Hard to break, harder to create. But always well worth the effort. The importance of a good habit and the breaking of a bad one cannot be overstated. Whether it’s obviously detrimental, like multitasking when you should be single-tasking or not getting enough sleep; or something helpful, like reading or meditating, your habits define who you are.
It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.1
That’s obviously quite the range. It might be simpler to state this as follows: It takes a lifetime to build a habit. When you stop doing that thing, you’ve broken the habit. But there’s no penalty for starting again; you can try as many times as you need to. The goal is to get it to that automatic stage – the point where you don’t need to actively think about doing the thing, you simply do it. It has become a part of you.
What I’m not going to discuss very much are the habits you should employ. That’s a personal matter. I work out in the morning, read, am trying to build a meditation habit, and am constantly working on refining my productivity system (a mix of deep work and time tracking). It’ll probably be different for you.
What I do want to talk about is the difficulty you will encounter in trying to build a good habit or breaking a bad one. This is the crux of the matter. I’ve found it to be hard. A good habit, like most things, sounds fine on paper. But the devil is in the details. Talking about the benefits of a habit is far easier than implementing it. Sure, the first time might not be that difficult. It’s new and fresh, after all. It’s the 2nd time onwards that you begin to encounter trouble. Most often, it’ll be an excuse – “I don’t have the time”, “I’ll do it later”, “It’s fine if I skip today”, etc. I’ve encountered each of them and gave in to some form of each. Mostly “I’ll do it later.” It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If you never specify later, you’ll keep pushing it further down the line. If you really can’t do it now, add a quick reminder or task for when you do want to do it. That way, you’re less likely to avoid falling into a downward, procrastinatory spiral.
Note that I said less likely, not that you won’t. Building and breaking habits is a constant battle. Slipping once will turn into a recurrent event if you’re not careful. You must show constant vigilance and be continually aware of the moment. Sometimes, it’s a thoughtless slip. This is probably why so many people find meditation to be helpful. The point is to be present in the moment, which implies thoughtful action as opposed to thoughtless flow.
Assuming you’re present and in the moment, the next thing to deal with is desire. Desire is a powerful thing. The desire not to do something good, the desire to do something that could go against you in the long term. It might be something as simple as staying off a distracting website i.e. YouTube, Facebook, etc. I use Focus to keep those sites blocked. The desire is there, but I can’t on it. I’ve effectively placed it out of reach. Sometimes, you have to take drastic measures.
The most uncomfortable thing to do is to grit your teeth and do what’s right. Whether it’s picking up a book you want to get through or putting determinantal things out of reach. You’ll find plenty of tips & tricks online that help you build habits or break them. I’ve found almost none of them have worked for me. It may be more worthwhile to confront the fact as is – “This is good for me, but I don’t want to do it. Still, I must do it.” Easy to say. Hard to pull off. Good success rate, though, if uncomfortable.
But maybe you’ll have better luck at implementing other strategies than I did. There are a lot of books on building a habit, but the best I’ve read is Atomic Habits by James Clear. He breaks it down into simple steps and also has links to worksheets that might be helpful. He shares more material in his newsletter. You can download the first chapter of his book there and get a feel for whether or not it might right for you. I found it to be helpful, but it still took a while to instantiate my habits – ones that would be helpful or useful to me. Knowing might be half the battle, but it’s the easiest half.
Why did I only list one book? Because over-researching something is also a bad habit. That leads to paralysis and you won’t end up reading anything on the topic. Best to stick with one thing and continue onto others after ascertaining whether or not it will work.