A Simple System to Build Good Habits

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We’re coming up on the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. New Year’s, as they say. 

Growing up my Mom would always ask me if I had any New Year’s resolutions, and very proudly I would say: “No, I do not. I have enough discipline to change my behaviour mid-year, I don’t need an event like New Year’s to compel me to do so”. (I was a bit prideful, and a bit naive). 

As I’ve grown older I have come to appreciate this time of the year. While it is still true that I don’t “wait” until the new year to make a change, the end of the year is a good forcing function to reflect and recalibrate. I now cherish New Year’s for that reason. 

This year seems even more apt given the unique circumstances of being in the midst of a global pandemic. At the beginning of the stay-at-home orders I am sure many of you, like me, decided that with this extra time at home we were going to “really work on ourselves”. Maybe take an online course, maybe read a bunch of books, or maybe it’s just simply practicing better daily habits like eating better or sleeping more. 

A friend of mine recently gave a great quote, he said: “Hey, remember FOMO? I don’t think I’ve had an ounce of FOMO in the last ten months because nothing is going on.” That sentiment captures how a lot of us are feeling. But if we look back on the last ten months, did we do all we told ourselves we were going to do? I don’t think learning to make sourdough bread was at the top of everyone’s list of desired “new habits”, yet, here we are. (For the record, I still don’t know how to make sourdough bread). 

Now, I don’t say this to be boastful but when I look back on the last year, and in particular the last ten months. I did manage to hit most of the goals I had set out for myself. I share this because the system I used to do so is dead simple and I don’t think you need to have incredible self discipline to do so, it simply comes from one core principle: consistency. 

One of my heroes, Jerry Seinfeld, is a consistency savant. I was recently listening to his interview with Tim Ferriss where he talked about the importance of consistency in the process to become a better writer. He talked about the advice he gave his daughter: pick an achievable metric and to stay consistent with that day over day. It doesn’t matter how much you write in that time, but you can’t do anything else. I loved this. It was an extension of a principle Seinfeld is now famous for: The Chain. It was first captured by Brad Isaac who met Jerry Seinfeld and asked for advice on becoming a better comedian. Jerry said: 

“The way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day.

He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.

After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job is to not break the chain.”

I read this about 8 years ago and it became the foundation on which I built my own system. My system has gone through many iterations and I don’t think it is yet in its “final form” (I don’t know if it ever will be), but I thought I would share what it looks like, what my learnings have been, and how you can apply this to your own life. 

I use something called a Habit Tracker. It is a simple spreadsheet that follows the same principle that Jerry Seinfeld uses with his wall calendar. The only difference is that I have multiple habits I am tracking in parallel. You can see my habit tracker, which I keep open, at this link. Below is a screenshot for reference: 

The concept is quite simple, each day I go down the column and add a “1” if I completed it. The reason I use a “1” and not an X is because this makes it easy to sum a row and see how I am doing on that particular habit. 

The system is simple in practice but there are some important details to consider if you plan to implement this:

  1. Start simple: This is my eighth year doing this. When I first started I had one habit I was tracking: exercise 30 minutes per day. That was it. And that alone enhanced my life greatly. I then started to add habits to the sheet as I built more capacity. However, I then took it too far. Two years ago I ended up with 28 habits I was tracking. That was too much and I hit goal setting fatigue where I ended up abandoning the tracker entirely. Paradoxically by setting so many goals I tracked none of them. Start simple, and stay simple. You’ll know your threshold. You want to push slightly beyond what is comfortable but not so far you break. Better to start simple and add than to start too aggressive and strip away. The former is motivating, the latter is demotivating.
  1. Make goals attainable: I made the mistake one year of setting goals that were too aspirational. I asked myself: On my best day, what do I want to accomplish? And that became my habit tracker. That was maddening. We are not mindless productivity robots; we have good days and bad days. Instead I now set most of my goals to be the minimum attainable metric I think I can hit on a mediocre day. This year, however, I am experimenting by setting one aspirational goal to push myself. This year that is writing offline for 1 hour each day. That will be hard but I think it is attainable if I stay disciplined. The reason I feel comfortable setting this stretch goal is because I am hitting all of the other habits fairly consistently already. In general it is hard to make multiple behavioural changes at once, so pick one “new goal” to start.
  1. Make goals binary: Goals need to be a yes or no. I experimented with the idea of “grading myself” on goals where I would give myself a score of 1-10 i.e. yes I wrote for 30 minutes, but how productive was that 30 minutes? That left too much up for interpretation and in the end I was probably harder on myself than I should have been. Set attainable goals that are a simple yes or no question. It is easy to track and keeps you consistent. Focus on the process, not the outcome. 
  1. Create accountability: This is a new one for me this year. In years past I would keep the Habit Tracker up to date religiously for three months, loosely for the next three months, occasionally visit it for the next three months, and then barely go to it the last three months of the year. I would mostly stay consistent with the habits but I would start to get lax. This year I have committed to share my Habit Tracker publicly and to also enlist three friends to check it periodically, without warning, to keep me accountable. Even just knowing that people might be checking it will keep me more accountable. The accountability measures should be motivating as well. Pick people that won’t just get on you when you miss something, pick people that will tell you you’re crushing it too. If you can, get a group of friends to all do their own individual Habit Trackers and make a pact to all keep each other accountable.
  1. Be flexible: You might get mid-way through the year and realize that one of these goals was not the right goal. For me, maybe writing 1 hour per day is just not going to be possible, rather than hate myself for never getting 1s in that column, I could adjust the goal to something attainable. I’m believing right now that I won’t, but again, we will see. And conversely, if you get midway through the year and you want to add something or crank up the measurement, do it. This tracker should be flexible. As I said when I was younger, I don’t need to wait until the end of the year to start something new. If you find something, add it.  
  1. Be gracious to yourself: Lastly, you don’t want this to be an anxiety inducing activity. You want to keep healthy tension on yourself, but it is not likely that you will hit 365 on each row. Be gracious to yourself. If you have a bad week, or a bad month, this system isn’t all for not. Pick yourself back up, recalibrate, and get going again. 

This is the simple system I’ve refined over the last eight years. I can confidently say that it has had a material impact in my development. I can also confidently say that I will find things this year that I will want to change. The most important thing is to find something that you can stick to. Consistency is the key. 

I hope this is helpful to you. If you have any other insights that I didn’t cover here I would love to hear from you. 

Note: I wrote a follow up post about professional development here, and productivity here that build off of this post. You may find those interesting too.

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