How to Create Habits (Without Being an Asshole to Yourself)

I was hanging out with a friend when she asked me point blank, “So, how do you do it?”

Do…what exactly?

“Create habits so easily. I’ve never met anyone who’s able to set so many new habits – and stick to them – like you can. It’s like your superpower.”

Huh, it never really crossed my mind. But after she mentioned it, I realized I DO create a ton of habits.

In the past 2 months alone, I’ve made consistent habits out of:

  • waking up early
  • starting my day with yoga in the park
  • going for a morning run/workout
  • meditating for 15-20 min (with a new kundalini-type of meditation)
  • continuing to write for 30+ minutes a day
  • using my phone 75% less
  • more strictly adhering to my Pomodoro work sessions and batch checking email only a few times a day
  • taking 3 deep breaths every time I switch tasks
  • taking 10 deep breaths between workout sets
  • not checking social media until the evening (if at all)
  • going partner dancing once a week
  • reading my Kindle for 30+ min every afternoon
  • journaling daily in a notebook
  • using IFS therapy techniques to “unblend” every time a difficult emotion comes up
  • twice a day Feldenkrais breathing exercises to de-stress and help induce sleep

(And most of these habits became automatic in just 2-3 days, instead of the average 66 days it’s supposed to take.)

So yeah, maybe my friend had a point.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this habit of habit-making was core to my accelerated self-growth.

When you set a habit, you’re taking a beneficial activity and flipping it on autopilot. From then on, it’s automatically contributing to your life without any additional willpower or effort.

Steamroll a bunch of these habits together, and baby, you’ve got a ton of effortless momentum on your side!

So yeah, habits are awesome. I don’t need to convince you of that.

But what I do need to convince you of?

That there’s a better way to set habits. A more effortless, gentle, and effective way.

See, most of the advice you’ll find on building habits is all about using the stick instead of the carrot.

It’s all about pushing yourself as hard as you can. About adding more stress, punishment, and shame until you do the damn thing.

Whether it’s the Seinfeld method of not breaking the chain (and feeling like absolute shit if you do) or giving money to a friend if you don’t accomplish your task, most habit tips are motivated by fear and stress.

Ugh, I’ll pass.

I’ve spent most of my life employing those approaches and not only did they turn me into a soul-less, dead robot – but they weren’t even that effective in the long run!

The goal of everything I do is to bring about LESS stress and stagnation in my life. And MORE joy and enlivenment.

So approaches that make me feel shitty and numb – no matter how effective they are – are ultimately counter-productive to my ultimate goal: living a joyful, harmonious, thriving life.

I know what you’re thinking: is it actually possible to set good habits without beating yourself up in the process??

Yes. Most definitely.

And here’s the kicker: the kinder, gentler way is not only more enjoyable AND effective, but it also aligns you with what you actually NEED to be doing (and not what you THINK you do).

So without further ado, here are some tips on how to create habits the effortless way:

Low Commitment

When starting a new habit, don’t go all out to the fucking gills! Do the opposite.

Start with the lowest commitment possible that still gives you some benefit.

So if you’re starting a daily meditation practice, don’t jump in with an hour of meditation twice a day! Start with something super easy to commit to, like 3 minutes of breathing in the morning.

I know what you’re thinking: “But that’s not going to do SHIT for me! I need to go all in or I won’t get any benefits!”

Easy, tiger. Remember, you’re playing the long game here.

If you set this habit properly, you’ll have the next few years (or decades) to reap the benefits.

But if you bite off more than you can chew at first, you’ll burn yourself out in weeks (and then beat yourself up for months).

Don’t worry about maximizing the benefits. That comes later.

Instead, just focus on creating the HABIT. Which is infinitely easier to do when the commitment is as low as possible.

Once you find yourself meditating for 3 minutes a day with ease, then you can slowly increase.

Focus on the Feel Good

At the end of the day, if the habit doesn’t feel good in some way, you’ll eventually stop doing it.

Willpower to do shit you don’t enjoy is a limited resource. Eventually, it runs out (or you will).

But if you cultivate habits that make you feel good, they’ll PULL you along all on their own. You won’t have to force yourself.

So focus on cultivating THAT above all else.

Pay attention to how you feel when doing the habit. What about it feels shitty? What feels good? Is there any way you can maximize the good and minimize the shit?

And this feel good should be IN the moment. Not something you feel good about later, after the habit is completed.

If you’re forcing yourself to workout to a Tae-Bo video and hating every single second, but then feel proud afterwards for enduring it all – then no, that’s not gonna work here.

You ain’t gonna keep that up.

Figure out a way to feel good DURING the habit itself. Switch the workout up. Try enjoying the burn. Practice mindfulness or focused breathing throughout. Experiment with classes or weights or with others or outdoors.

Find that right level of challenge that gets your endorphins firing but not you hating life.

And remember, this “feel good” is deeper than just surface level.

For example, eating a full tub of ice cream may seem to feel good on the surface. But if you’re really paying attention, deep down inside, something will feel off (especially in your gut).

The kind of “feel good” we’re talking here is deeper than surface level pleasures. It’s a deeper kind of gratification. The kind you can feel in your bones and know is good for your body & soul.

Align your habits around that.

Whether it’s washing dishes or learning the guitar. Find what feels good about it. Connect with that. Maximize that. Cultivate that. Make that the priority.

And your habits will become impossible NOT to do.

Always Be Evolving

Your habits should not be dead goals that just get set once and then remain static (*cough* New Years resolutions *cough*)

YOU are a constantly shifting, growing, evolving human being.

Your habits shouldn’t be any different. They should be keeping up with you. Growing with you.

But how do you know when to change them? And in what ways?

Simple. Stop relying on your mind so much and pay attention to your body.

You can’t get lazy here and check out. You need to always be tuned in to how you’re feeling as you carry out your habits.

Does something about it make you feel good? Continue to open you up? Leave you feeling more fulfilled?

Or does it leave you feeling contracted? Shitty? Less resourced?

ALWAYS pay attention to how good/shitty you’re feeling. This is your compass. Your GPS. Your north star.

If it’s feeling good, you’re heading in the right direction. Focus on what feels good about your habit and hone in on that. Keep moving towards that.

If it’s not, that’s your body/mind telling you something’s not working. Experiment with it until it does.

Are you doing too much? Not enough? Maybe you need to try a different technique. Or an entirely different approach altogether.

That feeling of shittiness is your friend. Pay attention to it and keep experimenting until it starts to feel good.

Know When to Back Off

As you increase the commitments of your habits, do so SLOWLY and CAREFULLY.

The absolute worst thing you can do is ramp up too quickly or push yourself too hard.

As soon as you do that, game over. Your body will shut down and you can wave that habit (and it’s potential years of benefits) goodbye.

Remember, always check in with how you’re feeling – your inner GPS.

As soon as something stops feeling good, tread VERY carefully. Consider backing off or easing up the pressure a bit.

Always err on the side of caution rather than going too far. Just like the physical body, pushing your emotional body too far can cause a setback that could take months or years to recover from.

Not worth it.

But what if you’ve backed off, tried everything, and it STILL doesn’t feel right?

Then be okay with giving it up.

This is NOT failure. It just means that this particular activity (at this particular time, with this particular approach) isn’t a good fit for you.

By giving it up, you’re actually opening up space to find what IS the right fit for you.

It’s not just cheesy motivational talk: each “failure” really is another opportunity. A step forwards, not backwards.

There’s an App for That

When starting a new habit, you have to constantly remind yourself to do it until it becomes automatic. Unfortunately, our brains are pretty shitty at this.

Good thing there’s an app for that.

If you have an iPhone, download Due immediately. It puts the iOS Reminders app to shame.

You can set reminders daily (or hourly) and it will endlessly ping you until you respond to it. This makes setting habits a breeze, especially in the crucial first few weeks.

Let technology handle the busywork so your mind can focus on more important things (like the habit itself)!

(Android users: I hear that Recurrence, Life Reminders, and RemindMe may be good alternatives.)

Don’t Be Rigid

As you embark on this journey, remember to go EASY on yourself!

If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. Don’t freak out. Allowing yourself to miss a day every once in a while is OKAY.

Say it with me now…IT’S OKAY. You’re not a fucking machine. You’re a human being.

And your habits system needs to be a little flexible – if it’s too rigid, it will break!

The goal here is not to be perfect. The goal is to be doing something good for yourself more often than not!

Again, focus on the long-game here.

Even if you have a hit ratio of only 80%, if that allows you to consistently stick with it, imagine all the benefits you’ll stack up a year, 2 years, 5 years from now!

But if you stress yourself out trying for the impossible goal of 100%, chances are you won’t last more than a few months.

Think of all you’d miss out on because you decided being an anal perfectionist was more important then actually setting the damn habit.

Shift Your Mindset

Most people view habits as just another way for them to “set goals” and “check off accomplishments”.

This is entirely too linear, rigid, and limiting.

Instead, shift your mindset so habits are less about “achieving” and more about “exploring”.

About moving in a direction with curiosity. And seeing what unfolds.

The first approach turns you into a lifeless, workhorse robot. Never straying from your original programming. Just checking things off with a little more efficiency.

But the second allows your habits to fuel an alive, fresh, ongoing discovery.

Of who you are. What you’re capable of. And limitless ways to expand and taste more of what life has to offer.

Strike When the Iron’s Hot

When most people set habits, they try to make one HUGE change once a year or so (i.e. New Years resolutions, again).

Yeah, we all know how that pans out.

At first, you tackle the epic task with gusto. But then you lose steam. And it starts to feel overwhelming. But instead of adjusting or changing course, you keep charging blindly ahead because, dammit, you made a promise to yourself!

Then comes the crash. Shame. Self-hatred. And telling yourself it didn’t work because you suck at life.

But it’s not because YOU suck. It’s because the approach of “set-it-and-forget-it-once-every-blue-moon” sucks.

Instead of shooting for a HUGE habit change ONCE a year, try creating a ton of LITTLE habits CONSTANTLY. All the frickin’ time.

Since small, low commitment habits are WAY easier to implement, you don’t have to prepare for months or wait until some big significant date to get started.

You can just…start. Whenever. Today. Right now.

This means you can start habits AS SOON AS the desire for it shows up! Not next year. Not 3 months later. But NOW.

Yup, you guessed it: it’s way easier to implement a habit if you strike while the iron’s hot! If it’s catching your interest now, then now is the best time to act on it.

And if you’re paying attention, you’ll find that the desire for new habits (AKA awesome changes in your life) don’t just come once a year on January 1st.

They’re showing up ALL the time!

And since you’re setting small habits, not gargantuan ones, you’ll actually be able to implement them as they pop up. Adding new habits to your repertoire constantly. All throughout the year.

Yeah, it’s not as sexy sounding as your big honking New Years resolution. It won’t get you as many likes or retweets.

But it actually works.

And on top of all that, there’s an even greater, hidden benefit to setting tons of little habits all the time…

Develop the Ultimate Habit

Turns out, when you spend a lot of time doing something, you end up getting pretty good at it.

And if you’re constantly setting little habits over and over again, then you’ll find yourself developing the ultimate habit:

The habit of creating habits.

By constantly flexing your habit muscles, you’ll turn into a habit-creating powerhouse!

You’ll set new habits all the time – and actually stick to them. Without thinking about it. Without any effort. And in a fraction of the time.

And that’s the real point to all of this.

When most people focus on creating a habit, they think way too small. They’re just focused on this ONE habit. And they’re overly invested on the RESULTS of that habit.

Think bigger picture.

millionsofhabits

Stop basing your success entirely on the RESULTS you get from each habit.

Measure it in terms of how successful you are in IMPLEMENTING these habits. And sticking to them. And actually ENJOYING them.

The more you do this, the more you’ll get to flex the muscle of successful habit creation.

The more your life will begin to effortlessly run on autopilot, constantly moving you towards things that bring joy and create new potential.

The less life will feel like an endless list of things you have to FORCE yourself to do.

And all without beating yourself up. Shaming yourself. Or making yourself feel like shit.

Not a bad deal, huh?

And if you keep this up, eventually these habits will stop feeling like “habits”.

These opportunities will become a part of your life the same way a new Netflix show will.

Effortless.

Enjoyable.

No force necessary.

And way more guilt-free to binge.

 
 

Photo by Dev Dodia

  • Jardar Nygård

    This sounds pretty good:) one thing i like about it is that it seems the core of it is treating yourself with respect. Like the core attitude towards yourself is: “It’s important you are ok and feeling good. How does this work for you? Do you like it? Then let’s do it more” Like you would treat a good friend. In contrast, it seems, the pushing yourself method seems more like telling your friend
    “For the next five years, or even the rest of your life, you are going to solve mathematical problems for one hour every day.”
    “But I don’t like maths”
    “Doesn’t matter, it’ll make you smart and successful, and you’re not smart and succesful enough so you’re gonna do it. And if you don’t do it and don’t do it well, you’re a looser and i’ll punish you”

    Hm. Actually that sounds suspiciously like school.. ;)

    Also, it seems like the effortless method will lead you more towards habits that are more aligned with your personal talents and predispositions, while the pushing method will lead you more towards habits that are aligned with your perception of what’s required of you for success in society.

    • Yes! So much yes Jardar! I think you hit the nail on the head. I think this is why this method works so well for me. Not only is it much kinder to yourself (and your inner child :)), but it really does align with and help bring out your personal talents and predispositions. Whereas the pushing/forcing method is all about making you successful at what others/culture thinks you should be doing.

      And I love your way of treating yourself with the same respect and kindness you’d treat a friend. When you put it in that context, it seems so cruel the way we usually push and force ourselves to do things. Funny how it seems okay in our culture to treat ourselves in ways that we’d NEVER do to another.