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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

How to Start (and Keep) a Healthy Habit

It's almost that time of year. Everyone you know will soon be hitting the gym, smiling while eating broccoli, or crushing out a last cigarette. For some, the gym really will become a new part of life, and that really will be the last cigarette they smoke. But most of us have probably experienced the letdown—perhaps even self-loathing—of failing to stick to a New Year's resolution.

I can't promise the advice I've collected will help—anyone who knows me would laugh hysterically at the idea of me guiding anyone toward successful habit formation—but there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success and make sure your resolutions become more than just that.

Updated December 2022: I've added some thoughts pulled from a recent rereading of David Allen's Getting Things Done.

Forget Goals. You Want Systems

The first and most important part of changing something in your life is to forget the resolutions and forget the goals. Think instead of creating a system that allows you to do what you want to do.

This advice is something I picked up from James Clear's book Atomic Habits ($12 on Amazon). If you find this article whets your appetite for a deeper dive into how you can create better habits, Clear's book is a great next step. It has plenty of suggestions about how to set up systems that work for you and help build the habits you want.

Common sense can take you a long way. As WIRED associate editor Adrienne So says, “reduce friction wherever you can.” Make it easier to go for a run by keeping your shoes by the door. Make it easier to eat healthier by keeping fruit on the counter. As So says: “It's easier to work out every day if you've prepped everything beforehand. Then you can run into the basement and do a 30-min Peloton strength video in 32 mins, instead of spending another 20 minutes looking for a clean sports bra.”

It also helps to be honest with yourself about yourself. For example, while some people might run downstairs and actually do a Peloton video, even that seemingly simple act presents enough friction to me that I'd never actually do it. This is why, instead of getting into Peloton, I have picked an activity with even less friction: body weight exercises. My body is always there, ready to go. I don't have to go anywhere or find anything. I just start exercising.

Which is to say, if you have to rely on the power of your iron will, just gritting your teeth and toughing it out, you're unlikely to turn it into a habit. That doesn't mean there won't be moments when whatever you're doing isn't be hard, but it shouldn't be hard to start.

Progress Incrementally

Wired senior editor Michael Calore suggests the app Couch to 5K to anyone who wants to build a running habit. It's a great app; stick with the personal trainer voices to keep you motivated. But you know what it won't have you do? Run a 5K on the first day you use it.

This goes along with the previous suggestion to ditch the goals. It takes a while to develop the strength and stamina to run 5 kilometers. If you're going to be disappointed every time you don't run 5K, that's not going to make you want to keep running.

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The far better, and more encouraging, plan is to run a little bit more today than you did yesterday. No matter what your system is, do a little bit more than last time, even if it's only a tiny bit more. Read 21 pages instead of 20 pages, walk for 11 minutes instead of 10, and so on. Incremental progress is the goal.

Incremental progress is part of the reason I don't take days off from new habits and I recommend you don't either, at least for the first 90 days. Your body could benefit from rest days if your habit is exercise-related, but if your new habit doesn't require physical exertion, don't stop for the first 90 days. Depending on which study you want to cite, it takes anywhere between 60 to 243 days to build a new habit. I've had good luck with about 90, and strongly recommend you go at least that long on your first try.

On the internet of yore, there was an apocryphal story about Jerry Seinfeld supposedly giving advice to software developer and would-be comedian Brad Isaac. Isaac asked him if he had any tips on becoming a comic. Seinfeld's answer amounts to, well, build a habit of writing jokes.

That's fairly obvious, but Seinfeld had a technique. He reportedly told Isaac to get a big wall calendar and said every time he sat down and did the work, he should make a big X over that day. “After a few days, you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

Even if it's apocryphal, it's still excellent advice. It also sounds like something a Seinfeld character would say.

Reduce Friction Even More

One of the reasons we have trouble changing our habits is that we're highly emotionally invested in the habits we have. I like doing nothing in the morning. I don't want to read/workout/cook/etc. Overcoming this inertia and resistance to change is difficult, especially since this resistance is often not entirely conscious. 

This is partly why I have avoided suggestions about stopping habits you don't like (grab Clear's book if you're interested in stopping a bad habit; he has plenty of good advice on that score) and focused on creating new habits—there's generally less emotional baggage.

But what if you could reduce your emotional baggage? That way, you could stop focusing on specific habits and train your will instead. This is a common theme in older texts ranging from Catholic meditation guides to the New Thought Movement of the early 20th century. 

The will is like a muscle, and you need to build it up through strength training. I've seen countless versions of this exercise, but they all go something like this: Sit down in a chair facing a wall. Pick a spot on the wall. Get up out of chair and go touch the spot in the wall. Return to the chair and sit down again. Rinse and repeat. Most books tell you to start out doing this 10 times and work your way up from there.

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The idea is to will yourself to do something, but something you have no emotional investment in. This builds up a fortitude of the will that you can then apply to things you are emotionally invested in.

Out With the Old

This is the time of year when we focus on new beginnings (natch), but it's also worth spending some time reevaluating old commitments to see if you're still actually committed to them. This is one of the most useful lessons I took from David Allen's organizational classic Getting Things Done ($18, Amazon). Allen refers to everything you have to do, or want to do, as an “open loop.” Open loops, no matter how small, take up some space in our brain. That's space that you can't use for other things. So any time you can close one of those loops you get a little bit of energy back. As anyone who has done the exercises in Allen's book can tell you, there really is something very energizing about clearing your mind of all those loops (not only by doing them, but more importantly by making a decision about what to do with them).

This applies not just to things you have to do but also things you think you want to do. Maybe you think you should learn Spanish, but you haven't done anything to actually learn Spanish. Admitting that you aren't actually committed to the idea enough to do the work of learning Spanish can help close that loop. And letting go of that feeling that you should learn Spanish just might be the thing that frees up your mind enough that you decide to take up paddle boarding on a whim. The point is that the new year isn't just a time for starting something new, it's a time for letting go of the things from that past that are no longer serving you.

In many ways this is the antidote to that ever-so-popular slogan, “just do it.” Just do it implies not thinking about it, not deciding whether what you're about to do is what you really want to do or should do. Maybe don't just do it. Maybe spend some time remembering why you wanted to do it in the first place, and if those reasons no longer resonate with you, just don't do it.

If you like this idea, I highly recommend getting Allen's book. It goes into much more detail on this idea and has some practical means of letting go while still keeping track of those things in case you do decide, years from now, when you're paddle boarding through the Sea of Cortez, that now you really do want to learn Spanish and are willing to do the work.

Do the Work

As one of my writing professors used to say, to be a writer you have to park your butt in a chair and actually write. To be a yogi, you have to do yoga. To run, you have to run. There's no easy way around it. You have to put on your grown-up pants and do the work.

However, on the flip side, as Clear points out early on in Atomic Habits, the way to change who you are is to change what you do. “Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.” Each time you do the work, you become the future self you want to be.

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