Wisetail LMS digs in to James Clear's Atomic Habits and teaches you ways to build habits in hard times.

Building Habits In a New Normal

Gerald Lombardo | 7 min read

Here we are, several weeks into working remotely and social distancing. Adjusting to these trying times while staying productive is challenging. And to that end, we put together this piece on how to develop effective habits at a time when the usual daily rhythms are upended. Dig in, and let us know how your efforts to build habits go!

Building Effective Long-Term Habits

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Few have embodied this eternally pertinent quote more fully than its author, Benjamin Franklin. Like many great men and women, Franklin looked at his success with equal parts contentment and confusion. After thinking long and hard about his life, though, Franklin came up with incredibly useful advice that has stood the test of time. Why? Why did Franklin succeed where so many have failed? Because he focused on means, not ends. Franklin, in other words, was concerned with systems, not goals.

The Problem With Goals

According to most advice-givers and success gurus, if we want something, we must set specific, actionable goals. If you are a coach, you should focus on winning a championship. If you are trying to get in shape, you should focus on your target weight. If you are a student, you should focus on your GPA… All this is saying the same thing: That you should set your sights and spend your energies on goals.

But the problem is that this kind of goal setting simply doesn’t work. Or, at least, it is very ineffective. New Year’s Resolutions provide the perfect illustration: Around 80% of all New Year’s Resolutions fail by February. And the numbers only get worse from there.

What Makes Goals so Ineffective?

Lots of People Have the Same Goals

James Clear, of Atomic Habits fame, correctly points out that goals suffer from a serious case of survivorship bias. What this means is that the people we hear talking about goals naturally tend to be those who successfully achieved them. Celebrities, athletes, and business people alike will all point to their goals as being fundamental to their success. But Clear begs to differ, asking: How many others who had the same goals tried and failed? The answer many, many, many more than those who succeeded. What this tells us is that having the right goals isn’t as important as having the right systems.

Goals Kill Happiness

Another problem with goals is that they kill happiness. Goals enliven the pernicious metaphorical belief that life is a journey, one where you struggle and toil away in misery in order to reach a certain goal (i.e., a destination) which will, at last, grant you the happiness you so richly deserve. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case. Think about it, how many times have you heard successful people talking about how disappointed they were when they finally became rich or famous or achieved X, Y, or Z. Meanwhile, you scratch your head as these same people go on to glorify the days when they were trenches, working hard to master their crafts. What this tells us—what so many successful people have said over the ages in a million different ways—is that it is not a destination that matters but, rather, the process. Happiness lies in learning to love the process of self-improvement. For, as Annie Dillard put it, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Building Systems

Goals come from systems, and systems come from habits. Our daily lives consist of countless tiny habits. Your morning shower is a habit, so is brushing your teeth, so is going to work, working out, and many things in-between including failing to go to the gym, not getting your work done, and, of course, eating too much.

The thing to understand is that if you can form good habits, you can build a system that leads to a successful life.

There are many ways to form good habits. You might, for example, say that at 7am every day you are going to go for a jog. Using the time as a cue to start your new behavior might work. But a better way to build strong, long-lasting habits is via a self-regulatory strategy called “intention implementation.” Specifically, one of the best intention implementations is a technique called “habit stacking.”

Habit Stacking

When you do something over and over again, it becomes a habit. And every successive time you do something, the action impacts your brain’s neural connections and strengthens the habit even further.

Yes, that means every time you brush your teeth, the neural connection for teeth brushing grows stronger. Just like every time you go to the gym or do something else, the neural connection for those things grows stronger. With this in mind, habit stacking enables you to take advantage of your existing habits to create and stick with new behaviors.

How Does Habit Stacking Work?

As the name suggests, habit stacking works by identifying something you currently do and then “stacking” on top of new behavior. By linking new behaviors with old habits, you can more easily stick to your resolutions and develop positive, long-term life systems.
When habit stacking, you might, for example, realize that having a bowl of fruit every morning is one of your already-existing habits. Knowing this, you can stack a new behavior on top “fruit bowl” by saying, for example, that “Every day after my fruit bowl, I will do X pushups.”

One of the most important things to remember about new habits is the importance of initially keeping them as small as possible. Growth and habit-expansion should come in the form of a consistent, incremental increase. Sticking with this example, you may start a new habit stack by doing only ten pushups per day. But then in a week, you can bump that number up to 15. And then, in another week, to 20 and on and on until eventually, you are doing 100 pushups or more per day. The long-term results of such incremental, habit stacks can be tremendous.

Other potential habit stacks include:

  • After dinner, I will meditate for 5-minutes.
  • After my morning coffee, I will fill out my daily planner.
  • After saying good morning to my partner, I will say one thing that I am thankful for (to myself or aloud).

The key to many of the best habit stacks is that they begin after an enjoyable existing behavior. For example, you enjoy eating dinner at 7pm every night. It is better to add a habit like a meditation on top of that existing habit. Or, if you enjoy your morning coffee, it is good to add new behavior to that existing habit.

Beyond the initial habit stack, you can also layer more and more habit stacks together to span many behaviors in a row. For instance, if you start with morning coffee as the initial building block (i.e., the already existing habit) you can say that “After my morning coffee I will fill out my daily planner,” and then after solidifying the new daily planner habit, you can add another new behavior to the stack. “After filling out my daily planner, I will go on a jog around the neighborhood.” Again, when the new behavior (jogging) becomes solidified you can add yet another new behavior to the stack. And on and on until you are getting more done than you ever thought possible—and all without pain.

How to Habit Stack

When it comes to building effective habits that you can stack one atop the other, remember to:

Start Small: When it comes to habits, going from 0-60 is not the answer. In the beginning it is important to start small. Remember habits are a marathon, not a sprint.

Be Incremental: No matter how small you start, if you improve every day or every week, soon enough, your habits will be substantial. Make sure to measure your daily or weekly progress and continually improve and build upon your habits.

Do Not Stack Failures: Do not let one day’s failure become two, and certainly do not let two days become three. If you fail to practice a new behavior one day, it’s not the end of the world. Just make sure you get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t spiral out of control and undo all of your hard work!

Remember how to use systems and how to use goals. Systems, in short, are more important than goals. But goals still play a role. Namely, in that, they help you plan your progress. Habits, though, are more important because they help you actually make your progress.

Follow James Clear’s lead by implementing habit stacking and other effective systems into your daily life. For, as famed coach Bill Walsh put it if you focus on the day-to-day, “the score will take care of itself.”

Wisetail LMS guest author Gerald Lombardo.

By Gerald Lombardo

Gerald Lombardo is a novelist and writer of personal and cultural non-fiction.