How to design habits that stick?
"You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems." — James Clear
Why are habits important?
Studies show that at least 40% of the daily activities are habitual. As F. M. Alexander writes, “People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits, and their habits decide their futures.”
I’ve always been curious about building and optimizing habits. I first tried to write about habits on October 2, 2014. I couldn’t find the right words to express. Then, in 2015, I went into the productivity rabbit hole, studied how top performers work, and built many systems to mirror their habits and increase my productivity.
As I learned about productivity, I realized that the industry was full of “best practices.” I wanted a simple framework to understand where I am, where I want to be, and what can take me there. I was still a fan of productivity gurus, but I was looking for a different kind of productivity. One that honors our feelings and supports my wellbeing on the bad days.
Since I haven’t found a guide that fulfills my desire, I’ve decided to write my guide. I thought to share the experiments I ran and what has worked for me. By the end of this article, I hope you get to design habits that stick.
What I have tried (and failed)
#1 Habit Checklisting: I started with a simple checklist of morning routines, evening routines, and decision frameworks. I’d make a new list and check them off as I go through my day. Checking off the list felt good, but I also felt a bit forced—because most of the habits did not come from me. These habits came from people who seemed to have figured it out. Since I didn’t take the time to understand why they chose certain habits, I never internalized those habits. Sadly, I didn’t know the root cause and decided to fix the problem by scheduling more things in my calendar.
#2 Habit Scheduling: I had the busiest calendar during high school—not because I had important things to do, but because that’s how I thought people would get things done. I tried bullet journals and Google Calendar. I color-coded every event and was living by the reminders on my phone. My days were highly efficient, but I felt like a robot. I also didn’t plan enough buffer time to account for human error, so the scheduling made my life miserable.
I was fed up with my calendar after a few weeks. I didn’t investigate the root cause and signed up for more. I would write college admission essays during class and listen to podcasts while walking.
Multitasking was trending, and my brain wanted to avoid boredom. I was always thinking, writing, and learning new things, often all at once. Since then, I’ve learned that habit stacking actually can mess with your dopamine, so I’ve decided to do one thing at a time. I now try my best to keep a simple calendar:
#3 Habit Scoring: Even though I got to check off two or three things during one time block, I still didn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted. So, I decided to put the wisdom “what gets measured gets managed” into my new habits. I scored all my habits in a spreadsheet. Seeing everything in the spreadsheet is motivating on the good days. However, whenever I missed a day, I would shame myself hard. When I missed a week, I would avoid looking at the sheet at all.
*Most of my habits were built around Calendar and Notion, but the tools are optional. After all, none of these tools have stuck with me.
What has worked for me
Psychoneuroimmunology study shows if we plunge too quickly into any significant changes, even a good one, our bodies and minds can’t absorb the shock. Deep in our lizard brains, we fear change, and our bodies start to shut down.
If you’re one of the people who committed to a significant change this year, you might be frustrated. Statistically, about 80 percent of people give up on their resolutions by February. Only 19 percent stick with their resolution long-term.
New Year resolutions often fail because they are too extreme. We set lofty goals and lose motivation when we can’t meet them. We revert to old patterns of behavior.
So if you’re going to make a change this year, keep it small. Don’t overhaul your diet or exercise routine overnight. Instead, take baby steps toward behavior that you want to become habitual.
Here’s a simple process that can help you build small habits over time:
Identify what you want: To get started, figure out what you want more of in your life. Impact? Influence? Better relationships? If you want to learn something new every day, consider tweeting one reflection every day. If you want to become more effective at work, consider solving one problem well. If you want to become a better leader, consider doing something to make your team’s life easier.
Set up triggers: Once you know the behaviors you want to have, design triggers to help you get there. For example, when I wake up, I will drink a cup of water and head out to meditate for 15 minutes. When I finish my morning journal, I will show up for the activities on my calendar and enjoy the virtual meetings of the day. When a meeting ends early, I will take a sunshine break and stretch my body. By noon, I will feel accomplished and enjoy whatever comes up for the rest of the day.
Track your progress: Use a checklist to ensure you’re doing them consistently. The checklist helps you focus on what you need to do and provides a sense of accomplishment every time you complete a habit. No sweats if you miss a day or two — you’re human! Just try your best to get back to the routine. After 21 days, see which habits have become part of your routine—and which ones haven’t. This result will let you know what habits work best for you.
What habits would you like to start today?
Once you have a habit, you can go on autopilot and never have to think about it again.
That’s the power of habit.