredients, bowls, and utensils I needed on the kitchen counter the night before, at the same time I’m preparing all of our lunches for the next day anyways, so that I didn’t skip a beat while trying to get the kids ready for school (e.g., not sacrificing my breakfast in the morning just because I have a two-year-old throwing a tantrum over what color socks he wants to wear). So I’ve had to adjust and modify the way I maintain my habit slightly for changing circumstances, but I don’t completely fall off the wagon.

    (2) For habits where I DO fall off the wagon or start to, I try to make it easy to get back on track without dumping the habit entirely, by doing the absolute minimum necessary to keep the habit going. For example, I keep a time diary during work, and normally record brief but detailed comments and a 4-point “score” to help me track my performance for each task/time period. Sometimes I get really busy and simply cannot or forget to record my activities in my time diary. So instead of giving up entirely, I just record what I did in just a few words and the time I took to do it – no additional comments. This way I at least have a decently accurate record when I have to fill out my work’s formal time sheet and can easily get back to recording more comments as my time and attention come back.

  3. I’m really enjoying these videos. Informative, well-produced, and entertaining. Usually I ignore videos on other sites, but these are worth watching. Thank you!

  4. Great video Ramit! I really like the idea of putting reminders to check your systems in an automated calendar. I do similar things with my business and it has worked very well, I’m definitely going to have to try to implement that in my personal life as well!

  5. Once I start a new habit, I keep doing it by putting weekly reminders on my calendar. If life gets in the way, as it often does, I do not beat myself up for “missing” doing the habit for however long. I just start it back up again, with no recriminations, the next time I come to the reminder on my calendar. I’ve found that beating myself up for missing the habit makes it harder to re-start the habit, for whatever reason.

  6. I agree to starting small. What helps me keeping a habit ist that I only start one if I am willing to start it immediately and am willing to commit to it for one year. Then I say to myself: I will do XX for one year no matter what and THEN (not earlier) I will start to question if I like it or not. So I keep myself away from “being unsure” or asking myself daily it I am in the mood for doing XX. Developing and keeping a habit is hard in the beginning, but it gets worse if you additionally doubt it. What I also found useful is to make a habit a daily habit. So do not work out x times weekly but daily, in smaller amounts (e.g 15 or 30 minutes). You will be surprised how effective and easy and fun this is.

  7. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is a great read for diving deeper into understanding and changing habits. Overall, great video.

  8. I think it would be interesting to study why some people are able to easily maintain certain habits while others are not.

    For example, flossing seems like the easiest thing in the world for me. I keep floss right next to my bed, and flossing takes me a couple of minutes before I go to sleep. While I floss, I am relaxing in my cozy bed. I think that newbie flossers feel like they need to stand in front of the mirror in the bathroom in an uncomfortable hunched over position. That makes their entire process painful, while my process is relaxing.

    • Just curious: My dentist told me to 1) floss for material between your teeth, 2) rinse, 3) brush your teeth and/or tongue to remove any remaining materials, and 4) rinse (with or without mouthwash). This would make flossing in bed okay, except then I’d still have to run to the nearest sink to complete the routine. Did my dentist give me bad info? And don’t you end up with bits of stuff from between your teeth on the bedding, necessitating extra laundry?

    • Susan -

      I personally think your dentist’s recommended routine is not good. Here is what I do and why -

      1. Brush teeth & tongue
      2. Rinse
      3. Floss

      By the time I have completed steps 1 and 2 there are no real bits of stuff between my teeth. If there are some bits on occasion, they really are insignificant and I just swallow them. Nothing gets on my bedding for sure.

      I believe that if you floss before brushing your teeth you are actually not getting the most out of flossing. You end up expending a lot of energy on food pieces that would naturally come out while brushing. If you floss after brushing, you can really scrape the floss against the side of your teeth to get rid of more microscopic formations. Also, another key reason for flossing is gum health and getting rid of bacteria. Just because pieces of food are not coming out does not mean that flossing is not beneficial.

      By the way, I have no dental training, but I have no cavities and my dentist always compliments my oral hygiene:)

  9. Hey Ramit, great question. Well, my answer will be one a lot of others have come up with. Think about what will happen if you don’t floss or workout regularly. Or eat a nutritious diet. Bad health, loss of teeth and crappy gums
    and lovely brown teeth.

    If that doesn’t change your habits I can’t help you. There is no such thing as momentum either. I don’t believe that. Flossing, Working Out and eating right are things you do daily as isolated activities. If that makes sense.

    The same can be said for being in business or work. Do one thing daily to get you to your goal of more cash! Don’t do a bunch of stuff or spend hours doing something. Chances are you’ll quit. Take golfers who putt for practice for 45 minutes a day. Most of you will quit after a couple weeks or a month.

    Keep putting sessions to 10 or 15 minutes a day, 3 times a week. You’ll improve and stick to the game plan.

    Sorry, I got off topic a bit.

    I hope that helps some of your readers, Ramit.

    Mark G

  10. If you discontinue a habit because you are just simply forgetting to do it, that is one thing. If you discontinue a habit because you just don’t want to do it, then you’re facing an entirely different problem and should examine your motivation for taking up that habit in the first place.

  11. Right on, Paul. I just read Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit and can’t recommend it enough for anyone who seriously wants to change a habit. What was most enlightening to me was understanding the basic cycle of a habit – the cue, the routine, and the reward. All habits that we currently have or want to build need to these elements built.

    I floss every day because I’ve established a cue (seeing the floss next to my vitamin bottle), a routine (I floss after I take my vitamin each morning), and a reward (I know it makes my gums healthy and gets my dentist off my back). Your cue, routine and reward could be something completely different.

    If you the basic cycle isn’t working for you, I would identify barriers and come up with ways to get around them – do you hate the way floss feels? Maybe try a different brand. Are you in too much of a rush to get out the door in the morning? Do it before you go to bed.

  12. I’m really anal when it comes to brushing my teeth and flossing, I just go nuts if I don’t do it. So my suggestion of becoming really paranoid about your dental health is probably not something you can just learn.

    I love the idea of a quarterly review. I’ve also done calendars where I check off the number of times I’ve exercised in a month, and not being able to check off a day makes me work out even when I’m tired. I usually end up feeling much better afterward anyway.

    Other systems that might work for habits… I think scheduling is good. Putting reminders. And remembering why you want to do these things in the first place, so you’re not feeling like it’s a chore.

  13. I keep my habits by talking about my successes with others. This reinforces my positive attitude about my achievements while showing others that they can over come their obstacles too.

  14. Ramit –

    I love all your posts on behavioral change, but I notice your posts on systems and habits skew toward creating new (good) behaviors as opposed to stopping existing (bad) behaviors.

    I’d love to get your take on how one stops an existing behavior.

    Perhaps one can just re-frame the existing behavior in terms of a new behavior, but what are the mechanics of that?

    A post on ending negative behaviors would be awesome.

  15. I think going cold turkey on a habit, one which shocks your system into doing something it hasn’t done before works better than gradually easing into a routine. Maybe it works better for right brainers?? IDK, it works for me. When I quit smoking, I just quit. $10 pack of Marlboro lights in the trash (purchased at Grand Central Station on way to London via Newark airport). Went vegan in one day. I was in the hospital for 7 days, 5 of which were w/ out food and water due to a severe case of pancreatitis. Since the assumption was my gallbladder and its main job was processing fats, I quit ALL animal and all fats. I lost 70 lbs in 9 months. I have switched to a vegetarian (no meat, but dairy, eggs, occasional fish). Keys in the bowl was much different. I was so tired of looking for my keys that I just grabbed a coffee mug and put it on the first surface I saw when I walked in the door. It has since been replaced by a cute bowl, nonetheless it has saved me so much frustration!! My problem right now is working out consistently and without the boredom of circuit training or without a buddy.

  16. Sometimes it helps to take things one day at a time. I started running 4-5 times a week, when I wasn’t running at all before. I just focused on one day at a time. I told myself that I would run “today” without thinking about all the other days. Now I am always running. I can even run in the morning and go to dance class at night, which I didn’t think I could do!

  17. As as air traffic controller, I regularly see how a small change of direction, projected over a significant time or distance, makes an enormous difference in the eventual position of an aircraft. When I underrate the potential of a small behavioural change, i try to remind myself of this principle.

  18. I did workout at home for 2 months then stopped. When I look back for the reason why did I stopped it was because I get a house full of people (family) at time and didn’t have time or place to do it anymore.
    So, what I’m planing to do is to start again using my system from before:
    wake up early in the morning, do it as first thing then focus on my other obligations. Since it is easier for me to follow my progress that way, I’m going to start again from 1th of October again and put marks on my calendar for each day I do it.

  19. Thanks for the tip. I’m not good at multitasking a.k.a. I’m great at focusing! :) even though I use Trello to manage my todo lists, I don’t have a good way of managing repetitive tasks. This simple solution seems perfect. I’m going to set up my reminders now!

  20. Flossing is an awesome example, because it’s simple and quick to do, but so easy to punt because I don’t feel like it, and there’s not really any immediate consequences of not doing it.

    I succeeded at maintaining my flossing habit, because I found (1) a very specific goal that I wanted so badly it outweighed my laziness, and (2) a concrete and immediate effect that rewarded me for my habit.

    The very specific goal that I focused on every time I was tempted to skip flossing was this: I never flossed before, but I started flossing every day after my dental implant surgery. I was prescribed 6 weeks of this mouthwash that I know stains my teeth brown, I had a job interview 1 week after surgery, and I was super self-conscious about having janky discolored teeth. My doctor told me that flossing would minimize the staining, because it’s the plaque that gets stained. Done – bonus when the flossing actually worked.

    The concrete and immediate reward was this: Turns out that I actually found something enjoyable about flossing. I found pleasure in every instance of dislodging a blob of plaque, then regarding it with an “Ew!”, then feeling relief that this repulsive crud could have remained in my teeth if not for flossing. This weird little reward is what keeps me flossing months after the risk of staining has passed.

    The key must be focusing on an important goal, and finding some reward for doing the habit. Similar to what I read in the Charles Duhigg book The Power of Habit.

  21. Chris Gillebeau has a good post on how to conduct your own annual reviews. http://chrisguillebeau.com/3×5/how-to-conduct-your-own-annual-review/

  22. I was always a sporadic exerciser, going to a yoga studio/gym/rock climbing when the mood strikes, which can be 3 times/month or once in 6 months. After no longer properly fitting into anything in my closet, I figured it was time to regularly exercise.

    First I got to the bottom of what kept any exercise from sticking as a routine. The biggest issue was inconvenience. If it took 15-20 min to commute to the gym, 40 min working out, 15 min showering, another 15-20 min to commute back — it was easy to feel too lazy to leave the house. I started doing intense 15-20 min workouts in my living room. The minor time commitment and convenient location didn’t feel like it ate up my time and was easy to maintain.

    Another issue was creating reminders to make it a routine. I turned my exercises into tasks on my calender 4 times/week to be checked off each day after completion. I found myself compelled to workout even if I wasn’t in the mood, just to check that task off for the day. Sometimes I worked out 5 times/week just out of habit.

    If I skipped a workout, it wasn’t a big deal. Instead that exercise/task would be moved to another day or all exercises/tasks shifted down a day. This made it easy to maintain the habit by allowing some built-in flexibility.

    After 6 months of regularly exercising in my living room, I’ve lost 15 lbs, have better posture, am less exhausted, and for the first time can see some ab definition.

  23. Great video Ramit, and I’m liking the “Stepford Wives” style of the soundtrack!
    I’ve added a once a quarter calendar event to check up on my behaviour-building, and I’ve added into each of those one thing that’s been on my someday/maybe list for a while.

  24. Great tips Ramit, when i wanted to be consistent on something, i put it on my phone calendar and set an alarm so that i get reminded every time at the exact hour. Let say, i want to get up every 6 AM and brush my teeth and do a little workout, or I wanted to walk my dog every 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Since my phone is the closest gadget possible to me, i use it as my most effective tool to get things consistent.

    PAM

  25. I have noticed that even falling off the wagon with a habit, it’s very easy to get back into it – far easier than creating a new one.

  26. [...] - Ramit Sethi – How To Change a Bad Habit [...]

  27. It’s definitely a challenge to break bad habits and start good habits as you get older. I like the idea of a daily reminder to do a new habit or break an old bad habit. Even if I don’t start the new habit the first few times, the constant reminder will encourage me to stop procrastinating and just do it.

    Nice video!

    Sally Stretton

    • Your correct Sally it is very difficult task of changing habits. Whether it is good or bad once it gets envolved in your routine, very tough to change or stop those habbits.

  28. [...] pochodzi z e-booka Ramita Sethi „15 Life Hacks” Cancel [...]

  29. Must agree with Charles Duhigg’s work. I think Ramit’s analysis of barriers is also key. When I wanted to stop my cookie habit, I just put up significant barriers, like having zero cash on hand, and no ATM cards. I’d have one credit card, but the bakery has a $5 min. Once I found other things to fill the void left behind by my missing cookie, it was then safe to bring cash again. I can’t even remember the last time I bought something from that bakery, it has totally slipped my mind.

  30. I have an excruciating time finishing things – it is almost physically painful because I know I should do X, but spend time doing anything but X.
    The only thing that I’ve found that works up to now is allowing myself 1 real day off and imposing a schedule: like today Friday, I’ve allowed as day-off and will finish my master’s thesis (I literally have less than 20 corrections (spelling, a few easy add-ons and cartographic + bibliography corrections that are no-brainers to do) only left to do, but feel like I’m ‘frozen’ and don’t finish it). Tomorrow, I have an 8am start appointment to finish.
    I notice that I need to do things in the morning.
    I will try the Seinfeld suggestion about putting an X on the calendar to see if that helps me w/another job I’ve got to finish.

    Any other suggestions would be appreciated – I still haven’t found a system that works.

    What about you? Once you start a habit, how do you KEEP doing it? Leave a comment below.

  31. [...] routine to effect larger, permanent habits. “Want to start flossing? Stanford researcher, B.J. Fogg found the best way is to commit only to flossing one [...]