Starting a new habit is hard. But you can make it easy if you start with a bad habit that’s already in place.
The worst habit we all seem to have is that we don’t have one at all: daily exercise.
We know how much this one habit can make us healthy in mind and body, even so, we find it the hardest to build a daily exercise habit that lasts.
To be clear, by exercise, we mean planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful physical activity.
Don’t bring your case of counting sparrows as exercise. Sparrows, by the way, spend their days exercising by hopping on the ground or flying through the branches in search of food.
Science says bad is stronger than good, so you pick up the bad habits fast. But never seem to get around to starting a good habit.
Even more difficult is getting rid of a bad habit. What feels particularly awful is when all your efforts to break a bad habit fail because you did not know the proven ways to do so.
So, how do we make it easy to start a new habit?
5 Ways To Start A New Habit, Made Easy
A habit does not form overnight or even in a week; it takes 6 to 10 weeks. The three basic processes that make it happen are:
- The goal is to get accustomed to the new routine so much so that it becomes automatic.
- Building a routine that is automatic is more about overcoming our resistance to a new habit.
- Overcoming our resistance is mostly about turning up to perform the habit, even if for 3 minutes.
You develop an exercise habit by going to the gym and exercising for 3 minutes every day. You develop a meditation habit by showing up for 1 minute of mindful meditation.
Here are 5 specific steps you can use to develop any habit:
1. Set Off The X Effect
Let’s unwrap the intrigue around the X Effect Method of Completing Goals. There’s even a Reddit thread on it.
It essentially says you draw a 7×7 grid of 49 squares on a card, label it for a new habit, and keep putting a red X (or a checkmark or a circle) on each square for each day you complete it.
An easier version is to take a calendar and mark the dates with an X or a checkmark or a circle on those dates you did the habit. See the chain of Xs from my calendar below, with the dates 12, 13, and 14 August as the days I broke the chain.
Now what this does is create a mild tension in your mind to keep that chain from breaking. Any time you see a date that broke the chain, it makes you visibly aware that you have missed that date with your habit. And now, you will have to restart building a new chain.
That’s all there is to it: make X marks on calendar dates. The visual cues make you more determined to keep your habit going.
A little trick is to fill in some intentional breaks, like weekends, in your calendar. You may blank out the weekend dates at the start.
And now, let’s go deeper.
2. Find A Strong Cue
Research suggests most regular exercisers have a built-in specific mechanism to make them work out daily. Their exercise habit gets triggered by a particular cue.
If you plug into our favorite workout music the first thing on getting up in the morning, it would make us leave the house to go to the park or the gym without any great deal of thought.
If your dog learned (the Pavlovian way) to get “hyper” and pull you out of bed because it heard the 7:30 am alarm, then that’s a great cue to go take a walk.
Dr. Alison Phillips, professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and her team call this an “instigation habit.”
For people who already have cues to exercise, details are not something they spend too much of their time on. They do not deliberate on the upsides of exercising on a gloomy day.
Rather, because of the cue, it is like a pre-programmed decision that sets off instantaneously.
The stronger the instigation or cue, the greater the chances you will get back to your workout day after day.
Researchers found the sole factor that accurately hinted how good you are going to be at exercising regularly over the long term was how strong your instigation habit was.
3. Start Micro-Habits
Focus on one small piece of the entire act. Take one bite of the whole pie.
Start with a bite-sized goal. It works like this. If you have the ultimate goal of half-hour sprints a day, you begin by going to the park and spending barely 5 minutes taking a walk. That’s all.
Now, if 5 minutes seem too long, make it a 2-minute walk in the park. Begin there.
Keep doing those 2-minute walks every day till you get convinced it would not hurt too much to increase it to 3 minutes.
Make it so much of a mini-workout (or even a micro-workout), so you can’t wimp out.
Remember, building an exercise habit is never an all-or-nothing process.
Martin Gibala, a kinesiologist at McMaster University, devised a micro-workout with three 20-second rounds.
It is an exhausting exercise routine, with intermittent 3-minute recoveries (called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT), against the typical 50-minutes-at-a-time approach, to compare the health benefits.
Both workout routines ( the 3-minute one and the 50-minute one) produced similar results in improving heart function and blood-sugar levels.
“If you’re willing and able to push hard, you can get away with surprisingly little exercise,” Gibala said.
According to muscle physiology researcher Dr. Keith Baar, HIIT should be done early in the day, followed by a recovery period of at least 3 hours.
There’s another way of looking at it. We call it adaptation. Adaptation is the evolutionary process by which a living thing becomes better able to live in its habitat.
4. Watch Your Routine
Do you have a morning routine?
A new habit can begin from there. Start by tracking your morning routine. Watch out if there are any unhelpful or time-wasting habits built into your mornings.
Be warned: Once you realize you spend 25 minutes every morning wading knee-deep through the freshwater stream of social media, you might end up feeling it has not been quite as life-changing as you thought.
Why have you been doing this useless thing for so many years?
See the pattern up close. Once you spot the nasty habit, it will be easier to pull out the wiggly worm and put it away.
But really, developing a habit is more than breaking a useless or harmful habit. The best way to break it is to replace it with a good one over time.
Charles Duhigg, the author of Smarter, Faster, Better, suggests we must replace our bad habits with good ones through repetitive actions.
The mini-changes over days lead to big rewards in personal and professional life.
Why morning, you may ask?
Because mornings are the best times to stay on track with an exercise regime for city-bred guys like us. The tasks demanding your attention drain your energy faster than you know.
Once our white-collared workday begins, it is mayhem.
Exercising in the mornings is like training for the fight before the show begins. Your willpower is much stronger in the morning than at any time later in the day.
Find out how you can increase your willpower with these proven methods.
5. Begin A Ritual
Begin a ritual instead of trying to focus on forming a habit. Habits do not work; rituals do.
Habits are spontaneous behaviors. All habits begin with a decision and ultimately become automatic behavior.
Rituals are the opposite of habits. A ritual requires intention, attention, and engagement. It is never automatic.
Thanh Pham, Founder and Managing Director of Asian Efficiency, explains why rituals fare better than habits.
Pham offers an elegant definition of a ritual: ultra-specific step-by-step instructions that are easily repeatable and help you get a specific outcome.
Simplified, when you do an activity with awareness and mindfulness, you’re carrying out a ritual. As you approach your exercise with a ritualistic intent, it becomes a habit in time. So, set your mind to start with a ritual.
Let’s explore this with an example.
You wake up, get out of your bed, and consciously put on your running shoes instead of slippers. That’s the first step. Now, tell yourself you can’t take those shoes off until you’ve walked around the block for the day.
If you do this ritual for enough days, it becomes a habit. Remember, sleeping a full 8-hour-night is essential for our best performance in almost everything.
You can’t set a habit from day one. You always have to start with a ritual, which might become a habit if you keep repeating it for enough days.
- Taking out time for 15 minutes of meditation tomorrow morning, instead of scrolling through your social media feed, is a ritual.
- Going for a 3-minute chair yoga practice whenever you might be craving a smoke today, is a ritual.
And each of these can become a habit when you give it enough time and practice.
So, don’t attempt to create happy habits at the outset. Instead, aim to start with little rituals that make you happy. In time, they’ll get ingrained as habits.
• Habits are unconscious acts, but before they can be unconsciously triggered, they must first go through ritualistic actions.
How long does it take to form a good habit?
It takes approximately 66 days to form a habit. However, that figure is an oversimplification because habit formation depends on many factors, including the ease of routine, availability of cues, frequency of routine, emotional attachment to reward, and, of course, our environment.
What’s the best way to start a new habit?
The best way to start a new habit is to start with rituals. Rituals, or ritualistic activities, are repetitive actions that we undertake every day with full intention and attention. Science suggests that rituals are far easier to build into our busy daily schedule.
Is there a difference between a habit and a ritual?
Yes. A habit is an action that does not require exclusive attention. It happens on autopilot, with no conscious involvement. All habits are ultimately automatic, spontaneous behaviors that do not require much effort.
While a ritual is an act that requires intention, attention, and engagement. It’s never automatic and can take immense effort.
1. Munching snacks while watching movies, in the theater, or on a laptop, is a habit.
2. Going to bed in your jogging gear so you have to go jogging in the morning, is a ritual.
To put it simply, rituals are actions that are performed with focused attention, while habits are automatic acts that do not require attention.
If our habits are good, we have a fulfilling life. If not, we must change them for better ones, starting today.
Because, if we do not adopt good habits while we still can, our negative habits will crumble our willpower and trap us into an automatically harmful lifestyle loop.
• • •
- 7 Habits of The Happy & Rich (How To Be Financially Happy)
- 7 Steps From Psychology To Break/Build Any Habit
- 5 Habits of Happiness (Backed By Real Research)
• • •
Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental well-being, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).
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