How to build a habit (with science, not willpower)

When I was a little kid, my parents signed me up for piano lessons.

The very first day, my teacher told me: “if you want to get good at this, you have to practice for 30 minutes every single day.”

Every day, I would sit down at the piano, and my mom would set one of those wind-up timers for 30 minutes, and put it on top of the piano.

Tick Tock

Tick Tock

I would start playing, and my mom would go off to do things around the house.

As soon as she left the room, I’d quietly grab the timer and wind it forward five minutes.

I’d play for another few minutes, pick up the timer again, and wind it forward.

Fifteen minutes after I started, I’d walk confidently past my mom’s skeptical gaze, announcing “all done!”

(I thought I was being 007-level sneaky, so I was more than a little surprised when years later, I found out my whole family knew exactly what was going on. None of them were surprised when I quit.)

I’m better about habits now, but the point of the story — aside from the fact that I was stupid — is that the ability to build habits isn’t innate; it can be learned.

But when most people try to build a habit, they say something like: “I’m going to start going to the gym every day for an hour.”

They start their new habit, diligently trot out to the gym for one, two, maybe three days, and then they hit a wall. Boom. Done. Habit forgotten.

Sound familiar?

Trying to go from working out (or doing anything else) zero minutes a day to 60 minutes a day is a recipe for failure.

To understand how to truly build habits in a way that makes them stick, let’s look at the research…

The psychology of building habits: two things to know

There are two big takeaways to understand:

(Other than the fact that the “21 days to make a habit” line that people love to repeat is complete and total BS.)

First, mindset is extremely important.

Let’s say you’re thinking about starting an exercise habit.

Are you driven by the hope of one day looking like this…

This is me after I tried a protein shake once.

This is me after I tried a protein shake once.

Or the expectation that if you follow your plan, you’ll fit into a pair of (size X) jeans?

When it comes to achieving results, a study at NYU found that expectations (judging your desired future as likely) are much more powerful than fantasies (simply picturing that desired future).

So if you’re going to succeed at building a habit — and you are going to — change your thinking from:

If I did [habit] every day, life would be amazing. Wouldn’t it be great if I did that?

to…

I’m going to do [habit] every day so that I can achieve [result].

Second, self-control works like a muscle.

One of the most interesting studies of willpower was released in 2000, when two researchers at Case Western suggested that self-control resembles a muscle in the way that it works.

Just like your biceps, your self-control “muscle” has a finite amount of energy each day. As it gets depleted, your ability to make willpower-driven decisions goes down.

Ever notice how you tend to eat less healthy foods late at night? Or how it’s so much easier to put things off after you’ve already had a hard day at work?

That’s why.

Now, the researchers found that you can train your willpower muscle, and make it stronger over time.

But wouldn’t you rather use your limited willpower for big, important decisions than routine, everyday ones like whether you’re going to floss or read for 30 minutes?

I certainly would.

That’s why when it comes to building habits, systems are infinitely more effective than willpower.

How to build any habit

There are lots of systems out there for building habits. And choosing one that you stick with is a lot more valuable than knowing all of them.

My approach — and the one I recommend you try — is taken from a combination of BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits and Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit.

Here’s what you should do:

Step 1: Break it down

Think about the habit you want to start.

Here’s some feedback: whatever it is, it’s too big.

Break your habit down into the smallest possible task. Something so small it almost seems ridiculous.

I love the example that Fogg gives: instead of setting out to floss your whole mouth each day, commit to flossing a single tooth.

Why does this work? Because:

a) It requires so little effort that you’ll find it easy to do without much willpower

and

b) It taps into the power of little wins: once you’ve flossed a single tooth, you’re already standing there with floss; of course you’re going to finish flossing the rest of your teeth.

Some more examples:

  • Instead of reading an hour a day, read a single page
  • Instead of writing 1,000 words a day, write a single sentence
  • Instead of running ten miles, run to the end of the block

Step 2: Attach it to your routine

Take your (now tiny) task, and attach it to your routine in a way that you can’t miss it.

I live in my calendar — everything I do each day is dictated by what me calendar says. So for me, that means I add the task to my calendar.

If you don’t use a calendar, attach the task to a task you already do.

For example, every time I brush my teeth, I’ll floss one tooth. Every time I watch The Daily Show, I’ll do five pushups. Every time I eat lunch, I’ll read a page from a book.

Step 3: Reward yourself

When Charles Duhigg set out to start an exercise habit, he tried something strange: every time he exercised, he’d reward himself with a piece of chocolate.

And while it may seem counterintuitive, it actually worked: he stopped eating the chocolate a couple of weeks later, but the exercise habit stuck.

Here’s why: when he first started exercising, the cost of exercising — building a new habit, depleting his willpower each day, pain and soreness — was high enough to outshine the rewards, which, in the first few days, aren’t great.

By adding the chocolate reward, he made it easier for himself to choose to exercise, because there was an immediate reward.

Over a short period of time, his body “learned” about the benefits of exercise. The release of endorphins and endocannabinoids made him feel good, while the soreness fell away, and as he worked on the habit, the amount of willpower required to do it every day got lower, too. He no longer needed the chocolate, but the habit was built.

Apply this concept to your own habit to tip the cost/benefit scales in the early days of your new habit.

For example, every time you read, give yourself five minutes on reddit/Twitter/whatever. Or every time you floss, buy yourself a song on iTunes (just don’t eat chocolate, or you’ll have to floss again).

Do this now

Pick ONE habit that you want to start.

Seriously, no more than one; the best way to sabotage yourself in this exercise is to try to make full-scale routine changes instead of a picking a single habit.

Break it down to the smallest possible task, and attach it to your routine. Either add it to your calendar each day, or think about a task you already do that you’ll attach your new habit to.

Finally, think about how you’ll reward yourself for successfully following through on your habit in these early days.

That’s it. It’s time to start your new habit.

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  • Vicki Cato

    I can relate to the piano lessons and practicing. Thank you for the tips about starting a new habit.

  • Karon McKinney

    Thank you! I tend to think of change as drastic and earth shattering instead of incremental and manageable. This helps my thinking!

  • Jess Mercer

    Found this really inspiring, thank you for posting it. I agree that a lot of things we do or don’t do is mostly down to the mind set we have and being able to focus on doing something you need to, with out feeling like it’s a burden or takes too much effort is a fantastic ability. if you can do it. So I’m going to put it to the test. It’s great how you’ve broken it down and showed the reality of things actually not being all that difficult.

  • Emerald Bixby

    Hot damn, this site is full of actually practical, original, applicable advice. Straight to the point, and a little funny too. Glad I found it. Thanks!