Author’s Note: Over the years, I have learned a lot from the work of Cal Newport, Mel Robbins, Alex Epstein, and Jean Moroney on the topic of building positive habits. The following includes my own integration of some of their ideas.
Building life-promoting habits can transform your life, helping you gain a deeper knowledge of yourself and your values, along with a sense of pride for accomplishing your goals. But creating new habits can be difficult. As new activities compete with existing ones for your time and resources, your efforts can quickly end in frustration.
For years, I faced this issue while trying to implement a regular exercise routine. Although I desired the positive results of exercise, I couldn’t get a routine off the ground. I joined a gym, took group classes, signed up for exercise streaming services, and even bought some equipment. But within a few days or weeks, my efforts flopped. Despite my initial excitement, which carried me through the first few sessions, I couldn’t sustain the commitment, even though I wanted to succeed.
All this changed two years ago after I adopted a new approach to habit-building that eliminated the mental roadblocks I previously faced. Today, exercise is one of my favorite activities. Moreover, building this positive habit has given me the momentum to pursue other passions with greater confidence. So what was it that made the difference between my failed attempts and ultimate success? I have identified five essential steps:
- Get clear on what you are after and why it matters to you.
Before you implement a new habit, it’s essential to identify its purpose and value within the context of your life. For example, exercise is widely held as something you should do, but until I developed a clear idea of what values it would add to my life—such as having more energy, being mentally clearer, and feeling more confident with my appearance—it was easy to talk myself out of doing it.
Imagining my life with these values served as an enduring source of motivation, which helped me push past obstacles. This clarity enabled me to choose the intermediate goals that would help me realize this vision.
- Make small but meaningful commitments.
Have you ever overcommitted yourself to an activity? Overcommitments are unsustainable and often overwhelm you. Although I can now complete ninety minutes of exercise in the gym, I built my habit on an initial commitment of exercising for just ten minutes a day, and in the comfort of my living room. In isolation, ten minutes of exercise may seem trivial, but within a couple of weeks, I was ready to add another ten minutes, and so on. The purpose here is to start by creating building blocks, not an entire building at once. You need to identify what is doable for you now, given all your life circumstances, then check in regularly to see if you’re ready for the next step.
- Give it some time.
Trying new things is mentally challenging. For example, I have found that the first week of a new exercise program is the most difficult. No matter how much I have come to love exercise, I often want to procrastinate or quit during that initial period. This challenge is also common during the first few minutes of some activities, such as writing or cleaning. You feel resistance toward getting started, but once you get over this hump, the activity can become enjoyable. If you are unable to push past that initial hump consistently, however, you won’t be able to get your habit off the ground. For this reason, it’s important to give things some time before deciding that it’s not worth continuing. If you have determined that the activity is a potential value to your life, make an upfront commitment to do it for several weeks or longer.
- Schedule the activity into your existing habits and routines.
New goals disrupt our lives because they take up time that we would otherwise spend doing other things. Until I started scheduling my workouts into my existing routines, I faced a lot of friction fitting them in. I eliminated this by finding times in my day when exercise would cause the least amount of interruption. If possible, look for times when your new commitment will complement your existing routine.
- Reward your achievements!
Each step you take toward building your new habit deserves celebration. Thoughtful rewards can help fuel your motivation and enhance your enjoyment of the process you’re going through. For example, during my initial months, at the end of each exercise program that I completed, I would buy myself new workout clothes, shoes, or equipment that I could use as I began my next commitment. I got so much joy out of these items and couldn’t wait to use them.
Building positive habits into our lives can be challenging, but the value of doing so is worth it. I hope these five tips can help you achieve your goals in 2021 and beyond.