By Leo Babauta
I’ve long advocated starting very very small when creating new habits. Unfortunately, a lot of people pick tough habits, fail, and can’t understand why they don’t have any discipline. So in this article, we’ll look at habits you shouldn’t choose when learning to create habits.
The reason you shouldn’t choose these habits is that they’re more difficult. When you learn a skill — and forming habits is definitely a skill — you start with the easy version of that skill, not the hard version. When you learn to ski, you go on the beginner’s slope, not the advanced slope, or you’ll break your neck. When you learn carpentry, you learn to hammer nails and saw boards, not build a house on your first day — or the house will collapse.
So start with the easy stuff. Skip the hard stuff, for now. You’ll get to the advanced habit skills later.
Here’s the list, with brief explanations:
- Waking early — this is a difficult habit because 1) changing your body’s sleep patterns is very difficult, and lots of people fail to be consistent about waking early; and 2) the trigger is an alarm clock, which is not a natural trigger in your daily routine. If you do choose this habit for a 2nd or 3rd habit change (not your first one), do just 5-10 minutes earlier at first, then increase by 5-10 minutes as your body adjusts.
- Quitting a bad habit — whether it’s smoking or biting your nails or drinking or criticizing someone, quitting a bad habit is one of the most advanced habits there is. That’s because 1) there are usually multiple triggers instead of just one, and 2) you have strong urges to do the bad habit, and that’s tough to beat. It’s not impossible, but definitely not a beginner habit skill.
- Thinking habits — things like negative thinking, or anger, or positive thinking. The problem is that we’re often unaware of our thoughts, so it’s more difficult to change them. Not impossible by any means, but not the easiest of habit skills.
- Habits that take longer than 5 minutes. Some habits can’t be done in 5 minutes — if you’re revising a screenplay, for example, you might be able to just do 5 minutes, but if you have a deadline that won’t be enough, so you’ll want to do more — maybe 30 or 60 minutes. That’s not ideal for the first habit. Instead, choose to do some freewriting or write part of a blog post for 5 minutes.
- Habits with too frequent, or too infrequent triggers — the best trigger for your first few habits is exactly once a day, and one that is already in your daily routine. If you do a trigger many times throughout the day (like checking email), it’s hard to consistently remember to do the habit. If you do something only on weekends, or 2 or 3 times a week, that’s not often enough to build the habit in 4-6 weeks. It would take longer, and a very strong focus.
- Habits with inconsistent triggers — Some triggers are not regular at all, such as someone criticizing you — that might happen today, or it might not happen for a few days. If you aren’t sure if the trigger will happen exactly once every single day, don’t choose that trigger.
- Habits with triggers that aren’t already in your daily routine — let’s say you want to choose a trigger like “after I do yoga” but you don’t already do yoga every single day â€¦ that’s not a solid enough trigger for your new habit. If you want to set an alarm for your trigger, but that alarm doesn’t already go off every day, that’s not a good trigger. Then you’re basically creating two habits at once — setting the alarm, and doing the new habit.
- Habits you dislike doing — if you dislike running or meditation or mowing the lawn, don’t choose those for this first habit. Choose something you really enjoy doing, so there’s positive feedback built in. You can form the harder habits later, but for now, when you’re just starting out, make it very easy on yourself.
So what habits should you choose? Habits that are:
- tied to a trigger that already happens in your daily routine … once per day, exactly