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Want to create a new habit? Get ready to break it. (joel.is)
104 points by peterkchen 1759 days ago | hide | past | web | 38 comments | favorite

Building/breaking habits became far easier to me when I started to understand the true importance and power of choice in the present moment. If you can cultivate the ability to fight with yourself in the moment - when you do (or don't) want to execute - a habit is really just reduced to a single choice during the day. I still have to do it every night when I'm tired and don't feel like brushing my teeth... but I've had no problem running/lifting regularly since I was 18.

If you think about it, character is really just the additive (or multiplicative?) result of thousands of tiny choices we've made along the way in each present moment, for better or for worse. The only time you can be the person you want to be is right now -- including building or breaking habits. A choice promised to the future has no power or worth, the only time it matters is in the present, when it's time to put words and dreams into action.

In the case of habits, the long-term will take care of itself by focusing on the short term. Win the small daily battles and you'll be on your way to winning the war. And don't forget to manage expectations and give yourself grace when you lose a few of those battles. Something is always better than nothing.

Every decision requires willpower. Doing things without thinking (making habits out of them) saves your willpower for other valuable things you have to do.

> If you think about it, character is really just the additive (or multiplicative?) result of thousands of tiny choices we've made along the way in each present moment, for better or for worse.

This is the idea underlying Samuel Smiles' book "Character" ( http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2541 ).

On a broader perspective, this is the idea Aristotle has put forth.

As a corollary, I've found that having a long term promise to make choices helps in the moment.

'Should I eat this chocolate bar, even though I want to eat healthier?' 'Should I eat this chocolate bar even though I said I would only eat junk food one day of the week'

For me, it's much easier to say no to the second question.

I've never understood why people view brushing their teeth before bed as a chore. We only have so many teeth, why is taking care of them such an inconvienience?

Short term pain, long term gain.

Perhaps off topic, but brushing my teeth before bed is such an ingrained habit for me that it actually takes a force of will to choose not to brush them. I.e. brushing is actually easier than not brushing.

Agreed. I have trouble falling asleep without a fresh-just-brushed-my-teeth feeling. An annoying habit in the beginning can become a necessity later on.

Not only that it triggers your brain to start getting sleepy.

More than just expecting to break your habit, I think the crucial piece is planning what you will do once you have.

The most dangerous moment in building a new habit is the moment when you realize that the best case scenario (aka sticking with the awesome new habit) is just not going to happen. For me, unless I have my Plan B ready to go, I tend to just revert to the status quo or worse (since I already failed, why not go all out). Having the Plan B - a glorified "if failure to complete Plan A, then do B" - already articulated lets me immediately move on to the next thing without beating myself up.

This was really helpful for me when I was getting going with a regular early morning jog. If I didn't get it in before work, plan B was a quick run after work before I drove home. The latter wasn't the habit I wanted to stick, but it helped me forgive myself the lapses until morning running became a habit.

pure gold, going to try this tomorrow.


This article seems to be more of an excuse to brag about a morning workout routine than the self help article its masquerading as.

I like the authors method better. It's more of a "lead by example".

To be honest, I'm not likely to just pick up whatever life-changing advice someone is preaching. But when I see somebody striving extra hard to achieve, that's what is truly inspiring, and lights a fire under my ass. You can tell me how to create good habits until you're blue in the face, but nothing is going to sink in until I see the results of your actions, and the competitive streak in me comes alive and wants to catch up to that.

I tend to like Joel (and Leo's) posts, but I found myself feeling a similar sentiment when I read the details about his own morning routine in this one.

I guess the reason is that, in that context, it felt unnecessary to convey the point being made. It seemed like it was more for author's benefit than for any reader's.

(And I recognize that part of it is my human reflex for envy/jealousy and comparisons to self. Even though I'm set with my own morning routine, it's just the kind of sentiment statements like that trigger. And I'm sure I'm not the only one, as the parent comment suggests...)

"brag about a morning workout routine "

Nothing wrong with that in my opinion. Even if he is bragging, the point is about developing good habit which takes practice. I personally liked seeing his morning routine which gives me ideas. Who cares if he bragged about it as long as that is not the only thing he did.

Sometimes I like to think about the "why" for these sort of posts. Why are you building the habit? Is it like an addiction? Are you getting a sense of euphoria? While it's a good mantra I don't think it's a traditional habit you're creating.

If I approach this from a CBT perspective then you're not building a habit. Instead you're retraining your mind to place a higher importance on health or physical attractiveness. We can break personal aspirations into different categories ranging from mind, body, spirit... or more specifically -- intellectualism, mental acquity, empathy/compassion, love, friendships, family relationships, spirit, tranquility, peace, relaxtion, etc... We can generally rank these in order of importance from 1-3. 1 being very important, 3 being not important at all.

Prior to this experiment, if he assessed his importance on health and wellbeing, he probably placed it low. Easily a 3. Maybe a 2. After a month or so it may have transitioned to a 2. Either by constant reinforcement of his necessity to go to the gym, or because of an actual change of mind.

Or I'm talking out my ass... I don't know.

You may be focusing too much on the fact that the example habit the OP talks about has to do with exercising. The point of the post isn't how to become "physically attractive", it's about to build habits by accepting the fact that you will break them from time to time and to not feel guilty about it.

One other thing: it's much much much easier to start a new, good habit than it is to change an old habit.

I experimented with this a while back - I figured I would change a small habit (no effect on me either way). For as long as I could remember, I put my wallet in my left back pocket, and my keys in my front left pocket (I'm left-handed). I decided to put them in the corresponding right-hand pocket - I know, very small change, right? Took me a couple of years before I would do it without thinking. Even now, I sometimes put them in the wrong pocket without thinking. For me, this was a big eye-opener.

I love that his examples of starting with simple+easy (gym three times a week at 7.30am) are what are for other people the end goal!

I could not do that. When I go to the gym, I work out really hard, and it's not healthy do to that every day. Whenever I try to do that, I will fall ill quite soon (maybe due to overtraining) - everybody has her own upper limit of stress the body can cope with, and exercise is stress by definition - no pain, no gain! :)

If that's how you're training, then it isn't necessarily the volume/intensity but your diet that's holding you back. I train as an advanced Crossfit athlete 5 days a week and it's very intense exercise!

Diet is more important than most people think! If you are truly training hard and you don't have a hard time getting your last few bites per meal down, then you're not eating enough.

At peak training (for me) an example diet would look like this:

Morning: 6 eggs (free-range), 4 strips of bacon (only happy pigs), two apples, one pear, and a little cup of almond butter.

Pre-lunch snack: half a bag of cashews and/or a few Kind Bars and 48 grams of protein in a shake.

Lunch: usually something I've cooked the night before, like Coconut Curry, Chili, steak or chicken. I always eat bacon to get my fat - some of these dishes will have been made with it, if I'm just eating steak I'll have 3-4 slices of bacon with it. To get my carbohydrates I fall back on fruits and sweet-potatoes. I'll have two sweet-potatoes and an apple, usually, with the above type of meal.

Pre-dinner snack: 48 grams of protein in a shake.

Dinner: similar to lunch, it will be some paleo meal that has been cooking in the Crock Pot all day or something I already made with enormous amounts of protein and fat in it. Again I get a lot of my calories from sweet-potatos and fruit so for dinner I'll usually eat a lot of berries, pears, sweet-potato fries, &c...

This type of diet is 100% gluten free and 100% refined sugar free and HFCS free; I also try to eat organic/free-range where I can. There are some instances where it just gets too expensive for me and have to buy some veggies/fruits that are not organic.

Wow. How on earth can you coordinate buying and preparing that much food every day? That seems like a big challenge in itself.

It is. Add 2 hours of oly/power lifting and metabolic conditioning in 5 days a week and it's like working a second job :)

Cool! You are right, I have recently found out that I don't eat enough carbohydrates. I've been sticking to Tim Ferriss' advice too closely (haven't experimented, which was my mistake) and have fallen into starvation mode. Maybe I'll up the carbohydrates even more.

What's the reason for getting your fat through bacon?

If you're getting ill, then you're (probably) missing something in your diet.

After working out hard enough for a few months, I used to get an injury (muscle strains)... then take the rest of the season off to let it heal. It would happen every time I tried it.

At first I tried reducing my exercise... that worked.

Then I started paying more attention to my diet. Turns out, I would often only eat 45-60g of protein a day (not a huge fan of meat).

Fixed that.. now I can exercise hard every single day without any injuries.

My experience was similar. When I started Crossfit I was following my small portion eating habits and didn't really focus on getting enough protein, fat, or carbs (my thinking at the time was carbs and fat were bad, I had no distinction about WHICH ones were bad).

There was a point where I was complaining about feeling tired all the time and my coach asked me what my diet was like. I told him. He scolded me.

Ever since then I've noticed HOW MUCH diet truly affects my athletic performance and my recovery.

Very interesting. I'm not that big fan of healthy habbits (I go to bed late at night and get up in the afternoon, for example), though I do some running occasionally. But what I liked in the post is that it's not only about habbits in fact. It's about human's psychology that's involved in doing anything. So we can say: "Don't cease working on your startup if you fail at some point - you should be ready to overcome the failure and pivot or start another project".

Expecting and planning for failure is definitely a good system to use for losing weight and exercise. Tim Ferris's famous slow carb diet (which has me down 50lbs this year) is based on one day a week breaking the habit and allowing yourself to not feel guilty about it. That was a big factor for me being consistent on the diet plan. I knew if I eat bad today, guilt, but if I eat bad in 3 days, pleasure.

Exercise is a great habit building tool because when you start off, you can really only get better. 30 minutes working out can turn into an hour can turn into 2 hours. And you start to enjoy it more as you go along and learn new things.

Reading is also a good habit to build on. I had an english teacher in high school that would assign 5-10 pages of reading every night. It made the class discussions meaningful because instead of expecting people to be in the habit of reading 50 pages of a book/night he knew he had to build the habit to read. The rest of my teachers expected us to be readers, and didn't focus at all on the habit building side of it.

Additional context: Tiny Habits is a free course about learning how to make habits like the OP talked about. It teaches the habit of habit making. Highly recommend.

BJ Fogg (at the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab - http://captology.stanford.edu/) and Nir Eyal have great research on the topic of forming habits:

The Fogg Model for Behavior Design and Eyals MEA "Minimum Enjoyable Activity" for habit design are excellent frameworks.

http://www.tinyhabits.com http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/01/your-new-years-resolution-i.... http://www.nirandfar.com/2012/02/habits-are-new-viral-why-st.... (great read for founders http://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/nir-eyal

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nbHMwNbXnXo (nice video presentation)

It seems people here don't travel much. If you travel a lot for work, the hell you manage to wake up at 5 am and go running.

Just saying, not everybody stays in the same place long enough to build those habits.

I know this wasn't really discussed, but is there a recover fast technique to help you get back on track once a habit breaks; I've noticed that if I break a long standing habit (3 months+) a few days in a row (exercising, flossing) it spirals down to non existence, and takes considerable amount of effort to re-establish

I don't know if this will help others but it helps me - I try and go to the gym at lunch, or if I have to work my lunch then go after work, basically get to the gym at some point in the day. If I'm skipping too many days and feel like I'm losing it, I wear my gym socks all day until I go. It's like a constant physical reminder to go. Seems to work for me.

Also, I find that I tend to overwork at the gym and feel tired or I ache too much to go the next time. Recently I've been able to go more just because I'm deliberately not working out so intensely. I tend to do a 5 minute rowing warmup, a 2-3 mile run, some cycling (10 mins alternating easy/hard every 2 mins) and then, if I have time, I'll do some weights (legs or arms depending on what I did last time).

I like your gym sock "trick". Regular visual reminders are good.

Regarding your routine, try inverting it once in a while and doing weights first (after some movement prep!) and then doing your cardio.

I've heard this advice before but I'm not sure what the benefit is? Will give it a try though - I guess it makes things more interesting when you mix it up.

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