How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide

According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day. [1]

Understanding how to build new habits (and how your current ones work) is essential for making progress in your health, your happiness, and your life in general.

But there can be a lot of information out there and most of it isn’t very simple to digest. To solve this problem and break things down in a very simple manner, I have created this strategy guide for building new habits that actually stick.

Even more detailed information is available in my free guide, Transform Your Habits, but the basic principles mentioned in this article will be more than enough to get you going.

1. Start with an incredibly small habit.

Make it so easy you can’t say no.
—Leo Babauta

start small habits

When most people struggle to stick with a new habit, they say something like, “I just need more motivation.” Or, “I wish I had as much willpower as you do.”

This is the wrong approach. Research shows that willpower is like a muscle. It gets fatigued as you use it throughout the day. Another way to think of this is that your motivation ebbs and flows. It rises and falls. Stanford professor BJ Fogg calls this the “motivation wave.”

Solve this problem by picking a new habit that is easy enough that you don’t need motivation to do it. Rather than starting with 50 pushups per day, start with 5 pushups per day. Rather than trying to meditate for 10 minutes per day, start by meditating for one minute per day. Make it easy enough that you can get it done without motivation.

Further reading: Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals

2. Increase your habit in very small ways.

Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.
—Jim Rohn

tiny gains with habits

One percent improvements add up surprisingly fast. So do one percent declines.

Rather than trying to do something amazing from the beginning, start small and gradually improve. Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.

Further reading: This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened

3. As you build up, break habits into chunks.

break down your habits

If you continue adding one percent each day, then you’ll find yourself increasing very quickly within two or three months. It is important to keep each habit reasonable, so that you can maintain momentum and make the behavior as easy as possible to accomplish.

Building up to 20 minutes of meditation? Split it into two segments of 10 minutes at first.

Trying to do 50 pushups per day? Five sets of 10 might be much easier as you make your way there.

Further reading: I’m Using These 3 Simple Steps to Actually Stick with Good Habits

4. When you slip, get back on track quickly.

The best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control.
—Kelly McGonigal

never miss habits twice

Top performers make mistakes, commit errors, and get off track just like everyone else. The difference is that they get back on track as quickly as possible.

Research has shown that missing your habit once, no matter when it occurs, has no measurable impact on your long-term progress. Rather than trying to be perfect, abandon your all-or-nothing mentality.

You shouldn’t expect to fail, but you should plan for failure. Take some time to consider what will prevent your habit from happening. What are some things that are likely to get in your way? What are some daily emergencies that are likely to pull you off course? How can you plan to work around these issues? Or, at least, how you can bounce back quickly from them and get back on track?

You just need to be consistent, not perfect. Focus on building the identity of someone who never misses a habit twice.

Further reading: How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the “Seinfeld Strategy”

5. Be patient. Stick to a pace you can sustain.

sustain your habits

Learning to be patient is perhaps the most critical skill of all. You can make incredible progress if you are consistent and patient.

If you are adding weight in the gym, you should probably go slower than you think. If you are adding daily sales calls to your business strategy, you should probably start with fewer than you expect to handle. Patience is everything. Do things you can sustain.

New habits should feel easy, especially in the beginning. If you stay consistent and continue increasing your habit it will get hard enough, fast enough. It always does.

Bonus: If you are interested in more strategies for increasing your willpower and sticking to better habits, I explain all sorts of techniques and the science behind them in my Habits Workshop.
Sources

  1. Habits: A Repeat Performance by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn
  2. Special thanks to BJ Fogg, Leo Babauta, and Kelly McGonigal for their research and work on habit formation and willpower. I have learned a lot from each of you.
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58 Comments

  1. Easy to turn oneself into a pretzel without “breaking it down” and bridging the gaps.

    I’m working on this now as I’m doing a ketogenic autoimmune paleo diet that supports my health. I’m easing into it with fruit so I don’t make the switch to burning fat overnight. Tried that previously and felt like a truck ran over me.

    BOOM… love it and so true!

    • Not to ask an invasive question, but why are you doing the autoimmune paleo diet? I have ankylosing spondylitis and I’ve heard of people using that diet to ease the symptoms.

      P.S. Great article, hits home on my cardio training.

  2. I’ve been a subscriber for about 6 months (more or less) and there’s an interestingly fresh approach that I enjoy in your most recent posts. That being said, I feel graphics #1 & #3 are missing key labeling on their axis that would facilitate more immediate comprehension. It may seem like a small detail, but being from a hard science background, a mislabeled (or unlabeled) graph can provoke confusion unnecessarily. The additional illustrations are a welcome sight and I hope to see more of them.

    Sincerely,

    .K.F.

    • Thanks Jim! Jono is great. We’ve traded a few emails, but I haven’t seen a lot of his work. I’ll definitely have to dig through his site. I’m sure there is a lot of inspiration to be found there.

      That said, I did get some inspiration from Jessica Hagy at http://www.thisisindexed.com … I like her simple drawings and I’ll probably follow a similar style.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. This is like a summary of almost all of your work about building habits. Thanks James.

    You mentioned consistency in building habits. I would like to add something on it. The importance of right frequency.

    Is your habit most fruitful when you do it everyday, every two days, or every Monday?

    For building Rome, you should lay a brick at least everyday. James publishes articles every Monday and Thursday. I am doing P90X everyday, at worst every two days.

    Every habit has an efficient level of frequency, I think. For example, the gardening habit of my father. He got retired 10 years ago and is doing gardening since then. At first, he used to visit the farm once a week to take care of his plants. Then he saw that his plants needs more care. It is his tenth year in gardening now and he has the habit of visiting the garden everyday. He produces 5 times more vegetables than he did in his first years, the garden looks more beautiful and in order, there are less insects and wild plants and he is more satisfied and happy. These are all because of practicing his habit everyday instead of once a week.

    I am sure, there are some scientific research about this topic. Or maybe James can write something like “how to find the best frequency for practicing your habits”. :)

    • This is a great point, Tarik. Frequency is crucial and it differs based on the behavior.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

  4. Hi James,

    I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy and learn from your articles. This one on habits really resonates with me. Thank you.

  5. Hi James,

    I have been going through your newsletter and have also read “Transform your habits”.

    I very much appreciate them. I have tested and tried by setting small goals and am consistent. I have recently begun with your recommendation of reading at least 20 pages of a book. Let me see how many books I can complete this year. :)

  6. Hi James,

    I read all of your most popular articles and they are great. So is this one.

    I have a routine habit of exercise, but my problem is that I don’t know how to work on the weight loss habit of eating. How do you work on this? Did you make eating smaller portions a habit, not eating dessert, no snacking etc? I’m finding it difficult to make the small but effective habit changes in this area. Any advice you have would be appreciated.

  7. Hi James,

    Thanks for your wonderful articles. I learned a lot from them.

    I have an idea. Can you write an article about how you spend your entire week ?

    Like you get up on Monday, what did you do in morning ? What did you eat? How much do you read? etc etc. I have seen glimpses of your habits in different articles but I am very interested to know how you spend your complete days. I am sure I will learn a lot from your routine and it will be a source of motivation for many of us.

    Thanks,
    Saad

  8. Thank you so much for this James, it is easy clear and concise. It has come at the right time for me. Small and steady goals.

  9. Great article today James. Hope you had an enjoyable time off and glad to have you back. Your twice weekly messages really help me to stay on track with changes that I have made and help me to stay motivated to keep working towards new goals.

    Thank you,
    Roy

  10. Great piece. Good insight.

    One habit I have tried to implement is to read to the end of the article and comment to the author who is requesting feedback…

  11. Really great article — everything you say it so true! I’ll share your words of wisdom on social media!

    Nic x

  12. Your site is a great resource and I recommend it to my psychotherapy clients quite often. Thanks!

    An analogy I sometimes use with clients regarding changing habits follows: when we are in a small boat which is turning, we know we are turning — our body feels it, we see the water move etc. — when on an ocean liner that is turning we don’t even know until we realize we are going in a different direction. Clients in the process of change find this to be heartening — so do I!

    Thanks for what you are doing! Great photography too!

    Monda Sue Prior

  13. It consolidates a lot of great advice I have already seen in James’ emails.

    I also think this is an exemplar of how to write a good blogpost. Clearly written copy, impactful illustrations, scannable layout and headers, and a topic worth discussing. It works really well.

  14. Hi James, Once again a great post. You have mentioned meditation in numerous of your posts, I am hoping you will do a specific blog on developing good meditation habits.

  15. Great post as always! I am going on vacation next week and feel like that is the perfect time to start implementing some consistency. Without the distractions of work and house chores I can get the ball rolling. Hopefully, by the time I get back the snowball effect will take over.

  16. I’m always amazed at how relevant your writings are to things going on in my life at the moment I’m reading them. I recently tried to get back into a bit of meditation each day, but it collapsed immediately as I chose to listen to a 36 min meditation and found myself thinking during the exercise when the hell was this going to end.

    Always enjoy your newsletters. Thanks for each and every one.

  17. Hey James. My coach Craig introduced me to your site and I have to say, this approach, accompanied with focusing on the process rather than the goal, has helped me achieve incredible milestones this month. Sharing your insight is impacting lives, so keep up the great work mate!

  18. You always have some good sound advice. I thank you for your time to write and distribute your articles. Each one is very insightful and I look forward to reading more.

  19. The ideas that you write are wonderful. In the past I would tell my children that I was giving them a “bowl of pump up” to digest. That is what you do so well for so many. Thanks.

  20. Thanks , Currently I am using the Seinfeld Strategy on my five habits. It helps me to get back on the track when ever I lost consistency.

  21. I got back on track with exercise two weeks ago. 30 minutes a day, no more. When I’ve tried to go to 45 minutes in the past psychologically I would say, “I don’t have time.”

    I can always work in 30 min. I decided 30 minutes of something is better than 0 minutes.

    Made my goal for the past two weeks M-F.

    Thanks for your posts. They have been helpful.

  22. I’ve been following your writings for months, James. Great as always, and I love that you add your own handwritings in the blog post. Awesome!

  23. Powerful insights and strategies, very practical and useful.

    Thank you dear James. Your posts are really helpful!

  24. James,

    I’m going to try it. Let’s see how it works. Because I always used to start with great efforts and when some time pass I see my self going nowhere. Again I need to start from beginning.

  25. Hey James, great insight as usual.

    I would like to add something here. Apart from starting small daily, which is a great tactic to build up anything, you can also suggest the following thing:

    Every day, when you start small and you want to do something (Lets consider meditation), if you want to do 10 mins of meditation, don’t do it fully, do it for 7-8 mins and stop, so that you’ll want to do it the next day. We may feel like doing it for 30 mins instead of 10 but we won’t do it the next day as we’ll be exhausted. You will have to control the mind. Whenever you want to do something for a particular time, do it for few minutes/few times less. That way, we’ll be able to keep ourselves hungry everyday for that task.

  26. Dear Mr James Clear,

    As usual, this article also very useful. It makes our task easy and I found that there is no need for self-motivation at all. Great.

    Dhayanithi, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India

  27. You’re just amazing.

    True these are not new techniques or ideas and I have heard them over and over but strange enough, I forget about them and let go off my goals constantly.

    There are great reminders and I’m very grateful to be receiving them.

  28. Great blog entry James. Really what I needed to hear. I love the way of making it so easy you don’t need motivation to do it. I think it’s time to try again on these habits.

  29. Great idea. But my mind knows! So when I decide to start at 10 minutes and slowly add, say 1 minute per week to exercise. My mind says, “Hey, in a year I’ll be doing a whole hour. That’s too much. I don’t want to exercise that much.” Therefore, I never start. I get mad to even start to think about that much exercise. How do you combat that kind of thinking?

  30. These are the types of articles that I will share and reference myself for years to come. The graphics are a great touch and you are becoming second to none when it comes to tangible motivation. Proud of you James.

  31. Hi James,

    Hope this message finds you in good health.

    Read your article and realised the importance of the minute things in life. Thanks to you for a such a short and simple article to understand the developing of a habit. Have incorporated it already.

    Any tips on dropping a unwanted habit?

    Cheers,
    Akshay

  32. I am having a great deal of difficulty in getting out of bed an hour earlier to run. I would greatly appreciate suggestions on how to get this habit off the ground.

    Thank you.

  33. This is REALLY good. The diagrams REALLY help the reader to understand what is being conveyed, as well as keep focus and enjoy the art. Thank you!

  34. James, a great piece that is a fantastic summary of a lot of your writing on habits. At our company we are very inspired by your writings as we help people and teams at work to stay focused on key goals and make progress everyday.

    As we try to help people build lifelong execution and communication habits for success at work, the learnings from science and thought leaders like you and Nir Eyal provide excellent guidance in the way we have to think about designing our software.

    Fawad Zakariya
    Co-Founder & CEO, TalentCove

  35. I discovered something about myself I already knew, just needed you to put the words to it for me. Thank you, James, and to Bruce Robb for guiding me to you.

  36. So, I’m trying to eat less and move more to better manage my weight. I have a weight-loss goal but I’m really trying to put into practice the idea that the habit matters more than the end result. I’m tracking my calories each day and yesterday I way overshot my calorie limit, by 200+. If I were solely focused on the goal of weight loss, I would have considered that a pretty big failure and it would have been really discouraging. But, this time, I’m focused on building the habit of tracking calories. Because yesterday was the 19th day in a row that I’ve completed my tracking diary, I actually consider it a successful day, and I’m motivated to keep going.

    Just wanted to give that example to say that focusing on the habit and not the goal really makes all the difference in the world!

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