How to form a new habit

Over the past year or so, I’ve formed many new habits. Some formed naturally; others took effort. I’m particularly pleased that I now meditate every weekday and that habit certainly took effort.

For those habits that don’t come naturally, I’ve compiled some tips on habit forming. I used these recently to start my meditation practice and I’m using them now to form my newest habit.

1. Get immediate feedback

I like to meditate using a guided meditation app. The one I use is Andy Puddicombe’s Headspace. Andy has a soothing voice and frequently reminds me that it’s okay if focusing on my breath is difficult.

Headspace also gives me immediate feedback: the app tracks how many days in a row I’ve meditated.

For instance, after my Wednesday meditation session, Headspace will point out that I’m on a three-day streak. It’s just a small text bubble on my phone, but it motivates me. I want to see that bubble again the next day, celebrating my four-day streak.

2. Schedule your new habit early in your day

There are two reasons this works. First, your willpower is highest in the morning. It depletes as the day goes on, when you use it to deal with life.

Second, when you follow through with your habit-in-the-making early in the day, you can be proud of yourself for the remainder of that day. Your pride will encourage you to continue the habit.

3. Don’t work on your new habit at the expense of sleep

Too many people advise you to get up early to do something that is otherwise a good idea, such as working out or studying. Unfortunately, losing sleep to form your new habit is self-defeating.

When I’ve slept poorly, I find it much more difficult to sit down to meditate and, while sitting, to focus on my breath. And in fact, everything is more difficult when you don’t get enough sleep.

In particular, when you don’t sleep enough, you’ll have less willpower. So schedule your new habit early in your day (before doing too many other things) but not necessarily early in the day (say, at 5 a.m.) unless you’re willing to go sleep earlier too.

4. Start small

Let’s say you eventually want to meditate for 30 minutes a day. Should you try to sit down for 30 minutes from day one? No.

When I began to meditate, I did so without guidance and I scheduled ten-minute sessions. Frankly, that was too ambitious.

I couldn’t stop thinking, “Has it really not been ten minutes yet?” If you want to learn to meditate without guidance, start with three- or five-minute sessions instead. Once you can complete those consistently, add a minute or two to your practice.

An alternative is to break your practice up in smaller chunks. Andy Puddicombe, the Headspace narrator, chimes in more frequently in the first few days of practice. That way, sitting for a total of ten minutes on day one is easier.

When you start small—in this case, with shorter sessions—you are more likely to complete each session. You’ll feel good about completing your sessions, which will motivate you to continue.

Start small, then work your way up. And schedule your increases to avoid having to decide in the moment how big or small you’ll make your practice today.

5. Tell others about your new habit

Do this even when your new habit is still forming. I’ve mentioned my meditation habit often on my blog, for instance, and I’ve mentioned it to friends and family. It helps because other people might ask you about your new habit, reminding you to stick to it, and it also pressures you a bit.

Peer pressure can be helpful in small doses. You don’t want people to push you so hard that you’ll come to resent them, making you less likely to listen to them. But in the long run, you’ll thank a friend who pushes you through your resistance to working on your new habit.

6. Know what you’re giving up

Your new habit will take some time out of your day, even if it’s just a little bit of time. That’s time you cannot spend doing something else. If you meditate when you would otherwise mindlessly browse Reddit, you might accept that easily. But sometimes your new habit has a meaningful opportunity cost.

Perhaps the opportunity cost is not being able to read the newspaper in the morning. Maybe it is going to sleep 15 minutes earlier, or getting to work a little later. Each of these options would be difficult. Decide in advance what you will give up to accommodate your new habit, to make it easier to accept the cost in the moment.

My newest habit

The new habit I am forming now is writing daily at a set time. Every weekday for four weeks, I will try to write from 8:30 a.m. to at least 10:00 a.m. And I’m using all these tips to make my new habit a success:

I’m writing blog posts, so I can get immediate feedback when I publish a post. I start at 8:30 a.m., soon after I wake up. I know what I’m giving up—being able to sleep in—and I am going to bed earlier to compensate. I am also starting small: eventually I’d like to write for four hours a day, but I want to consistently hit one-and-a-half hours to begin with. And finally, I’m telling you and others about my new daily writing habit.

I wish you luck in forming your new habit. And in case you wondered, my other top-two favorite habit is getting enough sleep.

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Posted by Peter

Here, Peter writes about whatever has caught his interest recently. Maybe he'll narrow down this blog's scope someday.

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