Building good habits and breaking bad habits are important parts of self-discipline—although not the whole of it. Unlike many of my peers, I don’t see habit-building as a replacement for willpower and self-control but as an aid.
First, what are habits? Habits are automatic behaviors. We call them good habits if they are aligned with our goals and values, and bad habits when they are not. They are a way for our brain to save energy, which is important for the brain’s main project: survival.
Self-discipline is a much wider concept than habits. You might have set all the habits you need in your life, and still lack the ability to act in accordance with your values when it comes to non-habitual actions. Life is dynamic—often unpredictable—and while building good habits is important, it doesn’t replace the need for developing awareness and willpower (the two key elements of self-discipline). I explore this topic more in this summary of Chapter 4 of the book.
In this mega-article, I’ll explore the general framework of building habits in the mindful self-discipline way, as per the principles explored in the book. Each of the steps below is an antidote to several habit-building challenges I have witnessed in my work as a coach.
Step 1: Choose Your Habits
The first step is choosing what are the most important habits you want to build. Here are some simple guidelines for that:
- Aligned. Prioritize habits that will move the needle the most for you, as per your goals and aspirations. You can’t build ten habits at the same time, and they are not all equally important anyway. Use the compass of your goals to determine which habits to prioritize. (Learn More)
- Specific. The more specific your habits are, the more likely you are actually to follow them. For example, “Write 500 words every night after dinner” is a much better way to frame your habit than “Write every day”. Specificity creates clarity and focus. It makes it harder for your brain to forget your commitment, or be confused about it. (Learn More)
- Enjoyable. When you enjoy doing something, you don’t need to apply a lot of willpower to do it, and you don’t come up with excuses to avoid it. Rather, you naturally gravitate toward that activity.
When you enjoy the activity, you are also more naturally focused when doing it. Your mind is not bored, looking for an escape, for something more stimulating just so you can bear it. Creating joy around your habit is, thus, not only a shortcut to building it, but also to succeeding in it and persevering with that activity.
If you are doing a habit you don’t enjoy, you’re likely to quit if you don’t get quick results. But if you have learned to enjoy that activity for its own sake, you will continue for longer. When you are enjoying the process, you naturally become more patient and resilient.
Therefore, as much as possible, choose versions of your habits that you either naturally enjoy or can learn to enjoy by using positive reappraisal. See if you can look at your habit as a “I want to” rather than a “I have to”.
Choosing the right habit to focus on, and framing it in an effective way, makes the rest of the process much easier.
Step 2: Prepare the Ground
Easy habits are kept easily, while habits that require you to go through a lot of friction are more likely to be given up. They are the type of thing that you procrastinate on.
Consider if there is anything you need to do to remove friction around the activities you want to make habitual. Here are some examples:
- Buy a proper meditation cushion or stool, instead of using a folded blanket
- Find a gym that is easy to get to, and has a pleasant environment
- Cut the vegetables for the meals of the whole week every Sunday, so during the week preparing healthy meals is quick and easy
- Research and buy the best books for learning French, so that the study sessions are smoother and more productive
- Tell everyone in your household that you’ll be unavailable every morning from 7 am to 8 am, to prevent you from being interrupted or distracted
Get the tools you need and set up your environment in the best possible way before starting your habit, so that from that point onward, it’s much easier to follow it.
Step 3: Choose Your Cue
Every habit has a cue, which is the trigger that reminds you to do that habit. If you don’t have a good cue for your habits, you will tend to forget them.
The formula is:
After X (cue), I will do Y (action).
Here are some examples of the different types of cues:
- When I see my kids at the end of the day, I will hug them and spend time with them. (person cue)
- When my salary hits my account every month, I will plan my monthly budget. (time cue)
- When I brush my teeth in the morning, I will meditate for 10 minutes. (activity cue)
- When I feel anxious, I will pause and do three minutes of deep breathing. (emotion cue)
- When I am at the table, I will put my phone in airplane mode. (place cue)
Make sure you choose a reliable cue for each habit you want to create. The cue is reliable when it happens every time you desire to do the habit.
Once you have chosen the cue, spend a few moments strongly associating the cue and the action in your mind. You could close your eyes, take a deep breath, and repeat to yourself slowly and intently: “Whenever X (cue), I will do Y (action).”
You can make your habit even stronger by tweaking your environment: add multiple cues to remind you to do your positive habits, and remove all possible cues that would trigger you to perform a negative habit.
Step 4: Choose Your Action
Your action is the habit you want to build. If possible, make it quantifiable. For example: write five hundred words, run on the treadmill for twenty minutes, play three songs on the guitar, meditate for fifteen minutes.
When your habit trigger happens, it should be pretty clear to you what you need to do next. If there is any confusion about what to do or how, it is possible that you will avoid the task or get distracted with something else. Or perhaps you go through the motions but are not fully present.
For most habits, it’s also a good practice to create what I call a minimum action, which is the minimum possible version of that habit for you. Your ideal habit might be to read five pages, journal for an hour, do fifty pushups, or read three stories for your child. Some days that will feel too much—maybe because you are too busy, too tired, or demotivated.
Here is where the minimum action comes in. Instead of skipping the habit altogether, you do the minimum version of it, so you don’t lose your momentum. You read one page, journal for five minutes, do 10 pushups, or read one story for your child. Doing your minimum action is much better than not doing anything.
The path from one page a day to five pages a day is not too difficult; the path from zero pages a day to one page a day is much harder. For some, it’s a quantum leap.
Learn more about minimum action in this page.
Step 5: Choose Your Reward
The reward is the positive result, feeling, or experience that you have when you do your habit. It is a reason for your brain to want to do it again. Ideally, you want to experience a reward right after doing the habit—the greater the reward, the better.
The most popular method is to create an extrinsic reward for your habit. That is what most habit pundits out there emphasize. They are popular because they are easy to implement and help you trick your brain.
- Instead of learning to love the salad, you are adding some dressing to mask the taste you dislike.
- Instead of learning to love running, you are adding music to make it bearable.
- Instead of enjoying the research for your thesis, you give yourself a reward so you look forward to finishing it.
This is still effective, as it taps into the reward center of the brain and motivates you to take action. It works, and in some cases, it might be the only option for you. It is just not as ideal as having intrinsic rewards. It is much harder to remain on track with a habit or goal when you rely on an external reward than when you are intrinsically motivated to do that thing.
The most sustainable way forward, then, is to create intrinsic rewards for your habits. You do that by:
- Enjoying the activity itself. Either by making the right choice of habit, or framing it in an attractive way, or by using cognitive reappraisal (chapter 19 of the book).
- Enjoy how you feel after the activity. Connect with your body, and be more mindful of the natural rewards of that activity. Maybe meditation takes you from irritability to calm, and a 30-minute run takes you from lethargy to energy. As you become more in tune with your body, these types of natural rewards become easier to spot.
- Enjoy the emotional satisfaction of having done something meaningful or important. You’ve just taken a step toward your designed life! You have made progress, so feel happy! Linger in that feeling. Celebrate it. Exaggerate it if needed.
If no type of reward seems to work for you, then you can attach negative consequences to not doing your good habit or to doing your bad habit. Psychological studies show that this works, but only temporarily. If the carrot does not move you, you may be moved by the stick—but as soon as the stick is removed, you’ll stop moving. 🤷🏼
The best way forward is to put in some effort and try to establish an intrinsic reward for your habit. If you can’t find one, no matter what, then that could be a sign that you are not pursuing the right goals in the first place.
Step 6: Be Prepared
Even if you choose the right habit to build and have the best cue and rewards for it, the reality is that in your daily life, you will often face challenges. It could be a lack of motivation, lack of time, tiredness, a change in environment, or not having the right tools with you.
When you face these challenges, if you don’t have a clear formula in your mind as to how you will overcome them, it’s quite likely that you will give in, tell yourself an excuse, and skip your habit.
To prevent that from happening, go through the Contingency Plan exercise to program your mind exactly how you want to respond to each of these challenges. Learn more about it in this article, or download the free Workbook for a step-by-step guide.
This exercise will help you save energy and give you a shortcut on how to act in alignment with your aspirations in moments when that is the least you are likely to do.
Step 7: Commit Fully
Now that you have ticked off all the boxes, it’s time to choose a start date and make a firm commitment. This is where the element of determination comes in. Determination is an expression of willpower, which is one of the key aspects of your higher mind.
In Mindful Self-Discipline, we call it the Never Zero Commitment. Never Zero is a non-negotiable, uncompromising commitment to a minimum version of your habit, for a defined period of time. Here are some examples:
- I will meditate for five minutes every day
- I will write every day from 6 am to 7 am, for the next 100 days
- Until the end of this year, I won’t go to sleep without showing appreciation to my partner
- I will study 20 minutes of Spanish daily until my trip to Spain
- I will not drink beer or eat sweets until the day after I run the marathon
- I will write in my gratitude journal every night before going to bed
Whatever the minimum action and timeframe, you add “no matter what” at the end of it. This is the uncompromising aspect of it—the essence of Never Zero. You make this commitment to yourself with the intense attitude that there is no possibility of you failing, no acceptable excuse under the sun for skipping it.
Read this article to learn more about the three principles of Never Zero.
This article summarizes the key principles of habit-building as per Mindful Self-Discipline. At first glance, this may seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that it’s the summary of a lot of research that has gone into habit building. This article is here to help you save dozens of hours figuring this out.
Once you go through this process once, you will better understand its power, and the purpose of every element in it.
I’ve put all of this together into a fillable worksheet you can print and use. It’s part of the free Workbook, which also includes the Contingency Plan exercise.
Finally, if you are a member of the Mindful Self-Discipline app, you can use the Positive Reappraisal and POWER Visualization guided meditations to support you in the process.
May these resources be useful for you to live with more alignment with your aspirations! 🙌🏻