Building Anticipation for Habit Change

Many people, when they want to create a new habit, will want to start today. Or tomorrow.

Don’t give in to this urge.

Build anticipation.

Set a start date that’s ideally at least a week away from now. So if today is December 22, set your start date for January 1. If today is December 31, set the start date for January 7 or later — it’s OK if it doesn’t start on the first of the month.

And yes, it’s OK to start your first habit change any time of the year — not just on New Year.

Why it’s important

When you build anticipation, you send a message that this habit change is important. It’s serious, and you’re going to take it seriously. It’s not just something you wake up and do one day, like putting on an outfit. It’s a long-lasting change that’s going to have a serious impact on your life.

Take it seriously, and treat it with importance, by not starting right this moment. Start in a week (or more), and set a date.

How to build anticipation

Mark that start date on your calendar. You’ll find yourself looking forward to people.

Create a plan (more on that in another post). Write it down.

Tell people about it. Tell them how excited you are. Ask them for their support, their help keeping you on track, their encouragement. Ask them to check on you, daily, so you don’t fall off the wagon.

Plan out each step, each week, so you’ll know what’s coming up.

Get excited!

Why Only 6 Changes?

One of the most common questions people ask is, “Why only 6 changes?”

Many people want to make more than 6 changes in their lives, and so limiting to 6 seems … well, limiting. It forces them to make choices.

This is a good thing.

Limiting yourself and forcing yourself to make choices means you must decide what’s most important, and focus all of your energies on the important stuff. (More on this in my book, The Power of Less.)

Six is not a magic number. I simply decided that 6 changes in a year divides neatly — 2 months per habit. And two months is not a magic number either — it happens to divide fairly neatly into (about) 8 weeks, which from my experience is a good amount of time to form a new habit that will stick with you for a long time.

So if you’d like to do 10 habits … well, you can. But I think it would be less effective, if you’re doing those 10 habits in 12 months, because you’re giving yourself less time to adopt each habit.

If you’d like to do 5 habits (or fewer), that’s totally fine. Give yourself longer for each habit. You’ll probably have even better chances of success.

Fewer habits (such as 6) is better than more (such as 10), because you’re able to focus on fewer better, and you give yourself more time to adopt each habit.

Try my method. I think you’ll be happy with the results.

Keeping Habits for Life

Many people will look at habit change as a short-term thing. Like, I just gotta stick with this diet for a month (or eight weeks, or whatever), and then I made it.


Habit changes should be for life. Don’t do short-term fads, quick changes that you want to stick with for a little while and then you’re done.

You want to make a change you’re going to stick with for life — otherwise, it’s a waste of time.

If you spend a month or two dieting in order to lose weight, and then stop, you’ll gain the weight right back. If you spend a month or three trying to get organized, and then drop the habit, you’ll find the clutter and disarray right back again. If you spend a year trying to get out of debt, and then go back to your old habits, you’ll be right back in debt again.

Don’t waste your time. Form life-long habits.

And the way to do this is not to think of it as a short-term thing. This isn’t a two-month goal. It’s a habit change, something you plan to incorporate in your life for years and years to come. Think permanency.

That’s why starting small makes sense. You’re not in a sprint. You’re going to be in this for the long haul. So what’s the rush?

Make changes you can picture yourself sticking with forever. Not ones that will take extreme “discipline” and sacrifice for a short while.

Quick Start Guide

New to this site? So is everyone else – I just launched it today. Hi, I’m Leo, and I’m the author of the Zen Habits blog and The Power of Less.

Here’s a quick overview of this site and how it will help you.

  1. About this site. What is Choose 6 habits for 2010, and I’ll help you form them.
  2. The 6 Changes Method. Here’s the method that you’ll use to form each of the 6 habits.
  3. Suggest habits. Which six will you choose? Some recommendations.
  4. The Importance of Public Accountability. Why it’s one of the foundations of the method, and how to do it.
  5. What’s a Trigger & Why Is It So Important? Another key to the method.
  6. Why You Should Do Only One Habit at a Time. Answers one of the most common questions people have about the method.
  7. How to Be Patient as Your Habit Develops. It’s not easy to do it this slowly, but here’s how it works and how to do it.
  8. The Problem With New Year’s Resolutions. Actually, a number of problems. And how this method will solve them.
  9. The Art of the Start of a Habit. Why starting is so hard and how this method overcomes it.
  10. How to Kick a Bad Habit. Suggested method that has worked for me in the past.
  11. How to Form the Exercise Habit. One of a series of planned posts about how to apply the method.
  12. Key to Habit Change: Enjoy the Activity. Don’t force yourself to do something you hate. Find ways to enjoy it instead.
  13. Make Your Habit Change a Priority. How not to let it drop by the wayside.
  14. Don’t Worry So Much About Long-term Goals. Focus on the process, not the end point.
  15. Why Daily Frequency of Habits is Important. Daily habits are better than ones you do once a week, or even 2-3 times a week.

I will put these articles and others together into a free ebook soon, for your downloading pleasure.

For more on successful habit change technique, as well as ways to simplify your life and become more effective, check out my book, The Power of Less.

Why Daily Frequency of Habits is Important

One very common question is: what about habits that aren’t every day? What if I want to exercise three times a week, or do my finances once a week?

It’s very possible to create a habit like that (think of weekend habits as a good example), but it’s harder.

Daily habits are easier to create, and therefore have a better chance of success.

Remember, you need to create a strong bond between the trigger and the habit, and this is done by being as consistent as possible. The more the habit is consistently done immediately after the trigger, the stronger the bond, and the sooner the habit becomes automatic.

So if you decide to create a new habit in two months … think about the bond between trigger and habit if you exercise once a week, or every day:

  • The once a week habit will happen about eight times in the two months, giving the habit and trigger eight chances to form a bond.
  • The daily habit will happen about 60 times in the two months, giving the habit and trigger more than 7 times the number of chances to form a bond.

From this, it should be obvious why a daily habit is formed more firmly than a weekly habit. And it follows that doing a habit 2-3 times a week, or even 5 times a week, is less than ideal — not as good as a daily habit.

So, at least for your first few habits, choose habits that can be done every single day. Which means you need a trigger you do every single day — this is important: don’t choose a trigger you only do on weekdays and then forget about on weekends. For example, if you get up and get ready for work on weekdays, but sleep in and do a completely different routine when you wake up on weekends, don’t choose your weekday routine as your trigger.

If you choose a habit that’s less than daily — say 5 times a week or 2-3 times — choose a trigger that’s only done on those days. So if you ride the train to work 5 times a week, then it’s OK to use that as a trigger for a habit you do 5 times a week. But it’s not OK to use that as a trigger for a habit you plan to do 2-3 times a week, because then you’ll have 3 days where it’s a trigger for the habit, and 2 days when it’s not. Which means the bond will be very weak — you don’t automatically do the habit every single time the trigger occurs.

But again, daily frequency is best, because the bond will become the strongest. And again, choose a daily habit for at least your first 2-3 habits.

Don’t Worry So Much About Long-term Goals

One of the things that side-tracks a lot of people is the become impatient, because they’re interested in long-term goals such as losing a lot of weight or getting a flat stomach or getting out of debt.

Those are good goals, to be sure, but if you’re focused on such long-term goals, you’re going to have a difficult time.

I should know — I’ve focused on those very goals. I desperately wanted to get out of debt, to build up my blog, to lose a lot of weight. And you know what? I’ve done all of them, but I discovered along the way that it takes a lot longer than I expected at first.

And that can be discouraging. You want to see all the fat melt off, but despite exercising furiously and eating really healthy foods, it doesn’t come off right away. Not in a week or two, a month or two, or even six months (depending on how far you have to go).

For most of us, getting out of debt will take longer than six months – maybe well over a year or two. That’s too long to wait – we’ll get discouraged well before that point when we first taste success.

So the key here is to focus on the process, not the progress.

Don’t worry about how far you’ve gotten to your final goal — that could take a lot longer than you expect, and if it does, you’ll get discouraged.

Instead, focus on creating that new habit. Focus on right now, today, not next week or next year. Focus on enjoying the activity, not on trying to get to the destination.

When you enjoy the journey, guess what? You’re already at the destination. When you finally get to that flat stomach or get out of debt, you’ll be happy, but incredibly, you’ve been happy all along the way, because the journey is what has been important.

Forget about the long-term goals. Focus on creating your new habit, right now. You’ll get there eventually, and you’ll love every minute of the ride.

Suggested Habits: Which 6 Should You Pick for 2018?

Which 6 habits you choose for 2018 is a highly personal issue – it depends on what you want in life, where you’re at, what you’ve done already, what kind of a person you want to be.

Are you unhealthy or overweight? You might want to choose habits related to eating healthier and exercising regularly.

Are you stressed out and in debt? You might choose habits dealing with decluttering, simplifying your schedule, becoming more frugal.

Are you looking for a career change? You could choose things like waking early, so you can have more time to work on a new career, and creating something amazing every day.

Tired of smoking or drinking or procrastinating? Replace your old habits with new triggers.

But for most people, here are some great habits you could choose from that I believe will make the most difference:

  1. Daily exercise. Choose an activity you enjoy.
  2. Eating healthier. Choose real, unprocessed foods that you love.
  3. Waking earlier. This isn’t completely necessary for anything, other than it gives you some quiet time where you can relax and find peace, or create something amazing in quiet.
  4. Decluttering. Simplifying your schedule and possessions is an amazing way to find the focus you’re looking for.
  5. Focus on creating. Every day, set aside time at the beginning of the day to clear away distractions and just create that something amazing.
  6. Stopping impulse spending. This could make a great difference to your finances and help get you out of debt.

There are many other great choices, of course, including but not limited to:

  • Reading novels.
  • Taking photographs.
  • Flossing.
  • Quitting smoking or drinking.
  • Scrapbooking.
  • Spending quality time with spouse or kids.
  • Hiking.
  • Cooking.
  • Getting organized.
  • Keeping your house clean.
  • Saving or making debt payments.

And many more. What six will you choose?

Make Your Habit Change a Priority

One thing I like to say to friends who stumble in their habit changes is “Life gets in the way.”

And it undoubtedly does. Emergencies come up, work gets crazy and hectic, vacations happen, routines change, priorities change. Habits become less of a priority when many of these things happen, and often it’s enough of a change in priority for the habit to die altogether.

But don’t let that happen without a fight.

Make your habit change a top priority in your life, or it will likely fail.

If you want to make exercise a new habit, for example, but you let other priorities push the exercise back and back until you just decide not to do it for today, you’re going to fail.

If instead, you do the exercise first, because it’s important to you, and let the other stuff (including work) come after the exercise, then you’ll likely succeed.

This is one of the reasons it’s important to do just one habit change at a time — you can’t have very many priorities in your life. It just doesn’t work that way. At any given time, only one or two things is really important to you.

If you want the habit to stick, the change to actually last, you’ll need to make the habit change one of those really important things. That means, every day, you wake up thinking about how you’re going to make it work today. It means every day, you really want to not only get it done, but to log it and let others know how you succeeded.

Every day, your habit change needs to be the top thing you do. When you go on vacation, it should still be your priority. When your work gets intense, it can’t fall by the wayside, but you need to figure out how you’re going to make the work fit in around the habit. When your routine changes, you need to figure out how the routine will work around the habit.

Don’t let the habit be a lower priority.

How to Kick a Bad Habit

Many of you will be looking not to create a new habit, but to break an old, bad habit — smoking, drinking, procrastinating, checking email too often, watching television, driving too fast, eating too many sweets, drinking coffee, etc.

Here’s the secret: replace the bad habit with good ones.

You’ll notice the plural there — in most cases you’ll be creating several new habits to replace one bad habit. And in fact, you might make those several new habits a good part of the six habits you choose.

1. Triggers. What you need to do first is make a list of all the triggers you have for your bad habit. What things trigger the urge to do the bad habit? To answer this, I recommend you do an exercise for a day or two: every time you do the habit, just make a tally mark on a small piece of paper that you carry around with you everywhere. This will help you become more aware of your habit.

Once you’ve done that, take a day or two to write down your triggers each time you do the bad habit. There will be several, or perhaps many.

Example: when I quit smoking, here were some of my triggers (these are from memory – it’s not a complete list): waking up and using the bathroom, drinking coffee, drinking soda, eating, socializing with other smokers, meetings, driving, stress, going out and drinking.

2. Replacement habits. Now that you know your triggers, you need to select positive replacement habits for each trigger. Sometimes one habit can cover two or more triggers, but in many cases you’ll be finding one new habit for each trigger.

As an example, here’s a list of the replacement habits I formed when I quit smoking:

  • waking up and using the bathroom – instead of smoking, I would read.
  • drinking coffee – also read.
  • make a list of all the triggers drinking soda – I drank water instead, as it’s healthier.
  • eating – drinking water, going for a walk.
  • socializing with other smokers – I ended up socializing with smokers less.
  • meetings – type notes and send any necessary emails right after meeting.
  • driving – focus on driving slower and being more present.
  • stress – exercise, deep breathing, walking.
  • going out and drinking – I ended up going out less.

3. All at once, or one at a time. This is a tough question. When I quit smoking, I decided to go cold turkey and quit all at once. It wasn’t easy and took a massive effort.

However, I’ve kicked other bad habits (sweets, procrastination) by changing one trigger at a time, creating one positive habit at a time. I recommend this method, as it’s easier and less likely to fail.

If you do this, focus on one new good habit for one or more triggers. Running to burn off stress, or first thing in the morning, is a good example.

Eventually, you’ll have conquered all your triggers, and the bad habit will be erased.

How to Be Patient as Your Habit Develops

The hardest part about the super-easy 6 Changes Method is waiting.

You have to pick one habit, and stick with it for 2 months. I’ll admit, that takes a lot of patience, and most of us don’t usually have patience like that.

But the alternative is to be impatient, and to fail. Always remember that: you’re choosing between patience and success, and impatience and failure.

Sticking with a new habit for two months will almost guarantee your success. I’ve done it many times.

So how do you stay patient? Some ideas:

  • Think of it as a series of mini-goals, perhaps. Each week is a new step, and each week you’re going to accomplish something amazing. Even if the first week is way too easy, it’s a start, and starting is really something to celebrate. Don’t look at the larger picture of two months, or 12 months. Look at it one week at a time. That’s much more manageable.
  • Your very public commitment and accountability measures will help you stick with it. If you tell everyone you know, and more, that you’ll be doing this one habit for two months, you’ll want to succeed in the eyes of everyone. If you have to give them a daily update, you’ll want to stick with it.
  • Reward yourself each week. As you accomplish each mini-goal, you’ll feel great about it. Give yourself a little treat.
  • Focus on enjoying the activity. Don’t think about what’s ahead — focus on now. If you’re trying to exercise or meditate, think about how much you enjoy it. If you’re trying to eat healthy, choose healthy foods you enjoy, and savor each bite. Whatever you’re trying to do, focus on the enjoyable aspects of it, and make doing it a treat.