The Rule of Specificity

The habit you choose needs to be specific. It can’t be vague.

For example, don’t say that you want to exercise. Say you want to run for 10 minutes a day right after you drink coffee in the morning. Don’t say you want to drink more water. Say you’re going to drink 6 glasses of water every day.

If the habit is vague, there’s no way to know if you’re doing it. And as such, you’ll do it well on some days and not very well on other days.

You should have a measurable change — are you going to do 10 pushups, 5 minutes of meditation, floss once at night, wake up 15 minutes earlier, declutter 10 things from your home a day?

Vague habits fail. Specific ones are likely to succeed.

Key to Habit Change: Enjoy the Activity

Many people try to form habits that they don’t enjoy, because they think it’s virtuous, or because it will lead to a goal they want (flatter stomach, losing weight, financial wealth, etc.).

But this is a recipe for failure. When you try to exercise “discipline”, what that really means is forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. This will only last for a little while, and then you’ll inevitably give up.

Trust me. I’ve fought this battle too many times to count.

So what’s the answer? Enjoy the activity.

If one person does an exercise activity he loves, and another an exercise she hates, guess who will stay with it the longest?

If you look forward to the activity, no matter what it is, you’re going to have a huge advantage in making the activity into a habit. You’ll still need to follow the steps in the method, but if you ignore the enjoyment aspect, the method won’t work very well at all.

What if you want to form a habit that you don’t particularly enjoy? Again, like exercise, or waking early, or flossing, or whatever? You’re going to need to find ways to enjoy the activity.

Some ideas:

  • Find exercise you enjoy, and focus on the enjoyable aspects as you do it. Don’t think about how difficult it is.
  • Play! Whether it’s playing a sport as exercise or going outside with your kids and running and jumping around, find a way to turn something you don’t normally find fun into a game or into some kind of play.
  • Set up a competition — with whatever your goal activity is, whether that be saving money or writing every day — between you and others, or just against yourself.
  • Create an enjoyable experience. Play nice music when you meditate, get some coffee for when you write, drink tea as you read a novel, and so on.
  • If you’re trying to eat healthy, choose healthy foods you love. Focus on how lovely the foods are, not on what you’re sacrificing.
  • If you’re trying to quit a habit you find pleasurable (smoking, for example), don’t focus on how you’re giving up pleasure. Instead, think of the negative aspects of the activity (the bad taste smoking gives you afterward, or how it makes your clothes stink, or what it’s doing to your lungs and the rest of your body, or the cancer it causes) … and then replace it with something that you find pleasurable. For example, going outside for a refreshing walk, or spending time with a loved one.

There are many other ways to make something enjoyable, but however you do it, don’t ignore this advice. Your new habit depends on it.

The Art of the Start of a Habit

Starting any new endeavor, any new habit, is the hardest part. It’s hard to get up the momentum, the energy, to start a really hard project, such as creating a new habit.

And when we don’t start, we never get there.

Most people fail because they don’t even start.

The 6 Changes Method beats this tendency, overcomes that initial inertia.

Here’s how to beat inertia and get started:

Start ridiculously easy and small.

That’s it. That, and public accountability.

When I tell people how ridiculously easy they should start, they think I’m kidding. They think that’s too easy, and they decide to skip the first really easy step. They’re making a mistake.

The first step is the most important step, in the beginning. After that, the next step is the most important step.

You want to start as small and easy as possible, so that there is no excuse for not starting. You won’t be intimidated or overwhelmed, because you’re setting the bar as low as possible — you can’t possibly get tripped up by it, so you have no choice but to do it.

And if you tell people you’re going to start with this ridiculously easy step (public accountability), you’ll be embarrassed not to start.

Here are some examples of ridiculously easy starts — engineered so you can’t fail:

  • Start exercise just by putting on your shoes and going outside.
  • Start flossing simply by taking out a piece of floss each night at the same time. Don’t actually floss.
  • Start eating healthy simply by drinking a glass of water at each meal.
  • Start waking early just by setting your alarm 5 minutes early the first week.
  • Start decluttering by choosing one thing you can get rid of each day. Just one.
  • Start kicking the smoking habit by starting your day reading (or watching a sunrise, or meditation, or whatever) instead of smoking. Just replace that one cigarette at first.
  • Start kicking the email obsession by doing it one less time per hour — and doing something else, like updating your to-do list or taking one action on a report you’re working on, or whatever.

Start really really easy and small, and tell lots of people about it. You won’t fail to start.

The Problems With New Year’s Resolutions

What I love about the New Year is the hope that we all seem to have, every year, at this fresh start.

We believe we can change our lives.

Unfortunately, that enthusiasm and hope often fades within weeks, and our efforts at self improvement come to a whimpering end. That’s not great, but it’s also not inevitable.

New Year’s Resolutions usually fail because of a combination of some of these reasons:

  1. We try to do too many resolutions at once, and that spreads our focus and energies too thin. It’s much less effective to do many habits at once (read more).
  2. We only have a certain amount of enthusiasm and motivation, and it runs out because we try to do too much, too soon. We spend all that energy in the beginning and then run out of steam.
  3. We try to do really tough habits right away, which means it’s difficult and we become overwhelmed or intimidated by the difficulty and quit.
  4. We try to be “disciplined” and do very unpleasant habits, but our nature won’t allow that to last for long. If we really don’t want to do something, we won’t be able to force ourselves to do it for long.
  5. Life gets in the way. Things come up unexpectedly that get in the way of us sticking with a habit.
  6. Resolutions are often vague — I’m going to exercise! — but don’t contain a concrete action plan and don’t use proven habit techniques. That’s a recipe for failure.

There are other reasons, but the ones above are easily sufficient to stop resolutions from succeeding.

So what are we to do? The 6 Changes Method solves these problems:

  1. We only focus on one habit change at a time, so our focus and energies aren’t spread thinly.
  2. We implement the habit changes gradually, so we don’t run out of steam.
  3. We start out really, really easily, so it isn’t intimidating.
  4. We focus on enjoyable activities, so we don’t need “discipline”.
  5. We have two months to do the habit change, so if something comes up, it’s but a small bump in the road. And because we’re publicly committed, we’re going to get back on track.
  6. We have a very specific plan with actions built in, using proven habit change techniques.

If you stick with the method, you’ll do much better than you’ve done in the past with New Year’s Resolutions.

‘Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.’

~ Mark Twain

How to Form the Exercise Habit

Of course, there are many ways to form the exercise habit, but here’s a suggested plan using the 6 Changes Method:

Commit as publicly as possible to forming this habit in 2 months. Also commit publicly each week to that week’s change.

Week 1: Lace up your shoes and get out the door. That’s it. Go back inside and do whatever you want after that. Choose a trigger (after your morning coffee, right when you get home from work, etc.) and do it right after the trigger each day.

Week 2: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, and walk for 5 minutes. That’s all. Baby steps.

Week 3: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, walk for 10 minutes.

Week 4: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, walk for 15 minutes.

Week 5: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, walk for 15 minutes, with a couple of 30-second jogging intervals thrown in.

Week 6: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, walk for 20 minutes, with four 30-second jogging intervals thrown in.

Week 7: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, alternate jogging and walking for 20 minutes.

Week 8: Lace up your shoes, get out the door, and jog for 20 minutes, with a few walk breaks thrown in.

That’s it. Small baby steps, and after two months, you have a new habit that’s pretty firmly ingrained.

‘Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.’

~ Jim Ryun

What’s a Trigger & Why is It So Important?

Triggers are a little-known key to forming a new habit (or breaking an old one).

A trigger is an event that will kick off that automatic urge to do a habit. For example, smokers have a number of triggers — when they drink alcohol or coffee, many smokers will automatically want to smoke.

But this works for positive habits as well. Waking up can trigger habits such as drinking coffee, brushing your teeth, going running, or anything you want.

Habits become automatic after we’ve created a bond between the trigger and the habit — the stronger the bond, the more ingrained the habit.

Triggers and automatic habits are how we’re able to drive home sometimes without even thinking about what we’re doing — the drive home has a series of triggers (a stoplight, a turn after a store, etc.) that cause us to do certain actions out of habit — turning, slowing down, etc. We want to put our new habits on autopilot, right after a trigger.

And if we have bad habits, we want to take them off autopilot and disassociate them with their triggers. We need to list every trigger for the bad habit, and then come up with a new positive habit for each trigger.

For example, when I quit smoking, one of my triggers was to smoke after meetings — instead, I went to my computer and typed up my notes for the meeting and sent out any necessary emails. Another trigger was stress — so instead of smoking when I got stressed, I did deep breathing and exercise. These are just examples, but you can think of your own positive habits to go with each trigger for your bad habit.

What you want to do is create a strong bond between the trigger and the new habit. So each time the trigger happens, you need to consciously do the new habit. It has to be very conscious and deliberate at first, but over time this gets easier and the new habit becomes almost automatic. Do it as consistently as possible, every time the trigger happens. The less consistent you are, the weaker the bond between trigger and habit. The more consistent, the stronger the bond.

‘It does not matter how slow you go so long as you do not stop.’

Confucius

The 6 Changes Method

So how does the 6 Changes method work?

It’s simple:

  1. Pick 6 habits for 2010.
  2. Pick 1 of the 6 habits to start with.
  3. Commit as publicly as possible to creating this new habit in 2 months.
  4. Break the habit into 8 baby steps, starting with a ridiculously easy step. Example: if you want to floss, the first step is just to get out a piece of floss at the same time each night.
  5. Choose a trigger for your habit – something already in your routine that will immediately precede the habit. Examples: eating breakfast, brushing your teeth, showering, waking up, arriving at the office, leaving the office, getting home in the evening.
  6. Do the 1st, really easy baby step for one week, right after the trigger. Post your progress publicly. (Read more.)
  7. Each week, move on to a slightly harder step. You’ll want to progress faster, but don’t. You’re building a new habit. Repeat this until you’ve done 8 weeks.
  8. You now have a new habit! Commit to Habit No. 2 and repeat the process.

I go more into this method in the free ebook – you’ll be able to download it soon.

What is 6Changes.com?

It’s a new site by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and author of The Power of Less.

It’s the antidote to the failure of New Year’s Resolutions.

It’s simple:

  1. Pick 6 habits you’d like to form in 2010. Yes, just six.
  2. Read this blog and the free ebook that comes with it.
  3. Commit to following the steps I outline for creating your 6 new habits.
  4. Follow the simple steps, and you’ll have 6 amazing new habits.

Why Only 6 Habits?

Most people choose 10-12 habits they’d like to form, and fail. It’s as common as obesity these days, because while enthusiasm can be at an all-time high at around New Year’s, the knowledge of how to stick with the new habits is always elusive.

But I’ve solved that problem.

The 6 Habits method makes it extremely easy to start, build, and stick with new habits. All you have to do is follow the method.

You’ll form a new, long-term habit every 2 months, for a total of 6 new habits in 12 months.

How Habits Will Change Your Life

Think of it: what if you had done this at the beginning of 2009? You’d have 6 habits, such as:

  • Daily exercise.
  • Healthy eating.
  • Waking early.
  • Decluttering and simplifying.
  • Reading.
  • Creating each day.

With those 6 new habits, you’d be well on your way to being fitter than ever, more productive, more at peace, happier than ever.

In fact, I’ve created all of those habits and more, over the last several years, and using those habits I’ve accomplished a lot: ran 3 marathons and a couple of triathlons, lost 40 lbs. and most of my gut, become a vegan and an early riser, eliminated my debt and tripled my income, became a top blogger with 150K subscribers, and much more.

That’s not meant to be bragging, but to show you that it’s possible.

And I’ll show you how.

So pick just 6 changes to make this year. It’ll be your most amazing year ever.

The Importance of Public Accountability, and How to Do It

Two steps in the 6 Changes method are extremely crucial, even if many people will be tempted to skip them:

  1. Commit as publicly as possible to creating each new habit.
  2. Log your progress daily, and very publicly.

These steps are extremely important — without them, you’re liable to drop your new habit at any time.

I know this from personal experience: my first successful habit change was quitting smoking, and I had failed at this habit 7 times before finding the successful formula. Many times I just told myself that I’d quit the next day, without telling anyone, because … if I failed, no one would know, and it wouldn’t be embarrassing. You can probably guess that I failed because I knew no one would judge me for it.

And so when I committed publicly, I didn’t fail. I told everyone I knew. I joined a smoking cessation forum and told everyone there I was quitting. I made a promise to my wife and oldest daughter. I was all in.

You need to be all in. You need to tell everyone. You need to be completely committed, or you’re wasting your time.

How to Commit Publicly

Some ways to do it:

  • If you have a blog, that’s perfect. Tell everyone on your blog that you’re going to create this new habit.
  • Social networks are also great: Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, etc.
  • Email all your friends and family and let them know.
  • Tell all your coworkers, and even post a sign in a public place in your office.
  • Write a column for your local newspaper or a blog or magazine.
  • Join a forum of others doing similar things, and tell them all about your habit change.

There are other ways you might think of, but these are some ideas to start you off.

How to Log Your Progress Publicly

It’s just as important that you not only commit, but stay accountable to the same people you committed to.

So if you committed on your blog, on a social network, or on a forum, post your progress every day to that same place. If you committed via email, send out daily email updates. If you told your coworkers and posted up a sign, let them all know, every day, how you’re doing.

A good alternative is to find a public log, such as FitDay or The Daily Plate or The Daily Mile or Daytum something like that (see my Daytum), or even just create a public Google Docs spreadsheet, and then share the link to your public log with everyone. Don’t let this become a place to hide your progress, though — you need to remind everyone, often, to check your log so that you’ll feel accountable.

However you do it, engineer it so that you can’t back down. Be all in.

Why You Should Only Do One Habit at a Time

Many people will read the 6 Changes Method and be put off by the idea that you have to choose one habit and work on it for 2 months at a time.

That’s too little. They want to do several habits at once.

I’m here to tell you that while several habits can be formed at once, it’s much more difficult, and chances are you’re setting yourself up for failure.

So sure, if you are too impatient, try doing 3-5 habits at once. I wish you all the success in the world. But … if that doesn’t work, try the 6 Changes Method. You’ll be setting yourself up for success.

I’ve tried to create multiple habits at once, and I’ve had very mixed success. Usually I fail at it.

I’ve tried doing one habit at a time. I’ve succeeded almost 100% of the time when I do that.

Creating a new habit is difficult — it entails doing something consciously, as consistently as possible, breaking old bonds between a trigger and your old habit and creating a new bond between a trigger and your new habit. It’s not easy.

And we lose motivation, and life inevitably gets in the way.

And will all that up against you, why stack even more odds in the favor of failure by trying to do this not with one habit, but with several?

Try doing one habit at a time. Your success rate won’t just double or triple — it’ll go up tenfold.