Not long ago, my daily life was in really bad shape. I was sleeping anywhere between 3am to 6am on average, and on the really bad days I wouldn’t sleep at all. Because I slept late, I would wake up late. Subsequently, my day would start off late, which meant I was busy “playing catch-up” and being late for my appointments. My diet was horrendous – I was eating lots of junk food and snacks at night to stay awake. It got worse month after month, and I didn’t want to continue on. I needed to revamp my lifestyle!
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I picked out 9 habits I wanted to cultivate for the next 21 days, such as: (1) Sleeping at/before 12am, (2) Waking up at 5am, (3) Reading a book or listening to a podcast at least once a day, (4) Meditating, (5) Being timely for my appointments (6) Even eating a raw food diet! #6 might be a bit of an overkill for some people, but hey – since it was just for 21 days, I thought I might as well try something different for a change.

I’m extremely happy to report that nearly all my habits have stuck. My life has become significantly organized. I wake up early, I get to all my appointments early/on time, I get my work done, I meditate, I’m eating raw, and I sleep on time. Out of the 9 habits, 8 habits stuck, while 1 habit was let go because I realized it wasn’t something I wanted to work on for now. Compared to my previous lifestyle, this has been a total 180 degree turnaround.

Some people might think this positive change is exclusive to me, that perhaps I have some incredible determination, persistence or discipline to pull this off. I don’t want to disappoint, but it’s not. In fact, truth be told, I consider myself a very undisciplined person. What I do have though, are 6 specific tips that have been critical in enabling my lifestyle change. These have helped my new habits stick.

If you have been trying to cultivate new habits with little success, then you might find these very useful. These habits are not rocket science – they are easy to understand, apply and have worked tremendously for me.

Here they are:

1. Know the Real Reason Why Your Habit Didn’t Stick Previously

Address the root cause of the issue, not the effect. Desperately battling with yourself every morning to wake up at 5:30am is to address the effect. Understanding why you keep failing to wake up at 5:30am is to address the cause.

For example, I couldn’t wake up early for the longest time ever, and all I kept doing is to keep trying and failing the next day. This would continue on for several months until I finally realized it was just going nowhere. I began to start analyzing my situation to understand why I couldn’t wake up early, through a self-questioning process. I probed into the situation, and asked myself “why” this was happening to drill down to the root cause.

Below is an example of the drilling process:

  • Why can’t I wake up early?
    • Because I’m tired.
  • Why am I tired?
    • Because I didn’t have enough sleep.
  • Why didn’t I have enough sleep?
    • Because I slept late.
  • Why did I sleep late?
    • Because I had too many things to do.
  • Why did I have so many things to do?
    • Because I can’t finish them.
  • Why can’t I finish them?
    • Because I schedule more tasks than I can accomplish for the day.

Getting down to this root cause helped me realize two things (1) All our habits are tied to one another (sleeping time, waking time, timeliness) (2) I underestimate the time taken to finish the tasks (and subsequently overestimate how fast I can do those tasks). Many times, I would target to finish multiple projects in 1 day, which wasn’t possible at all.

This meant that to make my waking early habit stick, (1) I need to change habits that are related to waking early (see Tip #2) and (2) I have to be more realistic in my planning. Rather than stuff in so many tasks for a day and not finishing them, now I go for a challenging yet achievable schedule and complete my tasks accordingly.

Keep asking why to drill down to the root reason. Once you get to the real cause, you can immediately resolve the issue.

2. Pick Habits that Reinforce Each Other

Our habits are not standalone; they are interlinked. Some habits have a stronger linkage with each other than others. For example, sleeping early and waking early are obviously linked to each other, while sleeping early and reading a book a day might not be so closely related. If you want to cultivate a habit, identify the other habits that are tied with it and make a holistic change. These habits will reinforce each other to help make the change seamless.

For example, my new habits to: (a) Wake up early at 5am (b) Sleep before 12am (c) Be on time (d) Meditate (e) Have raw food diet are all interlinked.

  • Waking up early means I more time to do my tasks, which helps me to sleep earlier in the night. This helps me to wake up early the next day.
  • Being on time helps me to get my tasks completed on time, which helps me adhere to the day’s schedule. This means my sleeping time and subsequently my waking time does not get affected.
  • Meditating clears out mental clutter and reduces the amount of sleep I need. Usually I sleep about pro6-10 hours, but on the nights I meditate, I require about 5-6 hours.
  • Switching to a raw vegan diet has helped to increase my mental clarity, which meant I don’t need to sleep as much as before. I’m not saying that you need to go raw vegan just to cultivate a habit of sleeping/waking early, just that I noticed this particular benefit when I switched to this diet. You can sleep and wake up early perfectly fine by changing other habits.

3. Plan For Your Habits (Right down to the timings)

Having a schedule lets you know when you are on or off track for your habits. For the 1st day of my new lifestyle, I did a full-day planning and continued thereafter for all other days.

What I do is this:

  1. On the night before, put together a list all the tasks I need to get done for the next day. This includes what’s on my calendar (I use Gcal).
  2. Batch them into (a) Major projects, (b) Medium sized tasks and (c) Small, administrative activities
  3. Slot them into my schedule for the day. Major projects would have most amount of time assigned. The principle I usually go by is 60-30-10 (% time spent) for a-b-c groups respectively.
  4. Be aware of how much time each task requires. If it helps, most of the time we underestimate the time we need. Make it a realistic yet challenging time to work towards. Usually I assign a 5-10 minutes buffer time in between tasks to account for the transition from 1 task to the next.
  5. Assign exact timings for when each task starts and ends. For example, 9am to 10:30am for Project A, 12:30-1:30pm for lunch, 6:30-7:30pm for commute.
  6. If there are more tasks to be done than my schedule allows, I’ll deprioritize the unimportant ones and put them off to another day.

With all this planning done, when the next day comes all I have to do is to follow the schedule to a tee. I keep a close watch on the timing to ensure I’m on time. 5 minutes before it’s up, I do a wrap up and start transiting to the next task on the list.

The beauty of having a precise schedule is it helps me know exactly when I’m taking more time than desired, and this helps me work on being more efficient. There are some timings which absolutely have to be protected, such as my sleeping/waking times and appointment times, so in that sense the time allocated on my tasks are fixed. That means I have to work more efficiently.

It may seem like a hassle, but it really isn’t. It just takes me about 10 minutes to get each day’s schedule done. Not surprisingly, I have allocate time in my daily schedule to do my scheduling for the next day (11-11:10pm). All you have to do is create a template once, and then you can reapply this template for the other days. There will be similar items across all out days that can be reapplied, such as waking/breakfast/commuting/working/dinner/sleeping times, so it’s really very straight forward.

If you don’t plan for when exactly to get the habit done and instead just arbitrarily say that you want it to be done sometime today, then there’s a very high chance it might not get done. This is why most people’s habits don’t stick. Other things will invariably keep popping in and you’d engage them without realizing it and throw your schedule off track. From there, other things get pushed back and you never get to carry out your habit.

4. Stay Ahead of Your Schedule

I found it’s extremely motivating to stay ahead. Waking up early at 5am means I’m ahead of most people in the world (and myself too, if I were to stick to my old schedule), and that motivates me to work fast and stay ahead. What helps me continue this momentum is that I end my tasks earlier and start the next task before the scheduled timing. By ensuring I stay ahead of my schedule, I’m naturally motivated to work on all the things I have planned, including my habits. There’s no resistance to get them started at all.

If a task is taking more time than needed, then I make a choice. Either I:

  1. Hurry up and get it done
  2. Deprioritize the unnecessary or
  3. Borrow time out for my later tasks to continue working on the current one. This also means I have to work faster for the remainder of the day.

This decision-making process is important, because otherwise you will end up playing catch-up for the rest of the day, which affects all your planned habits/activities. Subsequently, it also affects your will to maintain your habits. Stay ahead of your schedule and you will find it easier to stay motivated.

5. Track Your Habits

Tracking keeps you accountable to your habits. I have a whiteboard in my bedroom which I use to track my habits. On the whiteboard, I drew a large table, split by days (21 days to cultivate a new habit) and by habits. For the days where I do the habit, I will give it a check. For the days I don’t, I make a cross. It’s very satisfying to do the checks every time you finish a habit! You can also track your habits on paper or in your computer.

Here are some great habit trackers online:

  • HabitForge – Tracks new habits through a 21-day period. If you miss the habit for 1 day, it’ll restart.
  • Rootein – Unlike Habit Forge, this is an ongoing habit tracker. There is also a mobile version for you to track your habits on the go.
  • Joe’s Goals – Same as Rootein. There’s an option to place multiple checks on the same goal for extra-productive days.

6. Engage People Around You

Engagement can occur on 2 levels – (a) Active engagement, where you inform your friends who might be interested in and cultivate the habit together with them or (b) Passive engagement, where you let others know about your plans and having them morally support you.

I had both forms of support in my habit change. 2 days before I started my lifestyle revamp program, I posted an article on my blog, The Personal Excellence Blog, on the new 21-day Lifestyle Revamp Program I was taking on. I wrote in detail about the rationale behind the program, the benefits, the habits I was taking on and how I was going to achieve my goals. I also invited them to join me too in cultivating new habits. Much to my pleasant surprise, many readers responded in enthusiasm on new habits they wanted to cultivate and joined me in the 21-days of change.

For my raw food diet, I told my mom that I’m just eating fruits and salads for the next 3 weeks, and she began to stock up the house with fruits like bananas, grapes and strawberries. In fact, I just finished a box of strawberries from typing this post. Yesterday, I went to watch How To Train A Dragon with my friend, and filled him in on my raw food diet. He then kept a look out for the restaurants we could dine in for that night. In the end I had warm baby spinach salad for dinner. My first time having it – can’t say I like it, but it’s nice for a change :D.

Don’t feel that you’re alone in your habit change because you aren’t. There are always people around you who are more than willing to support you.

Final Words

My new habits have pretty much been integrated into my daily life now. Everything runs on auto-pilot and it feels like I’ve been doing this for a long while. My personal tips above have worked tremendously for myself, so while they may look simple and straightforward, don’t underestimate them. Try them out for yourself and let me know how your new habits are coming along for you.

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