How To Form Positive Habits
(and Make Them Stick)
One of the things that I have consistently tried and failed to do is adopt and maintain a set of positive behaviours that would improve my day to day life if I actually stuck to them. These include meditation, exercise and – of course – practice. In spite of the time I spend making video lessons and blog posts telling others how to do things better, I’m terrible at taking my own advice and although I can do a very good impression of an effective human being, I freely admit to being frequently disorganised, lazy and ineffectual.
Here are 7 strategies that I’ve found to be effective in disrupting the patterns of a master procrastinator; it doesn’t matter if you’re looking to lose weight, increase your creative output or improve your bass playing, these tricks should work for just about any positive habit that you’re looking to form:
1.The Power of Daily Rituals
My working life is often unpredictable, which has led me to pursue a self-imposed structure as a means of creating order from chaos and to prevent going completely insane from juggling numerous projects. If you’re a self-directed individual and don’t have anyone telling you what to do and when to do it, then it’s vital that you create your own routine.
I try to begin each day with a series of small steps that are designed to ensure that I make the most of every day and don’t fritter away precious time pursuing things that aren’t important.
My Morning Routine
- The first thing is that I do my best to get up early, regardless of how much sleep I may or may not have had – I find that the morning is the best time for me to go through my various rituals without interruption from the outside world, and that my willpower and focus are strongest at the start of the day. I’ve also found that if I do the right things in the first hour of the day, then I’m more effective later on.
- I begin with journalling, which helps to clarify both what I’m doing and why I’m doing it – I write down 3 long term goals, and three things that I’m going to do today to move myself closer to those goals. At the end of the day, I come back and note 3 positive things – no matter how small – that I did today and 1 area that I could do better on tomorrow. Again, if you’re the one who’s in charge of your time then it’s really important to feel that whatever you’re doing is the right thing.
- After the journalling I do some sort of mobility work and/or exercise, which is designed to mitigate the damage that I’ve done from 18 years of playing and 30ish years of having bad posture.
- I then meditate for 15 minutes.
These steps help to get me in the right frame of mind (and body) for whatever work I have to do, and I find that I’m much more productive on the days when I complete them compared to days when I rush out of the house without having completed any of them.
I also have a morning playlist of music that puts me in a positive frame of mind which I listen to if I have to travel anywhere – this acts as a universal ‘reset button’ and is useful in getting into a good emotional state at short notice (see ‘resources’ for more on this)
2. Script Everything in Advance (Don’t Leave It To Chance)
I find myself much more likely to carry out a task if I’ve told myself exactly how and when I’m going to do it. This requires some forward planning, but it’s well worth doing as it prevents excuses as to why I haven’t done things.
Ideally, I’ll sit down for 10-15 minutes on a Sunday and script as much of my week as possible in advance in iCal; where I’m going to be and what I’m going to do. At the very least, I’ll spend some time each evening working out what I’m doing the following day and prepping for it – this removes the mental burden and wasted time taken up by deciding what you’re going to do when you get in the practice room or the gym in the spur of the moment.
The key with this is to allow yourself a degree of flexibility – things always take more time than you think they will, and tasks can be rearranged and rescheduled. It might be that you only have 10 minutes to spend on something that you wanted to work on for half an hour, but 10 minutes are better than zero minutes.
3. Quantify your goals
This may sound too obvious, but you want your habit to be easily verifiable – ‘have I done X today?’. It should be something that’s easy to do and it should have a very ‘black or white’ outcome – either you’ve completed the task or you haven’t.
Goal setting can easily become vague, so it’s important to be as specific as possible when identifying habits and outcomes. A classic one is ‘I want to get fit’ or ‘I want to lose weight’; a better way to phrase these goals and track your progress towards them would be as follows:
- I will lose 5kg of fat by a certain date
Or (even better)
- I will work out 4 times per week
- I will give up alcohol/bread/refined sugar for 30 days
If your progress towards a goal is easily measurable, then you’re more likely to stick to the new habit.
4. Start With 5 Minutes
Another obvious point, but if you really want something to become a habit, then you absolutely have to do it every single day – I’d say for at least a month. To that end, if you tell yourself that you’re suddenly going to start practising 8 hours a day or radically alter your diet overnight then you’re setting yourself up to fail, because those things require a massive change to your existing lifestyle; you don’t begin training for a marathon by trying to run 26 miles on the first day.
It’s much better to start small and give yourself an easy win – as you strengthen whatever habit it is you’re trying to develop then your minimum time will naturally increase.
To phrase it in other ways: A diet that is 70% of the way to being perfect but has 100% compliance is way better than a diet that is 100% perfect but only a 50% adherence rate. Doing 5 minutes of sight reading every day is much more effective than trying to do an hour but only managing it on one day a week.
Whatever you’re trying to do, start with 5 minutes, but do it every day. Some days you’ll manage more, which is great, but stick to that minimum standard of 5 minutes.
5. Make Your New Habits Visible
Our natural tendency as human beings is to avoid hard work and gravitate towards lying on the sofa in front of Netflix while inhaling Doritos. We’re also really good at justifying to ourselves why we don’t have to do the work. The way around this is to hold yourself accountable for your new habits, even if it’s just to yourself. Make your new habits visible and track your progress. Here are some techniques:
The ‘Chain Method’ (aka the ‘Calendar Method’)
Jerry Seinfeld once told an aspiring comic that the way to be better than the competition is to have better jokes, and the way to have better jokes is to write material every day – he suggested putting an X on a calendar on every day that you write – pretty soon you have a chain going and build up momentum; that calendar serves as a powerful motivator to not break the chain.
Author Austin Kleon has a neat variation on this that can be found in the ‘Resources’ section.
The Habit Sheet
This week, I’ve been trialling a variation on this which I got from a friend of mine who is an NLP trainer – it’s called a ‘habit sheet’ and it works like this: you list the habits that you want to develop along with a box for every day of the week. Simple, but it works – I’ve kept this in my laptop case to make sure that it goes everywhere with me and it’s been surprisingly effective in making me get things done. Writing out the sheet rather than printing it off seems to have a more powerful effect – this is also true of the journalling – when I write things down they tend to have more of an effect than if I type them out on a computer.
6. Create A ‘Cadence of Accountability’
Having a blog, website or a Youtube channel is a great way to force yourself into doing things regularly – I try to get something new out at the end of every week, whether it’s a transcription, blog post or a video lesson – it doesn’t really matter what it is, the important thing is that I’m creating what author Cal Newport calls a ‘cadence of accountability’.
I do a similar thing with music – I get together once a week with like-minded musicians and absolutely butcher jazz standards. None of us grew up playing jazz and our main gigs are all mainstream pop stuff, but we’re holding each other accountable and if I haven’t learned the new tune for that week then I’m not just letting myself down, I’m letting down 2 other musicians. It also makes me works on certain things more because I don’t want to totally embarrass myself when it comes to the bass solo.
7. Don’t Go It Alone
Related to accountability is making sure that someone else knows about the habit that you’re trying to form – they’ll act as your ‘sponsor’ and check in with you. Having to make excuses to someone else apart from yourself is much harder, so make your new habits as public as possible to increase the chance of making them stick.
These are books/websites that I’ve found useful in clarifying goals, changing behaviour and staying motivated:
Daily Rituals by Mason Curry – This book details the daily routines of numerous prolific artists, writers and composers and offers a fascinating insight into what makes great minds tick.
The Daily Stoic – This is also an essential part of my morning routine containing short pieces of wisdom on how to deal with daily life. If you are prone to complaining or falling into a negative mindset then this is a must.
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – The chapter in thos book titled ‘Building Your Trigger’ was the inspiration for the morning playlist.
The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast – sure, he’s really quite annoying, but he does interview some extremely successful people and gets them to disclose their secrets to being effective; an absolute goldmine of information AND totally free.
Deep Work by Cal Newport – If you only read 1 book on this list, make it Deep Work; this is pretty much my Bible for getting things done and staying on track.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – Ever avoided doing something creative? This explains why and helps you to stop sabotaging your own progress
Getting Things Done by David Allen – A time management book for serious productivity nerds; whenever I use the methods in this book I definitely feel less overwhelmed by the things on my ever-expanding ‘to do’ list.
Austin Kleon’s 30-day challenge – pdf version of the ‘calendar method’ explained above in point 5.
Habit Sheet – my friend JB is not only a great drummer, he’s also a certified NLP trainer who occasionly posts some very useful and insightful blogs. This is where I stole the ‘habit sheet’ idea from.