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I’ve been discussing habits a lot recently. It’s become incredibly apparent to me that it is habits that have been the reason that my previous attempts at improving my personal productivity have floundered. I need to build some good habits, but what are the best ways to do that?

Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out aka habits

I’ve dug into a lot of the research on psychology of habits. If you want to build a good habit, then keep reading.

Start with Small Habits and Build On Them

One of my favourite writers on Habits, Leo Babauta, suggests starting small and building from there. For instance, if you want to eat more healthy, then get into the habit of eating one piece of fruit a day. Once you have ingrained that into your daily routine, build it up to 2 pieces of fruit.

If you take on too much change in any one go, for instance by immediately changing all your unhealthy chocolate and crisps for apples and oranges, you will find it a struggle and you will reject it at the slightest obstacle. Whereas, if you switch out just one packet of crisps for an apple, you will slowly build a solid foundation for your healthier habit.

This builds on the theory of micro quotas and macro goals. We often tend to thing big and aspire to huge goals. However, these can often be intimidating elephants to eat! So break down the goal into smaller chunks. Goals and quotas are defined thus:

  • Goal – What you want to accomplish. For instance, you might want to write a book
  • Quota – This is the minimum amount of work that you need to get done each period in order to get it done.

So, for instance, you may want to write a book. Wow, that’s quite a big task. A typical book is about 80,000 words. However, if you can write 500 words a day, which should take you about 30 minutes, you will have written a book in under 6 months. When you look at it like that, its not as scary as you first think!

Also, by setting yourself a low commitment, often you will be motivated to carry on. For instance, I have recently been trying to build up my fitness by cycling. I have been building up my mileage on each trip following a knee injury. My last journey, I set myself a target of 10 miles. However, as I was approaching my 10 miles, I was feeling pretty good and that I could (and wanted to) do some more miles, so I took a detour and ended up doing 13 miles in total. I didn’t have to. If I had carried on and only completed 10 miles, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.

Similarly, I have set myself another goal of writing 1000 words a week, as I would like to develop my writing and communication skills. I quite regularly write far more than 1000 words for various websites and at work, but sometimes I’ll get busy and I will only do my minimum 1000 words.

The 21 Day Habit Myth

There is a common belief that you can form any habit in 21 days. Or sometimes 30 days. Numerous books spread this myth with titles such as “We Can Make You Rich/Thin/Pretty/Anything You Want to Be in 21 Days”. Their research often goes uncited as to where they get this mythical figure from.

Researchers from University College, London, conducted a study using 96 volunteers to study how long it took them to form a solid habit, with the final figures ranging between 18 to 254 days. The conclusion gleaned from that research is that the length of time it takes to build a habit depends on the individual. We aren’t all the same, so just as one productivity method won’t fit everyone, neither will every habit forming method.

Decide Why You Want to Form a Habit

You need a motivator and you should keep your motivation in mind regularly. The last thing you want is to end up just carrying out your habit for the habits sake.

For instance, if your goal is to build a business buying and selling antique widgets, you may then build a habit of going to widget markets every weekend. However, if the price of widgets drops significantly due to the market being flooded with new widgets, you need to re-align your motivation as to why you are going each week. It could be that you enjoy your widget collecting, which is fine, as long as you are aware of that. However, if you are still going because you have become robotic with your habit then you need to give yourself a kick.

Use Triggers For Building Your Habit

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Triggers can be a significant key for building habits. For instance, I bet the majority of us have a bed-time routine – lock windows and doors, turn lights downstairs off, put PJs on, wash face, brush teeth etc. Thinking in logical terms, this is an “If…. Then….” routine. For instance:

If Bedtime
Then lock windows and doors, turn lights off etc

The same could apply to habits you are trying to build. Have a look at what habit you want to build and what triggers would be good. For instance, I book my hours every morning at work, as soon as I boot up my computer:

If just booted up computer
Then book hours

This is a similar principal to¬†Pavlov’s Dog. A trigger incites a reaction, so we use that to our advantage in building a habit.

Recognising triggers can also be effective to stop you breaking habits. For instance

If I feel too tired to go out cycling
Then I will have a drink and some sugar and go for a shorter ride

Chances are that I will end up doing a longer ride. After all, the secret is to just get started.

Identify Obstacles

There is an interesting phenomenon known as the “What The Hell” effect. Basically a minor setback makes you think “Ah, what the hell, its not worth it”. These minor setbacks and frustrations can be habit killers and make you completely abandon ship.

Take for instance my cycling goal. At one point I was cycling once a week into work quite regularly. Then the cold weather started. And my bed was nice and warm. I still needed to make sure my tyres were pumped up, go and find my cycling clothes, prep my lunch and bag it up. So I rolled over and thought “Ah, what the hell, I can cycle tomorrow”. But I didn’t. I was just using all those minor details as an excuse.

If I had identified that as my “What the Hell” moment, I could have countered it by doing my prep work the night before. Then in the morning all I would have to do would be get up and put on my clothes. And so that’s what I do now.

So, hopefully I can use some of these tools to build my productivity habit.

What tools do you use to build habits?