We are what we repeatedly do – so our habits literally make us who we are. And when the apocalypse comes, our habits are all we’ll have left.
But most people don’t have good habits, and a lot of people have some really sh*tty ones.
Everyone wants to work out in the mornings and meditate everyday, but building these behaviours into habits and routines that actually f*cking stick is a struggle for millions – 80% of people fail their New Year’s resolutions.
And as a result, most people are fatter, not as productive and less happy than they want to be.
It sucks. Especially as almost all worthwhile goals are the aggregate result of small daily habits.
When I lost 24kg and went from serially overweight to boxer-in-training, it took just 6 months following 2 very simple habits: I worked out every morning for 30 minutes and ate less than 2500 calories a day.
And the same for all other goals.
Learning Spanish has been as easy as making flashcards for 50 new words a day. And writing a best-seller can be as straightforward as writing just one page a day for half a year.
Anyone can follow the above habits for one day…the problem is being consistent.
So this is the first in a possibly infinite series on building habits and routines that actually f*cking stick. Not things you do for 1 week and then give up, but habits & routines you can follow for the rest of your life (or until you’ve reached your goals).
But first: Why is being consistent so hard?
The good habits people struggle to be consistent with are habits that come with present downside for future upside.
Take exercising: sprinting up a hill requires a tonne of present downside (the sweating, the exhaustion, the lactic acid) but the upside (feeling like the man, weight loss, improved health) is only felt in the future (after the exercise has finished).
Similarly, the bad habits people struggle to break are habits that provide a present upside but come with future downside.
Like junk food: eating Big Macs provides a tonne of present deliciousness but coronary heart disease is going to screw you over in the future.
The problem is, as humans, we’ve evolved to focus on the present. Historically this just made sense: after all, who cares about the heart disease you might develop in 30 years’ time when the average caveman’s life expectancy was only 26.
So us evolutionarily present-biased humans will naturally care more about the present than the future.
That means ducking out of exercise that requires present effort because we don’t care enough about the future upside – this is why it’s so hard for us to follow good habits.
It also means digging into Big Macs that offer present upside because we don’t care enough about the future downside – this is why it’s so easy for us to cling to bad habits.
But when we first start working towards a new goal, we have enough emotional motivation to override our evolutionary present-biased brains: to persevere through demanding exercise or will ourselves to walk past McDonald’s.
This is great…for the first week…until our motivation dissipates, we give up on our “habits” and regress to the mean.
So how can we be more consistent?
For years, I thought the answer to this was just more motivation.
If I could just muster up a bit more willpower, if I could just be mentally stronger, the next time I try to follow a workout programme I’ll be able to stay consistent and reach my goals.
But having now read much more deeply into how habits are actually formed, this point of view is just wrong.
Habits shouldn’t require willpower.
Habits are automatic: you don’t need a motivational speech to brush your teeth every night, and you shouldn’t need willpower or motivation to follow any of your other habits either.
Here’s an idea: instead of pushing yourself harder to follow your habits, why not just make your habits easier to follow!?
Designing habits that actually f*cking stick
Last year I finally stopped relying on willpower…and started designing habits that would actually f*cking stick: habits that feel so effortless and natural to follow, following them requires less willpower than not following them.
And here’s how – with my own habit stack & morning routine as an illustrative example…
I track all my habits using the Momentum Habit Tracker app:
The numbers indicate for how many consecutive days I’ve carried out each habit. I love watching my streaks build up and, however bad my day has been, I know that as long as I’ve followed through on each of my habits I’ve moved closer towards my goals and the day has been a success.
If you miss a day, you lose your streak and end up with ugly red squares:
So, right now, everyday, I meditate, revise my Spanish vocabulary, workout, take my supplements, work for 3 hours, fast until 3pm and then slowly chew my first meal. I do this consistently – even when travelling or in hospital.
This is all in very promising contrast to me from just two years ago: apart from “work for 3 hours”, I didn’t follow any of the above habits; I was overweight (around 27% body fat) and went to sleep around the time most normal human beings were waking up.
Which brings us to the most important part of my morning routine.
0) Waking up
For me, a good routine always starts with waking up on time – that doesn’t mean early or late, it means waking up on time, the same time every day.
I’ve always struggled immensely to wake up on time – in part because I’m lazy, and in part because I have a “late chronotype” (I find it easiest to get to sleep around 2am in the morning). At school, I was once late every single day for an entire academic year.
I finally fixed this a few months ago. Here’s how…
First, I accepted the reason I found it so hard to wake up was that I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I wasn’t getting enough sleep because I went to sleep too late. Oooh, rocket science.
So I added a bit of code to my Mac to automatically shut it down (and prevent it from turning back on for the next hour) at 2am everyday. This stops me, dead, from working beyond 2am. You can do the same here.
Next I need to get rid of my phone, otherwise I’ll stay up all night messing around on Youtube and WhatsApp. To avoid this, I have only one iPhone charger at home and it’s next to my bathroom sink…so when I go to brush my teeth (a longstanding automatic habit from my childhood), I put my phone on charge and turn it onto Aeroplane mode.
When I finally get into bed, my phone cannot distract me: it’s in another room, and it’s not receiving any messages or notifications.
I doze off around 2:30am, and after 8 hours of sleep I wake up at 10:30am. I usually get up before any alarms, but just in case, I have the best alarm ever.
It’s called Ruggie…it’s a rug-alarm-clock hybrid:
It goes off at 10:30am everyday and to shut it the f*ck up I have to physically stand on it for 30 seconds. I keep it in front of my bathroom sink so it forces me out of bed.
While standing on it, I pick up my phone (which I conveniently placed by my sink the night before), and then head over to the toilet…which brings me to my first habit…
1) Toilet meditation
With phone in hand, I sit down on my toilet.
My phone is still on aeroplane mode and when I unlock it, there’s just one thing on the screen, my iCloud folder (Archivos in Spanish):
I open up my iCloud folder and again there’s just one thing on the screen:
I click play – what follows is a 20 minute guided meditation by Tara Brach. 20 minutes later, I feel amazing, hyper-focused and ready to own the day.
Traditional meditation is tough because you need to remember to do it, then make the effort to sit down…and then not succumb to distractions.
Toilet meditation is so much easier because when I open my phone the only thing I see is “Just click play”, so I click play and the meditation starts – I don’t need to remember to meditate. I’m also already sat down and comfortable on my toilet seat. And there are no distractions because I’m not thinking about anything: the day has just started, my phone is still in aeroplane mode, I haven’t received any texts/emails/phone calls.
Toilet meditation works. Seriously. Try it.
2) Spanish Vocabulario
I’m still on the toilet at this point, phone still on aeroplane mode. But after meditating for 20 minutes straight, I need to do something…so I immediately swipe to the second screen of my iPhone which is where the rest of my apps are:
Notice the only app with a red notification badge is Anki – an app I use to revise my Spanish vocabulary.
I’m immediately attracted to the red notification badge and so I open up Anki and test myself on all the new Spanish words I need to learn, to get rid of the eyesore red notification badge. Habit 2 done.
My next habit is to work out.
Unfortunately, after finishing my Spanish vocabulary I can’t help but turn off Aeroplane mode and start reading my messages.
I haven’t yet found a way past this, the urge is too compelling…but I have been able to do some damage control by removing the Gmail app from my phone. This means I only read Whatsapp/FB messages which don’t take that long to get through. And once that’s dealt with I get off the toilet (finally).
I’m totally naked at this point and have been since going to bed (sorry, should have mentioned this earlier), so my next impulse is to put some clothes on.
Where do I keep my clothes? In my bedroom where I could fall asleep again and waste the entire day..?
No, my clothes, keys and gym shoes are in a cabinet in my living room – right next to my apartment door.
So once I’m dressed I am literally right next to the front door…wearing gym clothes and shoes…all I have to do is open the door and go the gym.
There are days where I still feel some resistance at this point in my routine, but what gets me round it is setting extremely low standards for myself.
Instead of telling myself I need to go the gym and push myself like a pro athlete for 1 hour, I tell myself I just need to walk into the gym. That’s it. I can leave immediately after stepping inside and I can still tick off my habit as done.
By lowering my standards like this, I eliminate the dread of working out. I’m no longer deterred by thoughts of profuse sweating and lactic acid stings. All I have to do is walk inside the gym, I can do that, that’s easy.
And so I do…but once I’m inside, I’m wearing my gym clothes, the other gym rats can see me…it’s now actually quite difficult for me to leave without working out.
And so I do…I complete my full workout, sometimes as long as 2 hours when I’m at my boxing gym.
So every morning, I effectively trick myself into going to the gym by lowering my standards. (And then once there, use social pressure from the other gym rats to coax me into my morning workout.)
This trick of lowering one’s standards works for pretty much anything: when I don’t want to write something (like this article), I tell myself just write one sentence. And yet here I am, 4 pages and 2000 words later. Once you surmount that initial resistance and actually start whatever task it is, it becomes infinitely easier to continue. If you want to finish your maths homework, tell yourself you’ll just do one question. If you want to wash the dishes, tell yourself you’ll wash just one spoon.
Lower your standards to get started.
After finishing my workout, I return home.
I shower and spruce up…and then go straight to the kitchen for a glass of water (because I’m dehydrated as hell after working out).
What’s next to my water jug? My supplements.
I pop my pills and that’s my fourth habit done.
5) Work for 3 hours
Time to sit down.
And guess what’s on my dining table…my laptop – ready for work.
I boot it up (remember it shut itself down automatically the night before), and in front of me is this:
The only 4 apps I need to get my work done – no distractions.
My calendar app then opens automatically so I can see what I need to do for the day:
If it’s Spanish, I open my Notes and click on my Spanish folder and pinned to the top is my Spanish Action Plan.
The hardest thing about starting work is not knowing what to do – especially when you’re self-employed or you’re self-studying.
It’s so easy to spend hours in decision fatigue: procrastinating in spurious debate over what you should do next.
To circumvent this, I have an extremely straightforward todo list (Action Plan) which I create every Saturday (for the week going forward) and I just execute on the tasks going down the list.
I don’t think – I just do. Like a robot following orders. And I try to get as far down the list as I can in the 3 hours I have.
Putting my phone back on Aeroplane mode and leaving it in another room helps – a lot.
And for certain tasks I also like using the Pomodoro technique through an app called Be Focused (basically an automated Pomodoro timer).
And when things get tough or boring, I just lower my standards again: conjugate just 5 more Spanish words and you can stop; write just one more sentence and you can have a break. And usually I end up doing a lot more, I’ll be able to conjugate 10 words or write 7 more sentences before giving up.
6) Fast till 3pm
Up to now I haven’t eaten anything. And this is intentional: I fast till 3pm every single day.
This is called intermittent fasting and it helps me:
• Stay focussed (because I don’t spend the morning thinking about what I should eat for breakfast)
• Stay energetic (because morning carbs make me feel really sluggish)
• Eat less: by starting to eat later in the day, the window of time I have to eat each day is reduced so I end up eating less
I usually break my fast with a smoothie: I dump a bunch of frozen fruits, greens and protein powder into my Nutri bullet and that’s my lunch. Simple.
Other times, I’ll pick a recipe from Yummly (a cooking app) and make that. I like Yummly because you can type in the ingredients you have and it will spit out a dish for you whip up. No thinking or decision fatigue required.
7) Slowchew 1st meal
With lunch prepared, it’s time for my 7th and final habit: slow chewing.
I can eat A LOT of food. On my 23rd birthday, I ate 37,000kcal (starting with a jar of Nutella and bottle of vodka, ending with steak and milkshakes – there were doughnuts, full English breakfasts, ice creams, fried chicken, pizzas, crisps, cereals and bagels in between).
On several occasions I’ve eaten so much food I’ve thrown up…and then continued eating afterwards. I’ve won eating competitions on a full stomach. And once ate all the sandwiches at a buffet lunch for 40 people. It’s bad – really bad.
And before I used to beat myself up about it, self-chastising to exert more willpower and control my appetite better.
But, again, this is the wrong approach.
Like all my habits up till now, instead of relying on more willpower to eat less, I needed to design a system that made it easy, effortless, habitual to eat less.
And this is where slow chewing comes in.
The reason I used to eat so much food is because I ate so fast.
If I could slow down my eating speed, I would give my stomach enough time to feel full (around 20 minutes), and subsequently eat less (e.g. a normal human amount of food).
So now when I sit down to eat, I use a tiny spoon, I take tiny bites, I savour the food, I chew 20+ times before swallowing, I put my cutlery down in between bites, I sip my drinks slowly, and I act as if I don’t even want the food.
I fill up so fast, it’s crazy. And as a result I naturally eat less – without any calorie tracking or traditional dieting I’ve got visible abs all year round.
And unlike restrictive diets or calorie-counting, slow chewing improves my eating experience. I prefer to slow chew because I get to enjoy my food for longer, appreciate more of the flavours, and feel more satisfied afterwards.
So those are my 7 habits. No willpower needed, just a well-designed routine that takes me through my habits (almost) effortlessly – everyday.
Whatever happens after habit 7 doesn’t matter, the day has already been a success. Anything else is a bonus.
So, stop beating yourself up about not sticking to diets and not going to the gym and not getting your work done.
First, think about what’s actually making your habits so hard to follow. Instead of beating myself up about missing my morning meditations, I thought about what was making it so hard in the first place: distractions, forgetfulness, having to sit down all still.
Second, design a system or setup to get round those difficulties and make the habit easy and effortless (the way a habit should be) – do not rely on willpower. Toilet meditation makes meditating a piece of cake: I’m already sat down, there are no distractions first thing in the morning, and my meditation tape is the first thing I see when I unlock my phone.
Third, lower your standards. Intense habits like “I’m going to workout everyday for an hour” are impossible to stick to. Instead, I tell myself I just need to step foot inside the gym, that’s all…and once I’m in there, inside the gym, in front of all of the other gym rats, I just naturally end up working out.
And finally, if you’re planning to put any of this into practice…start small. Do not try to meditate for 20 minutes a day and exercise for an hour and work for 3 hours straight. Start small: meditate for 1 minute a day, exercise for 5 minutes a day, work for 1 hour. And then…build it up, increase the intensity, quantity and duration of your habits until you become a habit God.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Will Durant (not Aristotle)