By Leo Babauta

A couple days ago, you guys submitted some great questions on creating your new habit … and today I’d like to answer about half of them.

We’re going to focus on three main areas: choosing the habit (or changing the one you chose), creating or altering triggers, and reminders.

At the end, I have a couple extra tips on different topics.

One note: Some of your questions are on executing the habit or dealing with disruptions, which we’ll cover in the next couple weeks, or adding new habits or continuing after the month, which we’ll cover in the last week. So hang tight!

Let’s get into the questions.

Choosing or Changing the Habit

Q: I chose to eat one apple a day. Is it OK to alter the habit, e.g. if I eat one portion of fruit salad (usually on weekends) containing half an apple?

Leo: You’ll have to figure out what works best for you, but in general, it’s best to have the same exact trigger and action if you want to make it a habit. So if your trigger is “preparing my breakfast”, then visualize what action you will take that will be the habit: is it “putting an apple next to my cereal” or “cutting up an apple and adding it to other fruits for fruit salad”? Those are two different actions, and thus two different habits. Creating two habits at once is a more advanced habit skill, and not recommended for this month.

Q: I found choosing a habit was the hardest for two reasons: (1) there are so many things that I need to work on now, and (2) I’m realizing it’s not totally clear to me what a “habit” is (as opposed to a goal, or a skill, or a task, or an action). I’m new to Sea Change, and it seems like the titles of the monthly modules focus on a particular goal or skill set or category (which I initially perceived as a “habit”). So at first, the habit I can up with for December was “personal energy management” (sequencing my day so that I’m maximizing my energy rather than depleting it). As I created the plan, it involved a number of different tasks or actions throughout the day — deciding on my MITs, getting rid of unnecessary things on my to-do list, taking a break to re-energize or meditate or exercise or eat, etc. So the Personal Energy Management “habit” that I came up with was much bigger than things you listed the next day as sample “habits” to work on (drinking a glass of water or stretching for 5 minutes or flossing). While I understand that doing just one simple thing is the basis of building a habit (and it’s definitely more manageable and more likely to produce success), I guess those are things I tend to view as tasks or actions that are part of a larger “habit”. At the same time, I can see where those things would be defined as “habits” (if we do them regularly), and over time, when combined with other activities, would lead to a larger change. So I guess I have a couple of questions: How do we define “habits” and how do they differ from tasks or skills or goals? And what if we need to make a more dramatic or faster change due to circumstances (such as deadlines or health conditions that require immediate attention)?

Leo: Yes, it’s very difficult to choose when you want to create a whole bunch of habits right now. This is a letting go process that most of us have difficulty with, because choosing one thing means letting go of others — for now. So first … what I recommend is taking a longer view of things: are you trying to perfect your life right now, or do you want lasting improvement over the next 1-2 years? If you’re trying to do the first thing, I don’t have the method for you. My research has found that creating one small habit at a time is the most successful method. If you’re trying to create long-lasting success over a longer period, then you’re not really letting go of any of the habits you’re trying to create … you’re just spacing them out in a smart way. So it doesn’t matter which habit you pick, because you’ll get to all of them. Pick the easiest one.

How do we define a habit? It’s a specific action tied to a specific trigger: turn right (action) when you see the red house (trigger) that you’ve made automatic through repetition. If you want to do “personal energy management”, then you are trying to create a series of habits. This is where most people fail, because they don’t realize that their habit is actually a whole series of interrelated habits, and that they are creating all of those at once, suboptimally. I say do one action at a time: write out three MITs in the morning.

This definition of habits differs from tasks in that tasks are things you’re trying to get done, but not repeat regularly after a specific trigger. It’s different from goals in that a goal usually requires a series of tasks or habits to achieve over a long period. If you’re trying to achieve a goal, ask what habits can be created to reach that goal.

Finally, if you need to make a dramatic change because of an urgent situation … you’ll need really strong motivation and accountability. Yes, define five habits you’re going to create right now, but have a coach who will make sure you’re doing them. Put everything else in your life aside as you focus on these urgent habits. Honestly, I don’t think most people can make them last for a long time, and most people don’t need to create five at once. If you have more than five months to live, you can create one at a time.

Q: My new habit is morning yoga. You say only 2 or 3 poses but I started with a series of 8 poses for 6 minutes. It’s not correct? I made it in the morning but in the weekend I’m thinking of doing yoga in other hour because usually Saturday and Sunday I run in the morning: is this possible or will I break the habit?

Leo: I recommend doing it for only 1-2 minutes. I know 6 minutes sounds doable, but remember that we’re focusing on the skill of habit creation here, not doing the ideal yoga routine. The skill is better practiced with something that will only take a minute or two at first.

Also, don’t change your routine on the weekends. It’s not the best way to form a habit. I recommend doing your yoga for 2 minutes, then going on your run.

Q: I want to try and tidy my house which is very untidy. I need to make an effort to do something towards it every day I don’t feel that choosing a simple habit (e.g. stretching) is the answer for me because it does not address the real problem which is I want to tidy at least one room for Christmas. I just feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start but I am determined to work on it, but it is difficult. Any advice would be gratefully received.

Leo: Work for two minutes a day tidying up the room. Yes, that’s too short … you can do a minute or two longer if you really feel like it, but have a minimum of two minutes. This will conquer the overwhelming feeling, and will help you learn about the skill of creating habits. Once you’ve made a dent in the room’s mess, it will be easier to do the rest on a weekend — which won’t be your habit, but will be a task/project that you want to complete by Christmas. Focus right now on the habit, not the project.

Q: My accountability team checks in that they have done their habit — I am checking in that I haven’t accomplished it and feel like a failure! My habit is to eat sitting down — I pick and lick and bite when I’m cooking or when I’m upset and need some care or comfort — I have a team and reminders and all that but still I have only won 1/3 days. I feel like the odd one on my team checking in that I haven’t done it and instead of learning it feels like failure — thoughts?

Leo: If you aren’t doing your habit this week, then it is too hard. Choose an easier habit: drink a glass of water, or eat a fruit or vegetable. Don’t try to break a bad habit (licking and picking at the food) this month, as that’s an advanced habit skill. Instead, focus on doing something new that isn’t displacing a bad habit. You’ll get to the bad habits later.

But also: don’t feel bad if you mess up, just see it as a sign that something needs to be adjusted. If you have to report on failure to your teammates, take that as a signal that you need to change something. In this case, you should choose a new habit and start on it tomorrow.

Creating Triggers

Q: How do you pick a trigger that works for your new habit? I’ve tried using my morning routine because it’s more consistent than time after work. It turns out, for instance, that the best time for me to meditate isn’t before I’m completely awake in the morning. If I try to fit it in later in the day, I’ve got too much else going on to do it consistently. Just curious what works for you.

Leo: Stick to morning meditation. You won’t do it very well, but that’s OK. You’ll get better at it with practice, and the key this month isn’t to meditate perfectly, but to learn about how to create the habit. All you have to do is sit down to meditate, and you can check off that day as a success.

Q: My chosen trigger is good if I’m only doing 2 minutes of exercise but it will be the wrong trigger when I’m exercising 20+ minutes. Should I choose a trigger for the ultimate goal of longer duration?

Leo: Don’t worry about the 20 minutes of exercise for now. Once you learn how to create the habit of exercise, you’ll be able to re-create it for another trigger. This month you’re just learning about the skill of habit creation, not worrying about long-term goals.

Q: Last night I had to work late and now it’s morning and I’m up but I have much less time than usual to get out the door than usual. This means that my routine has been condensed and my trigger was eliminated. How can I select a more stable trigger?

Leo: Yes, disruptions to schedules can disrupt triggers. There’s no perfect solution, because no matter what trigger you choose, there will always be disruptions. The key skills to learn are: 1) anticipation of disruptions, and 2) getting back on track after a disruption. We’ll learn more about those in the next two weeks. For now, just learn to be OK with disruptions, and let go of an idea of doing the habit perfectly.

Creating Reminders

Q: I find it difficult to create reminders, because my days are different, sometimes I work at home, sometimes elsewhere, sometimes I get up early, sometimes I get up late.

Leo: That means your trigger needs to be changed, if it’s different every day. The trigger should be the same event: what do you do when you first wake up? If it’s “use the bathroom”, then use that as your trigger. Put a physical reminder next to the bathroom, so you definitely won’t miss it. Don’t worry about needing to adjust your trigger — this is part of the habit creation process — learning about yourself and how habits best attach to your life.

Q: Are reminders only useful until the trigger becomes part of the routine? In other words, if a given trigger like waking up is good enough to invoke the habit naturally then there is no need for reminders though they help just in case.

Leo: Yes, the reminders become less and less necessary as the habit gets more and more automatic. The reminders are just a bridge to get you to the point of automaticity, but then the bridge isn’t needed.

Q: I am incredibly absent minded and have considered creating a small checklist on a 3×5 card and taping it somewhere (bathroom mirror?) to remind me of habits. What is your view on checklists?

Leo: The checklist is a reminder system, and if it works, that’s great! If you forget to check the checklist, then it’s not a good reminder. So try it, and adjust based on how it works.

Other Tips

Q: Over Christmas I’m going to be traveling a lot between mine and my girlfriend’s parents house, how do you keep up the habit when your triggers/reminders are linked to specific things in your house?

Leo: This is a habit skill called “anticipation”, and we’ll work on that soon. It’s a key skill, because there will always be disruptions like travel.

Q: What suggestions do you have for stumbling blocks along the way such as illness, work conflicts, or my personal one – contractors putting hard wood floors in my torn up house? I know there is always something, so you can’t wait for the perfect time to set a new habit, but how do you motivate yourself to keep pushing forward?

Leo: Expect the disruptions, and don’t try to do the habit perfectly. Consider it a success if you’re learning something about habits or about yourself. We’ll get to dealing with disruptions soon, so hang tight!

Q: I missed a day and got incredibly upset with myself for not being able to do such a simple habit. How do you keep motivated and not beat yourself up when you miss a day here and there. I was starting to enjoy seeing my consistent crosses on my calendar and now there’s a blank space. It really stands out and is a reminder to me that I missed a day.

Leo: This is good! You’re learning about a key habit skill: handling a missed day or two. When people beat themselves up, they often will stop doing the habit, because even thinking about it just makes them feel bad. Obviously that’s not a good situation — we need to keep going even when we miss. So how do we do that? We’ll talk about it in detail soon, but the key is to develop a learning mindset, and a flexible mindset. Learning mindset means you’re focused on learning, not on doing the habit perfectly. Flexible mindset means you don’t have a rigid idea of your habit that gets broken with a miss, but instead can adapt. More on this soon!