8 Ways to Change Your Habits (And Actually Get What You Want)

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What does it take to make a goal or a dream come true?

You know the drill. You’re vowing to change your behavior. Tomorrow I’ll … start meditating. Start brushing my teeth. Finally get around to writing those essays you’ve been meaning to write. Make plans for the new book you’re putting together. Learn to code.

You vow that you’re going to do it. You know it. You have to do it.

But it didn’t get done today. So you wake up tomorrow and do the same thing you’ve always done. Yet your behavior doesn’t change.

When we make broad-sweeping declarations about our life, they don’t work.

In fact vowing to do anything, no matter how strong the vow, usually wears off as your willpower drains throughout the day. So how do you make a change in your life that’s actually effective? “Everyday people plan to do difficult things, but they don’t do them. They think, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ and they swear to themselves that they’ll follow through the next day,” write Carol Dweck, researcher at Stanford and author of Mindset. “Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues show that vowing, even intense vowing, is often useless. The next day comes and the next day goes.”

So how do you make a resolution that actually works? Here are a few of the best tips and tools we’ve read about, used, and know to work:

1. Make a concrete, vivid plan.

What works, writes Dweck, is making a vivid, concrete plan. Describe to yourself exactly what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, and what steps you need to take, down to the minute detail. “Think of something you need to do, something you want to learn, or a problem you have to confront. What is it? Now make a concrete plan. When will you follow through on your plan? Where will you do it? How will you do it? Think about it in vivid detail.”

Increase your possibility of success by outlining when you’re going to do something, by putting it in your mind as a behavior — and on your calendar as an action.

These concrete plans — plans you can visualize — about when, where, and how you are going to do something lead to really high levels of follow-through, which, of course, ups the chances of success.

If you’re looking to write a book in the new year (which, full disclosure, I am), then break it down into its constituent parts. When will you write? What will it look like? What days a week will this happen?

Think about it exactly, not vaguely.

For me: I’m going to set an interim goal of writing on my book for at least ten days in January. More specifically, a writing session includes just opening the doc and working on a single page. I’m focused on making the habit of working on my book part of my regular routine.

2. To make change, visualize the change. Take time to imagine your behavior change in detail.

It turns out, detailed visualization is powerful enough to change behaviors even before you start. As I’ve written about before, the power of visualization is so important, it’s proven to change behaviors:

“In a famous basketball study, players were divided into groups that visualized perfect free throws, a second group that practiced their shots, and a placebo group that did nothing. At the end of the study, the players that visualized their perfect throws improved almost as much as the group that practiced — without ever touching a basketball. It’s important to note that the visualization involved the specific steps and actions it takes to perfect a free-throw shot.”

If you want to change what you do, you can begin with your thoughts.

3. Start small.

Habit change happens when you start really small. Want to learn how to run? Your first month might focus just on the first five minutes of each run, until you’ve mastered that first step. This includes mastering the steps of putting your shoes on, walking outside, and only then maybe adding a few minutes to walk to the corner or around the block each day.

What’s key is successive positive reinforcement, or rewarding the behavior you want more of. Too often we jump cold turkey into a brand-new routine only to find ourselves back in our old habits before we know it. Instead, focus on the smallest possible change that could build into a habit over time. For more on this, check out Stanford Professor B.J. Foggs’ Tiny Habits program.

“We often think that if you start with something so small, it won’t make a difference. But the truth is, because that momentum builds after you get going, you can often start with something really tiny, and it will blossom into something much bigger,” says writer and author James Clear.

If you’re stuck or overwhelmed with a new project, ask yourself: what’s the smallest thing I could do next to make this happen? It doesn’t matter how small it is — the trick is to make it small enough that you actually do something.

Tweet: “Even when you start small, it can make a huge difference.” — @James_Clear

4. Prime yourself.

New behaviors need an introduction, of sorts. Whenever I start to learn something new, I try to expose myself to the new context before actually committing to a new behavior change. Often the weight of how much is going on can be intimidating — researching a new location, mapping it out on google maps, looking up schedules, figuring out payment options, sticking to the plan — that enough friction in any of these steps and you don’t end up doing it.

Instead, make one of the first steps a walk through. Whenever I try out a new gym or studio, I go in for a tour. You can learn the routine, see the studio, and practice the behavior of going to the gym. This makes it easier for you to repeat this action down the line because you already know how to do it.

Want to start flossing your teeth in the morning? Go right now to your bathroom sink and practice the behavior. Get out the floss, put it on the countertop, and floss at least one tooth. Even if it’s 2pm in the afternoon, even if it’s just one tooth. This will prime you for repeating the behavior the next day.

5. Look to the process, not the outcome.

Too often we confuse the reward of the outcome with understanding what, exactly, it’s going to take to get there. Sitting down to write every single day is a lot more boring than having a published book in your hand. So how do you create a schedule that rewards the small successes?

It’s actually psychologically difficult to conceptualize change. We don’t understand thresholds of small changes; instead, we’re biased to see big wins. The biggest change happens over time, however, when you enact small, consistent behaviors. Sometimes mundane acts over time add up to something more exciting, after all.

“It’s so easy to focus on this idea of one defining moment, or overnight success, or some massive transformation to flip a switch and become a new person — but it’s not that way at all,” explains Clear. To make a behavior stick, look closely at the process and whether or not you’re really willing to commit to the, at times, drudgery and slog that it’ll take to get there.

And be ready to surprise yourself. Entrepreneur Corbett Barr reminds us that “Not a lot will change in one single day, but a lot can change in 30 days.” It’s rare that I’ll have a breakthrough day to finish my book (and by definition, that will only be one day out of many), but if I keep showing up, that day will arrive.

6. Motivation doesn’t last long, so plan ahead for when you’re not motivated.

How do you stay motivated? Well, it’s not about motivation — it’s about habit. Stephen Pressfield describes Somerset Maugham’s relationship to motivation and writing:

“Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” Maugham reckoned another deeper truth: that by performing the mundane act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.” — Steven Pressfield from The War of Art

In other words, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that a professional doesn’t wait for motivation. They get to it, even if they don’t feel like it.

7. When you get stuck, reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule.

This idea comes from 37 Signals, and I heard about it from Eric Zimmer and James Clear on “The One You Feed,” podcast. James writes every Monday and Thursday, and he explains that even when there’s a dud of a day, he still shows up and sticks to the schedule.

It doesn’t matter how you feel, it’s about shipping something. Rather than skipping altogether when circumstances get dicey (skipping your workout because you only have 20 minutes, avoiding your writing session because you’re tired), instead, find a way to do something, even if it’s just for a moment. Do jumping jacks for 6 minutes, then 1 minute of pushups. Write 200 words, or three sentences.

Whatever time you have is how much you do.

A little of something is a lot more than nothing.

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8. Behavior change requires… change.

In order to get a different outcome, change the inputs.

This might seem exceptionally obvious, but it’s worth pointing out: if you want a different result, you’ll have to do something differently than you’re currently doing. What you’re doing right now (and for me, it’s spending three weeks not writing, then a day stressing about writing) — isn’t getting you the result that you want.

If you aren’t getting what you want, then what you’re doing isn’t working. In order to get what you want, something about the process will have to change.

What are you willing to do differently to get what you want?

How can you change your habits to get more of what you want?

Why I Built A Microscope Instead of Writing My Book

True story: I recently made a microscope out of an old computer charger box, the lens from of a CDROM drive, and a bunch of tape.

I may have also cannibalized an LED from the front of my bike (no night riding for me anytime soon). The whole thing took me a weekend, and when I was done, I could take digital photos of plant cells with my smartphone.

If you’re wondering whether I’m MacGuyver, the answer is yes. I am MacGuyver.

I have a novel hanging over my head, one I recently declared I would finish by the end of the summer.

When I shared this with my family, I got something of a mixed response. Universally, they agreed it was cool, but then universally they wanted to know why I was spending my days off making a microscope when I could be writing. In other words, why was I wasting time on these little projects of mine rather than tackling the much larger project of finishing my writing? Wouldn’t a weekend spent writing do much more toward knocking that out of the way than a weekend spent harvesting lens parts and fashioning cardboard harnesses for my phone?

Fashioning a microscope with cardboard and old Mac parts.

They’re right, up to a point. I have a novel hanging over my head, one I recently declared I would finish by the end of the summer. With this mental stone sitting heavy in the middle of my calendar, spending a whole weekend designing, cutting up pieces of charger box, testing an instrument with no guarantees of it working on the other side amounted to an act of pretty hardcore procrastination.

It works! Sand detail through my homemade microscope.

Being called out on this sucks, to be sure. In a culture that values productivity more than creativity, results more than process, being called a procrastinator is tantamount to being called lazy.

But here’s the thing: Not all procrastination is made equal.

There exists that special breed of procrastination that actually helps get our creative juices moving. For me, it’s working on weird craft assignments where I build scientific equipment out of e-waste. At least one person I know makes origami cranes when a deadline looms at work. My partner cleans the house when she has to start any big project (she’s writing a dissertation now; our apartment absolutely sparkles).

These are the useful acts of procrastination — the creative procrastination — in which the stress of trying to exist in a product-oriented, perfection-oriented culture transduces into the need to make a physical product. Yeah, we have forms of procrastination that are totally useless.

Yeah, we have forms of procrastination that are totally useless.

No, it is not the most useful expenditure of time to spend an afternoon obsessively checking social media or reading reviews of last week’s Game of Thrones finale on the internet (both of which I have done while writing this post). Indeed, that video of a cat slowly pushing a drawer closed after getting caught stealing food is the funniest thing ever posted to the web, but it will not get your project off the ground.

All of these amount to a kind of passivity in the face of a big workload, but when we respond to the pressure to produce, to perfect, to imagine ideas bigger than we know we can handle by creating physical objects, what we’re doing is using the physical world to shape our mental space into a creative space.

Our creative projects so often fail because the end seems so far away, the process so messy and imperfect, that the easier pleasures of passive procrastination seem better and more readily attained. This is the value of creative procrastination: it gives us a way to push back against the mental pressures of creativity and to sublimate stress, fear, doubt — all the negative emotions that can orbit around creative projects, threatening to fall in and crush our brilliant ideas — into a physical medium that proves to us we can make a project.

This is the value of creative procrastination: it gives us a way to push back against the mental pressures of creativity and to sublimate stress, fear, and doubt.

That’s not passivity. It’s not exactly productivity, either, but it amounts to a kind of active putting off of work that deserves to be seen as a valuable part of any creative workflow. When I finished making my microscope, I had opened up a world of new sights and creatures to myself. I had also proven to myself that I could finish a big project. When I started writing at the end of the weekend, I did so with a creatively charged mind and a will to get through the toughest writing problems.

Minnow Egg Detail.

I sincerely hope, then, that the next time you have a project coming due and decide to spend an afternoon gardening beforehand, you don’t chastise yourself for wasting time. Congratulate yourself for knowing your process well enough to incorporate productive procrastination into it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish a chapter. Time to look up how to build a telescope.

Learning Hack: The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoros are a simple learning and productivity technique. We all get burnt out or spend time doing stuff that’s not really effective or valuable, right?

Take a kitchen timer (a Pomodoro timer) and set it to 25 minutes.

Work on one thing for those 25 minutes. If you’re able to do that, when the 25 minutes are up make a little X on a piece of paper, like a post-it, and take a 5 minute break where you’re NOT thinking about work. Go walk around, or drink a cup of water, or use the bathroom, or stretch a little bit.

Then decide what you’re going to work on next and do another Pomodoro.

After about four Pomodoros cycles (with 5 minute breaks in between each), you should take a longer break of 20 minutes or so.

The goal will be to hit a certain number of Pomodoros in a day, like 8 or so, and then hit that number again or more the next day.

If you get really distracted during a Pomodoro (like you end up spending a few minutes on Facebook) then the Pomodoro doesn’t count and you have to start over.

The Pomodoro Technique accomplishes a few things:

  1. It gives you an accepted relaxation / bucket time. Then you don’t feel bad taking a break. In fact, studies show that breaks are important for optimal learning and focus. If you don’t take breaks, you might not be as productive as you could be.
  2. It lets you recalibrate what you’re working on every 25 minutes. I know that for me I often get unproductive when I’m working on the same thing for a long-time because I start focusing on stuff that isn’t important but tricking myself into thinking its super important. (Have you ever found yourself spending more than 15 minutes agonizing over the formatting of a powerpoint slide?) The more often you step back and check in with the self, the more you’ll feel like you actually worked on the tasks that you were supposed to.
  3. It provides a small, but reasonable challenge for you to maintain focus. You can defer distractions to a time that is at most 25 minutes away.
  4. It sets a personal challenge for yourself. By quantifying how many Pomodoros you’ve accomplished during the day, you’ll naturally feel a desire to at least match that never the next day.
  5. You feel better at the end of the day. Most of us spend way too much time hunched at our desk and then we feel like shit at the end of the day. It’s usually because we haven’t been physically active, we didn’t drink enough water, or stretch enough throughout the day. These 5 minute breaks are perfect for that. I find that at the end of a day when I practice pomodoros, I usually feel awesome.

So how can you get started?

Well it’s as simple as getting a timer, a piece of paper, and a pen, really. But there are a few things I’d recommend:

  • There’s an app for that. Pomodoro Timer for the iPhone is a good one. There are a lot of fancy apps out there that track all your Pomodoros and are adjustable and whatnot, but this app does all I really want. It vibrates when your 25 minutes are up, and lets you pick whether you want to take a short or a long break when that’s done.
    (My friend Jon notes that there’s a cool desktop alternative called Timer, which has a pomodoro option at this url:
  • Get a notebook, a day calendar, or even just a post-it at your desk to track your Pomodoros. This will actually be a good reminder at the start of your day that you should be doing Pomodoros in the first place.
  • While you’re at it, buy a nice pen.

Hope you enjoyed this post. Do you have a learning technique you’d like to share? Or do you think Pomodoro is a stupid idea? Post about it in the comments below.