How to Start (and Keep) a Healthy Habit

That’s fairly obvious, but Seinfeld had a technique. He reportedly told Isaac to get a big wall calendar and said every time he sat down and did the work, he should make a big 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 next is to not break the chain.”

Even if it’s apocryphal, it’s still excellent advice. It also sounds like something a Seinfeld character would say.

Reduce Friction Even More

One of the reasons we have trouble changing our habits is that we’re highly emotionally invested in the habits we have. I like doing nothing in the morning. I don’t want to read/workout/cook/etc. Overcoming this inertia and resistance to change is difficult, especially since this resistance is often not entirely conscious.

This is partly why I have avoided suggestions about stopping habits you don’t like (grab Clear’s book if you’re interested in stopping a bad habit; he has plenty of good advice on that score) and focused on creating new habits. There’s generally less emotional baggage.

But what if you could reduce your emotional baggage? That way, you could stop focusing on specific habits and train your will instead. This is a common theme in older texts ranging from Catholic meditation guides to the New Thought Movement of the early 20th century.

The will is like a muscle, and you need to build it up through strength training. I’ve seen countless versions of this exercise, but they all go something like this: Sit down in a chair facing a wall. Pick a spot on the wall. Get up out of the chair and go touch the spot in the wall. Return to the chair and sit down again. Rinse and repeat. Most books tell you to start out doing this 10 times and work your way up from there.

There are more interesting, fun variations on this idea—I know someone who would pick a random spot on the map, figure out how to use public transportation to get there, and then go to that spot at a specific time of the day—but the general idea is to will yourself to do something, but something you have no emotional investment in. This builds up a fortitude of the will that you can then apply to things you are emotionally invested in.

Out With the Old

This is the time of year when we focus on new beginnings (natch), but it’s also worth spending some time reevaluating old commitments to see if you’re still actually committed to them. This is one of the most useful lessons I took from David Allen’s organizational classic Getting Things Done ($16, Amazon). Allen refers to everything you have to do, or want to do, as an “open loop.” Open loops, no matter how small, take up some space in our brain. That’s space that you can’t use for other things. So any time you can close one of those loops you get a little bit of energy back. As anyone who has done the exercises in Allen’s book can tell you, there really is something very energizing about clearing your mind of all those loops (not only by doing them, but more importantly, by making a decision about what to do with them).

This applies not just to things you have to do, but also things you think you want to do. Maybe you think you should learn Spanish, but you haven’t done anything to actually learn Spanish. Admitting that you aren’t actually committed to the idea enough to do the work of learning Spanish can help close that loop. Letting go of that feeling that you should learn Spanish just might be the thing that frees up your mind enough that you decide to take up paddleboarding on a whim. The point is that the new year isn’t just a time for starting something new. It’s a time to let go of the things from that past that are no longer serving you.