3 Surprisingly Simple Things You Can Do Right Now to Build Better Habits

Building good habits can be difficult.

That’s especially true if you want to stick with them for the long-term. Thankfully, there are a few simple strategies that you can use to build better habits and break bad ones.

I’m not going to pretend like these ideas are the only way to build better habits — there are plenty of others out there — but these simple steps can help you make progress with most of the goals you have for your health, your work, and your life.

And with that in mind, here are 3 things that you can do right now to build better habits.

1. Start with a habit that is so easy you can’t say no.

The most important part of building a new habit is staying consistent. It doesn’t matter how well you perform on any individual day. Sustained effort is what makes the real difference.

For that reason, when you start a new habit it should be so easy that you can’t say no to it. In fact, when starting a new behavior is should be so easy that it’s almost laughable.

  • Want to build an exercise habit? Your goal is to exercise for 1 minute today.
  • Want to start a writing habit? Your goal is to write three sentences today.
  • Want to create a healthy eating habit? Your goal is to eat one healthy meal this week.

It doesn’t matter if you start small because there will be plenty of time to pick up the intensity later. You don’t need to join a CrossFit gym, write a book, or change your entire diet at the very beginning.

It’s easy to compare yourself to what others are doing or to feel the urge to optimize your performance and do more. Don’t let those feelings pull you off course. Prove to yourself that you can stick to something small for 30 days. Then, once you are on a roll and remaining consistent, you can worry about increasing the difficulty.

In the beginning, performance is irrelevant. Doing something impressive once or twice isn’t going to matter if you never stick with it for the long-run. Make your new habit so easy that you can’t say no.

Further Reading: Why is it So Hard to Stick to Good Habits?

2. Take some time to understand exactly what is holding you back.

I recently spoke with a reader named Jane. She wanted to exercise consistently, but had always thought that she was, in her words, “the type of person who didn’t like to workout.”

Jane decided to break the habit down and realized that it wasn’t actually exercising that bothered her. Instead, she didn’t like the hassle of getting ready for the gym, driving somewhere for 20 minutes, and then working out. She also didn’t enjoy going to a public place and working out in front of other people. Those were the real barriers that prevented her exercise habit.

Once she realized this, Jane thought about how she could make exercising easier. She bought a yoga video and started exercising at home two nights per week. She was also a teacher and her school offered an exercise class for the faculty after school. She started going to that class because it meant that she didn’t have to drive somewhere else or put in a lot of prep time just to workout.

Jane has been sticking to her workout routine for months now. She says, “You might not be able to fix everything you don’t like, but figuring out how to work around one or two of those hurdles might provide the push you need to get over the hump and stick with your goals.”

The people who stick with good habits understand exactly what is holding them back.

You might think that you’re the “type of person who doesn’t like working out” or the “type of person who is unorganized” or the “type of person who gives in to cravings and eats sweets.” But in most cases, you’re not destined to fail in those areas. Instead of making a blanket statement about your habits, break them down into smaller pieces and think about which areas are preventing you from becoming consistent.

Once you know the specific parts of the process that hold you back, you can begin to develop a solution to solve that problem.

Further Reading: How to Start New Habits That Actually Stick

3. Develop a plan for when you fail.

Dan John, a popular strength and conditioning coach, often tells his athletes, “You’re not good enough to be disappointed.” The same is true when you build a new habit. What were you expecting? To succeed without fail from the very beginning? To be perfect even when people who have been doing this for years make mistakes on a regular basis?

You have to learn to not judge yourself or feel guilty when you make a mistake, and instead focus on developing a plan to get back on track as quickly as possible.

Here are three strategies that might help…

  1. Set schedules rather than a deadlines.
  2. Forget about performance and focus on building a new identity.
  3. Make this your new motto: “Never miss twice.”

I find the “never miss twice” mindset to be particularly useful. Maybe I’ll miss one workout, but I’m not going to miss two in a row. Maybe I’ll eat an entire pizza, but I’ll follow it up with a healthy meal. Maybe I’ll forget to meditate today, but tomorrow morning I’ll be oozing with Zen.

Slipping up on your habits doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you normal. What separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track quickly. Make sure you have a plan for when you fail.

Further Reading: 7 Strategies to Help You Bounce Back After Slipping Up

Want More Ideas For Building Good Habits?

Building new habits can be tough, but there are a few simple steps that will make it easier.

In addition to this article, you can get dozens of simple strategies for building good habits and breaking bad ones in my 45-guide called Transform Your Habits.

Thanks for reading!

References
1. Hat tip to Leo Babauta for originally writing about “so easy you can’t say no.”

33 Comments

  1. Shobhit says:

    I am glad you mentioned CrossFit here. I do CrossFit 4 times a week and this is one of the best habits I developed.

    I particularly agree to “Set Schedules instead of a deadline”. If you want to be consistent in the long run, you have to make it a habit. There is no other way. When I started working out (2 years back), it was a constant battle between my determination and convenient excuses. I turned it around by changing my workout time. I now workout in morning. I don’t weigh pros and cons anymore. I wake up, do my morning stuff and drive to the Gym. No debate, no questions. Just a routine. And it worked out extremely well.

    When I read your blogs, I realize that I am not the only one who thinks that determination is not the right answer in long run. Most of the people in my family think that I am born with a special organ which produces determination enzyme. Nothing can be far from truth of course. :)

  2. Dave says:

    I have the exact same objections as Jane when it comes to going to the gym. A while back I heard about Mark Lauren’s book You Are Your Own Gym and started working out at home with bodyweight exercises. I’ve been at it consistently for over 6 months now, and feeling great. What’s more, I think having some successful habits make it easier to feel good about starting other new habits, and I’ve been better at sticking with personal projects lately.

    It wasn’t a solid home run from the beginning — I had a false start that only lasted a couple months, and then it was a few more months before I started up again. And even still, since the program is not an “every day” thing, I go few days without exercising. But it’s a lot easier to stick with it once you start seeing the benefits.

    • Dave – same exact story here! James, tip #2 is really great and I think it can be applied to a lot of areas of life.

      Another tip that helped me:

      I recently interviewed Olympic Javelin Thrower Craig Kinsley, and one of the knowledge bombs that he dropped on me goes back to your “Lessons from a Lion Tamer” article – he said “I suggest everyone have 2-3 passions.” This allows for you to disengage from one task and not be ‘all-eggs-in-one-basket’ (helps mentally with failure at a task), yet to keep enough focus on each of your passions.

      I realized after successfully developing a few habits, I had too many new habits that I was trying to develop (I had four). I cut back to three, created a Seinfeld Calendar, and am doing much better!

      Be well y’all!

  3. Frank says:

    Great article James. Through your site I learned about Tiny Habits a couple of weeks ago. As you advocate starting small really helps.

    Since starting Tiny Habits, I now floss twice a day (my wife tells me I only have to do it once!) and every time I turn on the shower I do a couple of push-ups. The habits became automatic very quickly – they didn’t take 21 days.

    In fact yesterday, when I turned on the shower, next thing I found myself down on the floor doing a push-up without consciously thinking I had to do it.

    Keep up the great blogging!

  4. Andy Biegala says:

    Nice post James.

    I think this post compliments the one you did a short while ago about decision fatigue.

    It is about developing the “automatics” of your personality so to speak so that the thing is just done without any decision making or effort. I have been building the decision thing into my weekly work and workout routine unconsciously for a while now and your post on that topic sharpened my approach.

    This one about doing small things to start with and doing them consistently is another great tip.

    Keep em coming!

  5. Colm says:

    I wouldn’t agree with not needing to join a CrossFit gym. But I own one. ;)

    Thanks for the articles, James. Actually we shared one of your articles on our Facebook page today — https://www.facebook.com/crossfitireland

  6. Jimmy Larsson says:

    The first one reminds me of Joel Salatin. “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly first”. Instead of the old saying “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”.

  7. Toni says:

    Thank you, James, for your help by writing simple advice. Really, 3 steps in building new habits and it is enough. I have organized myself with a habit of the morning routine, but I have still trouble with the evening one. I would like to go bed before 10 p.m., but there is always something “important” to do. Can a small step be: “Never miss 10 times?”

    • Steffen says:

      Haha. You should not rush going to bed, like you shouldn’t rush to slow down on X.

      The morning routine is much easier to do than the evening one, because it’s the first thing in the morning. You’re all fresh, it’s a new beginning and a perfect day (at least at that time).

      The evening routine happens after several midsize disasters, after some wrong decisions, after all the stuff life throws in your way. And you want to finish Y before tomorrow.

      Especially if you want to go to bed at a certain time. That would mean that you would need align most of the day so you can accomplish that. And some other goals might even collide with your new habit.

      Going to bed earlier (and getting more sleep) means to have less time for other stuff. So maybe your real goal is to get rid of some activities that cost you a lot of time, but aren’t worth it.

  8. Nithin says:

    This was the first email that I have received from you and I am impressed! Impressed because it was relevant to the major hurdle I am facing in my student life- waking up and starting work early in the morning.

  9. Great post! I’m in the same camp as Jane – I used to think I was the type of person who didn’t like exercise. But after awhile I realized I just didn’t like BORING exercise. I found weightlifting so tedious that it was a struggle to make it through each session. At 5:30 in the morning, I could hardly muster the mental energy needed to decide what exercise to do next, nor the patience to wait for the appropriate weight to become available. Plus, I hated the environment at my gym – too many people tripping over each other, over-friendly men, and near-pornographic music videos.

    I’ve since discovered cardio hip-hop. I love to dance, it’s different every time, the music is awesome, and someone else tells me every move to make for the entire hour. And the best part? It incorporates tons of calisthenics and uses the entire body, so I’m in even better shape than I was when I did weight training! I’ve been three times a week for the past four months. I never even approached that level of consistency with weight training.

    Understanding what holds you back is indeed the key that unlocks habit change! Or something like that. :)

    • Frank says:

      I don’t mean to side-track the comments too far here, but I had a look at your blog’s front page. You seem to be attaching labels to people and things (like the gym) very easily. It’s strange, I think, to believe that you can change yourself, but that other people have immutable (and often very bad) characteristics. Of course, change can only come from within and all that, but, wow, there’s a lot of (apparent) cynicism there. Well, whatever works for you.

      @James: Nice recap there!

      • Hi Frank,

        Thanks for your comment about my site. I’m still refining my voice and my message, so any feedback I receive is very helpful. And I actually don’t think you’ve sidetracked the comments too much – a major theme of my writing is habit change (specifically in the area of relationships and character).

        I would say that the point I try to convey to my readers is a simple one: that a dramatic change in a person’s character, while *possible,* is unlikely (for me or anyone else). Habit change of any sort is difficult for most people, even for those who are really trying (which is a relatively small number). And habits related to how you fundamentally see yourself in relation to other people are, I believe, the most difficult of all to change. If somebody takes the stance that their own desires are always more important than other people’s, that’s going to show up in arrogant and selfish behavior. And it is *not* a stance that is likely to make a dramatic shift. Can it happen? Sure. But it is very, very rare.

        I’ve seen a lot of people (including myself) waste years and years in relationships with people who treat them poorly, hoping the situation will change. It almost never does, and they become more and more bitter and angry about the way they’re being treated. The lesson I learned is that with a person of character, whose default stance is selfless rather than selfish, those kinds of issues pretty much resolve themselves. Since I’ve become better at identifying relationships that are healthy and ditching those that aren’t, I’ve become immeasurably happier, and I want the same for my readers and anybody else God places in my path.

        None of this means that we should badmouth such people, lecture them, or otherwise sink to their level. On the contrary. We should be cordial to them, and in our hearts and minds, we should forgive them and wish them the best. But none of us is powerful enough to make another person change. They have to want that for themselves. So if it’s not happening, we need to back away so that we don’t become angry and bitter by proxy.

        If you have a moment to share the passage(s) of my writing that you found problematic, or where I implied that character is *impossible* to change, I would really appreciate it – because I’m trying to be really careful not to send that kind of message, so I’d like to revise it to make it more clear.

        Thanks again for your comment, and thanks to James for facilitating such an important discussion about habit change.

        All the best,
        Eleanore

        • Frank says:

          Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Eleanore. You’re right; that does sound on-topic here.

          Like you, I don’t go out looking to change people. However, I think labeling people as “jerks”, “difficult” or having “character issues” can be unhealthy. Discounting people like this can help in making sense of the world (for example, making it easy to tell oneself after a breakup, “This is okay because my partner was inherently bad”, which is how I read a title of one of your recent posts…without reading the post itself, mind you).

          Similarly, it can be helpful to tell yourself that “It’s okay not to go to the gym because the gym sucks”. I mean that this attitude is useful because it leads you to search for what is actually right for you. On the other hand, if you find yourself discounting everything and everyone for one reason or other, well… it can poison your personal interactions and appreciation of what is good in the world (mostly: people and experiences).

          When I said it sounded like you viewed people as “immutable”/impossible to change, I just meant that that’s what I infer from the attachment of labels.

          Anyway, I’m probably just reading way too much into my cursory glance. My impression of your site clashed with my own perspective: avoid sociopaths like the plague; everyone else is cool. :)

          • Hi Frank,

            Aha! Well, if you only read the titles of my articles, and not the articles themselves, that might explain some of the confusion. :) I agree with you that we need to be careful about labels. Any “labeling” techniques I talk about – such as “character” – are only meant as discernment tools for people trying to figure out whether to continue a relationship or not. I don’t advocate actually telling someone that that they’re lacking in the character department (or otherwise flaunting your insights about their shortcomings). Nor do I suggest sharing such insights widely with others, except maybe a really trusted friend or family member. We need to be careful not to injure anyone else’s good name, but at the same time, we need to protect ourselves from toxic relationships.

            Anyway, thanks again for your comments. When I started writing about these issues, this was a criticism I anticipated, but you’re helping me to clarify my message even more.

            All the best,
            Eleanore

    • Esther L. says:

      So true you must find what suits to you! For exercising, but also for food, and anything else, it’s so much easier to build a better habit with something you like than with something you don’t. :-D

  10. Yehuda says:

    I always love reading your emails every Monday and Thursday but this article was better then usual and the first and second part apply to me very much. So thanks for everything.

  11. Meg Sylvia says:

    Very thoughtful. I love that motto, “Never miss twice.” It is so easy to get down on ourselves for taking one day off from a routine as an excuse to discontinue it all together (guilty!) Going to try this as I continue my journey in making my yoga routine stick.

  12. David Stagg says:

    Loving the advice – I’ve fallen by the wayside recently with trying to form habits but this has helped me refocus today – Thank you James. Also not wanting to go to the gym was a major hurdle for me so I bought and started using P90X at home. I’ve lost 14 pounds this year. All about finding a way to make those habits work for you.

    Regards,
    David

  13. Gila says:

    Hi James,

    I’m working on developing/improving three habits: writing consistently, working out consistently and cutting down on my internet usage. For writing, I’ve challenged myself to write 15 minutes a day, six days a week. For fitness the goal is to get some form of physical activity (even if it is walking to the schwarma shop, getting a fat schwarma, and walking home) 30 minutes a day, six days a week. For internet, there are several items–capping my internet usage, not surfing at the office, avoiding certain sites entirely and so on. I bought a calendar, put magnets on the back of each page and have covered my fridge with 12 months. Each day I hit my goals, I get a smiley sticker–one for each goal. (Idea taken from one of your posts!)

    I started back in September and while there are plenty of days I don’t write and (sadly) huge numbers of days I don’t work out, I’ve written more in the last two months than I had in the last year. My internet usage has massively decreased–and that is huge. The workouts…well, I’m probably averaging 3-4 times/ week. The good think is that the stickers (and lack of same) remind me that, nu, Gila, you need to find time for this. Each week I add my results to my journal and remind myself that it’s a new week. :)

  14. Sunil says:

    Thanks James for writing and sharing such great articles. I would also like to cultivate a few good habits, and hope to stick with them for a very long time. :-)

  15. Adam says:

    Honestly, I don’t subscribe to blogs, but I am so happy I subscribed to this one. Thank you for your e-mails every Monday and Thursday, I LOVE them.

    As for my habits.

    1.) Workout every day – I might try the one minute thing
    2.) Eat healthy at breakfast and before bed

    I can work towards those after reading your latest post. Thank you!!

  16. Deborah says:

    You’re the first person I’ve encountered who is not selling something (unless I missed it). Remarkable.

    We are recovering from a spinal cord injury that nearly wiped us out. We have very little anything left including will, so validation for MicroGoals seems friendly, thanks.

  17. Leon says:

    Another great read :)

    I’ve implementing this strategy of small, easy and every day myself for the last 2 months. Started with 20 pushups each morning, now in Oct 35 pushups and 4-5 pullups.

    Twice last year I tried out Crossfit, but got totally destroyed, also doesn’t help that I felt like such a weakling walking into the Spartans from 300′s gym lol

  18. Jake says:

    #2 They understand exactly what’s holding them back.

    The yoga video example was something that was quite concrete. But sometimes obstructions can be very deeply embedded in your psychology. This isn’t to say that it’s difficult to overcome, but rather, difficult to pinpoint.

    Say it’s something like asking someone out. There is a whole lot of child history, insecurities, inner belief, past experiences, involved with that. It is a long journey and a big endeavor to uncover them. Of course one should take that on, regardless of difficulty, since that would help them tremendously, and is actually probably an indicator that they really need to do that.

    So I guess what I’m saying is, #2 still holds, for sure. But sometimes it’s not as simple as identifying that you don’t like public spaces, or the hassle of packing things. It can be quite a big thing to overcome. And with big things, you may need to apply a psychological version of #1, — doing easy baby steps in digging through your psychology to save your true self.

  19. Jake says:

    What if it truly is the fact that you don’t like the actual work? In the given example, for instance, you really don’t like exercising?

    “Just man up and do it”?

  20. Melissa says:

    Thanks James. That was a good read and good advice!

  21. Julie says:

    Great post James. One of my favorite mental tricks for when I get thrown off is to plan my “turnaround day.” This is the day that I will get back to eating healthy or working out or whatever it is. This is the day I know I will get back on track.

  22. Jo says:

    I use to have this idea about myself that I wasn’t fussed about exercise. The way that the people around me treated me also enforced this idea; I was worried that if I changed my ways they’d notice and think I’d lost the plot. Then somebody I knew started working out regularly and after a short time they were already looking healthier and trimmer; I decided I wanted the same. I signed up for a short marathon to give me a goal to train for which really helped. Afterwards I noticed positive changes in my confidence, posture, energy levels… etc… I didn’t realise before how much better regular exercise would make me feel; It has since become a part of my identity. The way we see ourselves really makes a big difference. I have a friend who I think is holding himself back; he often talks about himself as being incapable of certain things like creativity.

  23. Natalie says:

    I love the simplicity of this piece. I like the part about never missing twice. I’m totally a person who feels like they aren’t made for exercise and can’t stop eating sweets. If you could write something on not eating sweets it would be really helpful. I also think the part about writing 3 sentences a day is really inspiring. I’m trying to develop my writing and am struggling. I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email me.

  24. Ryan says:

    Another great post, as usual.

    Still working on my writing and photography schedule, which I started in part because of the advice you’ve given on starting good habits. I’m currently on week six, and haven’t missed a photo yet (posting a good one each week on my website). Hopefully it’ll keep up, but if something does happen, I like the “never miss twice” rule.

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