How to Develop a Good Habit

Choosing to do the right thing again and again is hard. These 3 steps can help.

Posted Dec 26, 2014

  • Q:  Why don’t nuns have to worry about deciding what to wear?
  • A:  Because they have a habit.

habit is a shortcut that makes your life easier because you don’t have to spend energy choosing to do it. It's mentally exhausting thinking about every action and every behavior. If you’re spending several minutes two or three times a week looking for your keys that adds up to a lot of frustration and wasted time. And that may point to an area in your life in need of a habit. Similarly, if you’ve been meaning to incorporate, say, journaling into your morning practice, but it just hasn’t happened, then it’s pretty clear you haven’t developed that habit. Or if your car stays super cluttered and that bothers you, then there may be another habit you need to develop.

Appointments, to-do items, and habits

Your schedule consists of three basic elements—appointments, to-do items, and habits. An appointment is a commitment with yourself or with another person. Your to-do list is essentially a wish list—it’s like that drawer in your kitchen where you dump all that stuff that doesn’t have a home yet. And habits are the third element. Brushing your teeth, for example, is not a to-do item, nor is it something we typically put on the calendar as an appointment. It’s a habit—something we do on autopilot.  

I’d like to invite you to consider a habit that you would like to develop, then spend 30 seconds identifying a strategy, and then make that strategy a rule. Strategy turns to rule and then, with any luck, that rule becomes a new habit.

Let’s take the example of someone who spends several minutes each week looking for her misplaced keys. In her 30-second problem-solving period she might come up with a reasonable strategy like, "When I walk in my house, then I’ll put my keys in the candy dish by the door.” Next, she’ll make that strategy a rule. She’ll add an evening reminder to her calendar and if she has not followed her rule, she will stop what she’s doing and over-correct: She’ll pop downstairs and put the keys into the candy dish five times. She is over-practicing, or over-rehearsing, in an effort to lay down this new habit.

Step two is to make that strategy a rule in the form of when/then: When I walk in the door, then I put the keys in the dish. And step three is to make an appointment with yourself at the end of the day to determine whether in fact you have followed through. If you’ve picked a good strategy, this process should yield a new habit easily enough. On the other hand, if you don’t find that your new habit is easy to establish, you might need to go back to the drawing board and spend another 30 seconds identifying a new strategy.

Let’s try it

OK, let’s go: Spend 30 seconds right now identifying a strategy in the form of when/then. For example, "When I leave the office, then I will head straight to the gym." Or, "When I order a salad, then I’ll request dressing on the side." Or, "When my supervisor speaks sharply with me and I want to say something rude, then I’ll place my tongue at the roof of my mouth right behind my front teeth and count to five."

Go ahead, identify the strategy; if you feel stuck, reach out to some creative friends. Just make sure that you’ve come up with a good strategy before you move onto the next step—making that strategy a rule. Agree with yourself in writing: Put it on your calendar. And achedule an evening check-in.

Develop a strategy, make it a rule, and develop a new habit. Wash, rinse and repeat...

Good luck with this process, tell me about your successes or frustrations developing a new habit. Especially tell me about any tweaks to the process that made it more effective for you.