I have been trying a new strategy for building habits and it is working incredibly well. This strategy is remarkably easy and it is governed by three simple rules.
First I'll tell you the three rules. Then, I'll explain how I'm using this strategy and offer some other examples of how you can put these rules into practice.
3 Rules For Actually Sticking to Good Habits
Here are the rules:
- You have to start with a version of the habit that is incredibly easy for you. It must be so easy that you can’t say no to doing it and so easy that it is not difficult at all in the beginning.1
- You have to increase your habit each day, but in an incredibly small way.2
- Even after increasing your habit, all repetitions must remain easy. The total habit should be broken down into easier pieces if needed.
Now, let's talk about what this looks like in real life. Here's how I'm using these three rules.
The Pushup Habit
The more pushups I do, the leaner I get. For that reason, I recently decided to make pushups a daily habit. I decided to use the three rules I explained above to slowly and easily add more pushups to my routine.
- The first day, I did 10 pushups, which only took 15 seconds or so. (Rule 1.)
- The second day, I did 11 pushups. This was a very tiny improvement. (Rule 2.)
- I’ve continued this pattern of adding 1 pushup per day, every single day. I did 21 this morning, which was still easy to do and took less than 30 seconds. (Rule 3.)
Once I get to higher numbers, I will break them up into smaller, easier sets. For example, to do 50 pushups, I might do three sets: 20, 20, 10. The next day, I’ll add one more and do 20, 20, 11.
There are a few things happening here.
First, because I started with a habit that was very easy in the beginning, I am building the capacity to do work. In other words, I'm focusing on volume first, which will allow me to handle the intensity of a bigger habit later.
Second, because I am increasing by a very tiny amount each day, my body is able to recover and grow. Meanwhile, if I had started with a difficult or more impressive habit, then I would have hindered my ability to adapt as the habit grew.
Third, because I am breaking the habit down into sets that are always easy, I am reducing the mental burden needed to accomplish the habit. In a way, these easy sets are simply fun to do and require very little motivation to finish.
And most important, I am focusing on actually performing the habit rather than worrying about the outcome. I am developing the skill of being consistent and that is a skill that is valuable in nearly every area of life.
How Can You Use This in Real Life?
Here are some other ways you can use this strategy to build new habits.
Meditation. Wish you would meditate consistently and be more mindful?
- On day one, you’ll meditate for 60 seconds.
- On day two, you’ll meditate for 70 seconds.
- Continue this pattern, until you get to an amount of time that satisfies you or is too long to do at once. For example, 10 minutes of meditation might feel like a lot. Once you get to this point, break up your sessions into easier blocks. For example, meditate for 5 minutes in the morning and then 5 minutes in the evening.
Walking. Get a device that can measure the amount of steps you take in a day (a pedometer, FitBit, app on your phone, etc.)
- On day one, you’ll walk 1,000 steps, which most people already do each day.
- On day two, you’ll add 100 steps and walk a total of 1,100 steps. An additional 100 steps could be walking down to your mailbox and back — not far at all.
- Continue this pattern until walking more each day becomes time prohibitive. Let’s say that this point is 10,000 steps in a day. At this point, you may want to break up your walking time into shorter jogging sessions.
Reading. Wish you were reading more books?
- On day one, you’ll read for one minute.
- On day two, you’ll read for two minutes.
- Continue this pattern until you’re reading for a period of time that either satisfies you or is too long to do at once. For example, maybe reading for more than 20 minutes at a time is a stretch for you. If you want to read for 30 minutes, you can simply break it down into smaller 10 minutes blocks.
Flossing. Not in the habit of flossing?
- On day one, floss just one tooth. You are not allowed to floss two teeth. (Hat tip to BJ Fogg.)
- On day two, floss two teeth.
- Continue this pattern. After one month, you’ll be flossing all of your teeth each day.
Do Small Habits Actually Amount to Anything?
I know these small gains can seem almost meaningless, especially in the beginning. But small habits can actually deliver incredible progress very quickly.
If you performed the examples I listed above for one month, here's what would happen.
- If you started with 10 pushups and added 1 per day, you would do 775 pushups in 30 days.
- If you started with 1 minute of reading and added 1 minute per day, you would have read for over 8 hours in 30 days (enough to finish a 400 page book every month).
- If you started by walking 1,000 steps and added 100 per day, you would walk 77,500 steps (almost 39 miles) in 30 days.
Small, consistent progress adds up really fast.
Try the Three Rules for Yourself
These three rules for sticking to good habits are simple, but they work.
Here they are again:
- You have to start with a version of the habit that is incredibly easy for you. It must be so easy that you can’t say no to doing it and so easy that it is not difficult at all in the beginning.
- You have to increase your habit each day, but in an incredibly small way.
- Even after increasing your habit, all sets must remain easy. The total habit should be broken down into easier pieces if needed.
Give it a try and see what you think! As always, I’m open to any feedback or criticism. Sharing with one another helps us all grow and learn.
If you want more practical ideas for breaking bad habits and creating good habits, check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.