How to form new habits: a brutally honest follow-up on what worked and what didn’t a year on
In the fall of 2014, after an intense period of non-stop travel through South and North America, I chose to settle. I had to build up my life systems and routines from scratch. I read a couple of books on how habits worked and started experimenting. I’d already posted a follow-up a few weeks later, where I came to conclusions that still hold true today. However, now, a year later, I have a much more accurate overview of what worked and what didn’t.
A lot of what follows is very personal and goes into detail so if you are looking for the lessons you can take away, scroll way down.
I have ambiguous feelings about this whole experiment, probably because the results are not clear cut. If I’m honest, it feels more like a failure than a success even though I’ve succeeded in sustaining some very important lifestyle changes. But let’s bring on the details before jumping to conclusions.
Habits I was trying to quit
Without a shadow of a doubt, my greatest result is I managed to stick with not smoking. I didn’t relapse once and now feel like not smoking has become a part of my identity. It’s not to say I don’t feel tempted, I do. But smoking is not an option anymore. The only really challenging part was the first few weeks, which I describe in detail here. The key lesson though is that tracking progress daily made it possible for me. I only kept up tracking for the first 60 days, but I know that’s what got me through the hard part. I remember the feeling I got from ticking the box and watching it turn green every evening. That simple action kept not smoking a high priority project as opposed to diminishing its importance and allowing for exceptions. It was a conscious choice to stop the tracking after 60 days as I felt I was strong enough. And I was. However, depending on how much of a smoker you are, you may need to keep tracking for much longer (potentially for years). It’s well worth the effort though.
I had two goals in this category. I wanted to only read news once a day and to only check email twice a day. I got mixed results.
The good news is I completely came off facebook. I kept my account, but unfollowed everyone and everything so my news feed is blank. I have no reason to go back, so I don’t. In fact, I still end up on facebook every week or so as I click on links that take me there. But I made sure that I don’t get sidetracked, so I don’t. And that’s fucking awesome.
I’m less good with email, as I check it several times a day. But I did manage to stick with not starting my day with emails for the most part. And that’s life changing. It puts you back into the driver’s seat. Make this one change and you’ll thank me later.
The bad news is news. I find my gluttonous nature resurface every now and then when it comes to news. Reading the news is not the problem itself, it’s the symptom. When I read the news, especially if I was stupid enough to start the day with it, I get into a pattern of craving quick gratification and always wanting more. Sometimes, I literally watch myself read the news, have a coffee, eat, listen to or watch something in the meantime and then start over thinking (or pretending) all the while that I’m working… It sometimes gets to a point where I feel frustrated for not finding a new article to read or a new video to watch (that makes some sense). That’s madness itself. Or perhaps just the consequence of working from home alone for too long…
It rarely gets that bad, but I have serious work to do in this department and the past year has been a disappointment in this regard. Even while I was tracking it daily, I fell back sometimes. I clearly remember that initially, I managed to associate a new behaviour to the trigger. Whenever I felt like I needed some distraction, I’d get up, walk around, water the plants, empty the bin, do some push ups or anything just to remove myself from that deadly situation where the downward spiral begins. And it worked. But slowly, the old habit crept back, and these days, I’m back to the news and excess consumption of information (and sometimes food at the same time).
UPDATE #1: Two weeks passed since I started writing this, which was enough to make some adjustments. I essentially went cold turkey. I read the news 3 times in two weeks, two of which was on the bus. The third time was yesterday. I worked late and was exhausted and just gave in. It didn’t start the spiral though, and I only read one article. I can see how it could creep back again though. I haven’t done daily tracking or anything this time. I’ve been aware of it most of the time (this was the only change I was focusing on). And stopped to reflect almost daily. Again, the trigger (feeling like I need to be distracted) is still there a lot of the time. I went back to real life distractions such as short bursts of exercise and housework as these are useful and not addictive. I’ve also been reading a lot more long format articles and books. The difference this makes is incredible.
UPDATE #2: It’s been four weeks now since I started writing this. I developed a sense of awareness and rules as well. I can only read the news after I’m done with work for the day. Doing that alone seems to have gotten the better of it. My desire to read to news, and the craving for quick gratification with it, seem to have gone. And when I occasionally do visit the news sites, I no longer find it interesting. That tells me, I was never interested in the content, I just wanted the gratification of consuming a piece of content.
UPDATE #3: I wasn’t going to talk about this, but then I reread the title and it says “brutally honest” so here we go: I’ve made great progress with not visiting gentlemanly websites this year (I’m avoiding the word to prevent receiving related traffic). Being in a relationship definitely helped, but I still had to make a conscious choice and effort. It wasn’t difficult, but I had to keep reminding myself. I didn’t need to track it. After a while I was able to not give in like 90% of the time. And that’s good enough.
Tracking this was really hard and didn’t really work well. The thing is I do this sort of thing, like touch my face for no reason, without being aware of it. If you are unaware you can’t track it either… What helps with this is feedback from others. They see you. Ask them to remind you. That’s what I did and it helped to develop an awareness so now I catch myself do it more often and then I can stop. There is a long way to go though.
Habits I was trying to take up
I haven’t been able to stick with a consistent morning routine, which is a great disappointment. I should look for reasons in my evening routine I guess and then I’d find I don’t really have an evening routine. I go to bed at various times, which I can’t really help as my work schedule doesn’t allow me to finish before 9pm, sometimes later. The good part, however is I still wake up around 7:30-8 am without an alarm every day. Then I normally have breakfast and get straight to the most important task of the day or get some exercise. So my morning routine is not a disaster after all, only I haven’t been able to stick with what I planned: meditation, a bit of reading and a bit of writing every morning. In retrospect, that’s not too realistic… I need to come up with a more down to earth plan based partly on what I’m already doing and taking my unpredictable schedule into account. I’m contemplating what role triggers (or the lack thereof) may have played in this. The playlists and different kinds of music for each activity didn’t work, because I had to put these on, which I quit doing after a while.
I’ve not been good with reading and writing in general either. These were supposed to be part of the morning routine, which didn’t work. I made detailed plans for both, none of which came to anything. Instead, I read stuff that I was interested in and wrote when I felt I had something to say, which was rarely. These are important habits I enjoy and want to keep up so I need to find a way to do so. Most likely I’ll try to be more realistic again and dedicate a chunk of time to these weekly.
UPDATE #4: I’ve set an alarm clock for going to bed, which makes getting up early easier. I kept the morning routine very simple: 5-10 minutes sitting still just watching thoughts arise and not getting lost in them. Then I eat and get down to the most important task of the day. I made it part of the evening routine to define the most important task for the next day.
I had been trying to get into the habit of daily reflection to review the events of the day and plan the next one as well. I stuck with this and with weekly reflection for a few months, but not any longer. Now, I’m back to where I was a year ago. This is painful, because this is the one habit that should have kept all the others on track. Without regular reflection, I wasn’t even aware of how I was doing with my other habits after I stopped tracking them daily about two months in.
I remember making the choice to stop daily tracking as I thought it was too time consuming and couldn’t be kept up in the long run. I don’t however recall choosing to not do regular reflection. It just slipped away and I gravitated back to my old self.
The lesson here, perhaps, is that I need to identify the so called keystone habits and keep tracking those potentially forever. At the same time, I need to be much more selective in what I choose to track, because if it’s too many things it becomes unsustainable.
UPDATE #5: I designed and have been doing for the past few weeks a very simple and effective evening routine which helps reflection.
- Write in the awesome jar (inspired by Tim Ferris’ ex girlfriend).
- Ask: is there any unfinished business for today? Write it down. Clean desktop.
- Select main task for next day.
- Any lessons learned, ideas worth noting? Write them down.
I also re-prioritized weekly reflection too and simplified it to just reading the notes I took and distilling them. I really hope to keep this up long term.
In addition to getting rid of smoking, I wanted to make healthy eating and exercise my top priorities and build my life around them. And I have. Health is the one aspect this experiment has been a total success in.
I didn’t start from a bad place a year ago to be honest. I’d already learnt a lot about good nutrition in the preceding months and my history with rigorous exercise goes back even further. However, it was this past 12 months that made these good habits really stick and a part of who I am.
Interestingly, tracking had no role here whatsoever. Most likely I was very much motivated in making these changes and everything I did pushed me into the right direction (read my summary of The Power of Habit for the “small wins effect”).
I started out with a goal to eat well at least 6 days of the week and go off limits on the seventh day. What I mean by eating well is:
- Eat mostly plant foods (about 90%)
- Eat mostly whole foods (at least 60%)
By following these two simple principles, there is nothing I can’t eat every once in a while and yet I stay on course. I never counted calories or carbs once and I only stop eating when I’m full (or there is no more).
I’ve learnt to appreciate and prepare simple food. It takes minutes to dig some veggies out of the freezer, steam and eat them with whole rice or add a banana and make a smoothie out of them. Preparing salads can be more time consuming and I can’t always be bothered so I just eat whole fruits and vegetable quite often. Porridge has become my staple breakfast and can’t seem to get bored of it. Refined sugar, white flour, deep fried stuff and animal products I avoid; except for cheat days when anything goes. The funny thing is my fondness for anything sweet didn’t change a bit, while I developed quite an intense dislike for meat.
The one area where I see a potential for problems to emerge is making exceptions. Again, I must refer to my unfortunate gluttonous nature. For normal people, I guess, saying no after a cookie or two is default behaviour. For me, eating as many as there are is (or until I get sick, whichever happens first). This is really a flaw I’d like to rectify, but it’s an ongoing battle. Eating with other people can be also tricky, because them eating a cake sort of justifies me having one too. Also, as I was getting very lean due to cycling loads, I noticed that I made more exceptions because I didn’t put on any weight at all. However, one exception lead to another and I’d sometimes find myself overeating, bloated and feeling like an idiot. I guess the answer here is a clear set of rules, no exceptions, and awareness. If you are just starting out, a food diary is best.
Triggers have been an important part of this too. Not having any junk food around the house removed the temptation and even the possibility of falling off the wagon. The fact that I have a hard time resisting temptation shows that it’s still an issue (unlike smoking).
One other diet related thing I’d like to do in the future is regular fasting. Just once or twice a month. It can be simply a day of green smoothies or something like that, nothing too extreme. But it’s a great way to give your digestive system a break, let it flush out anything that may be stuck in there… It’s also a great way to remind yourself to appreciate food when you have it and to be content with simple food most of the time. Plus, after a day of fasting, your stomach contracts and you’ll be satisfied with less food the following day.
A good diet helps to sustain a healthy exercise regime and vice versa. For me, exercise came first. I’d run marathons years before the idea of eating less crap even entered my mind. However, living in the city center most of this past year I found it challenging to get regular exercise. I’m not keen on going to the gym and running inside the city isn’t very smart either. What ultimately solved this issue was that I moved out of the center and into the woods. I get to run or cycle in the mountains 3-5 times a week. This is not a choice everyone can make, but the point my story demonstrates is you need to choose priorities carefully. And it’s a fairly smart thing to put your health as #1.
Long story short, thanks to the diet and exercise, I’m leaner and fitter than ever. I don’t have chest pain, or much less, than I used to. My body fat percentage is 11 and my skeletal muscle mass is 50%. More importantly, I feel better than I have for a long time.
Even though I said this habit tweaking experiment feels more of a failure than a success, looking at it objectively, it really is more of a success than a failure. My habits around reflection, awareness and productivity may have fallen apart, but I stuck with the most important ones that made me the healthiest version of myself. And perhaps even more importantly, here I am a year later, contemplating what worked and what didn’t. And I’ll definitely improve upon these results in the coming months. UPDATE #6: I already have.
So are there any universal lessons that may apply to your own attempts of habit change? I think so:
- Habits that you are intrinsically motivated to develop or lose are much more likely to stick/go.
- It’ll never happen unless you’re emotionally invested. You need to fall in love with your would be self a little bit.
- Focus and priorities
- It’s impossible to change everything you want to all at once.
- You need to identify the (keystone) habit that will facilitate the cultivation of other desired habits and focus on that one.
- You need to set priorities and must be willing to organize your life around them (eg. move where you’re more likely to exercise, hang out with people who already have the habits you want, sell the car, buy a bike etc.).
- Tracking and awareness
- Initially, daily tracking can make all the difference.
- Over time, regular (at least weekly) reflection is key to developing an awareness of your habits, which is a condition of sustaining them in the long run.
- Habits form gradually, often without your permission, which is why awareness of them is crucial.
- Trying to track too many things at the same time is futile.
- Over time you tend to gravitate towards deeply ingrained habits
- Unless maintained, and reaffirmed, newly formed habits slowly fade away and old ones creep back.
- It’s the slowness of the process that inhibits awareness.
- Plan ahead. Schedule regular check-ups on progress before it’s too late and you’re back to square one.
- You really need disambiguous rules and to avoid making exceptions. If thinking is involved (should I have a cake or should I not), it’s not a habit anymore.
I wish you happy habit tweaking for the new year so that when you take a moment to reflect a year from now, you can encounter a better version of yourself.
UPDATE #7: Taking a step back, I’m contemplating what kind of an impression this piece of writing would make of me as a person on different people. Someone living in poverty could think quit agonizing and start feeling gratitude for having problems like this you greedy bastard. A professional mountain climber could think, dude get a fucking life. And they would be right to some extent. Our grandparents had to figure out ways to survive the world war while we have to figure out how not to get hooked on facebook. It’s hardly fair on them. And yet, to hundreds of millions around the world, much of this is reality. We are confined to a desk and to doing work that we are fond of to a varying degree so we seek ways to fill the void that the lack of fulfilment creates. I’m sure that solving that fundamental problem takes much of these first world problems away. But it won’t eliminate them. We are creatures of habit by nature under any circumstance and unless we keep them under control, our habits will control us.