Photo credit: Joseph Paquette (CC BY 2.0)

If you have been reading about personal productivity on the Internet, I’m sure you’ve read plenty of articles on how to build a new habit. One of the common pieces of advice is to work on one habit at a time until it sticks and then move on to the next one. If you try to focus on too many at a time, you will have a high chance of failure.

I’m here to say that is not true.

I found a hack that allows you to learn multiple habits at a time. It allowed me to learn 5 habits in 30 days and I’m going to show you how you can do the same thing.

The flaw in the approach of one habit per period (usually it’s a month) is that the presupposition is that all habits are created equal. This is not the case — because not all habits take the same amount of effort to make them stick. There are a lot of habits that I would say require the commitment of learning one at a time, but what I found is that a lot of habits can be learned at the same time.

The 5 Habits

I discovered by accident that you can build multiple habits at a time. As I was trying to figure out how to build more habits, I thought one habit per month was too slow for me. So I started to question the common advice out there and look at it from different angles. That’s when I found that the presupposition was flawed and I used this as a starting point to hack the habit learning process.

Here are the 5 habits I made to stick at the same time in 30 days (they are in no particular order):

  • Flossing every morning.
  • Reading a book before going to bed.
  • Drinking green tea once a day.
  • Taking my supplements in the morning.
  • Stretching my body as soon as I get out of bed.

Here is the flaw in the “one-habit-at-a-time approach” and the question that triggered my discovery.

If I want to floss every morning, why can’t I focus on the habit of drinking green tea once a day that might kick in later in the day? I asked myself this question and pondered it for a while. By mere logic, it doesn’t make any sense to focus on one habit at a time if the two habits aren’t related and are not dependent on each other. I can floss my teeth at 8am and drink green tea every day at 2pm. Why would I then focus on just one habit at a time?

Like I said earlier, not all habits are created equal. Some take more effort to build because of their nature. The list of habits I wanted to work on don’t require continuous focus. Example of such habits that require continuous focus include positive thinking, eating healthy, becoming a better listener and practicing gratitude. For such habits you always have to be on the lookout because you don’t know when you can expect them to be practiced — and most of them have an external component you cannot directly control.

Let’s take the example of positive thinking. You can start your day with positive affirmations, but what do you do when a negative thought comes up later in the day? It’s not something you can predict to happen (nor expect it to happen) at a certain time of the day. When a negative thought does come up, you have to reframe it right away and this can happen numerous times a day. As you can see, such habits require a lot of focus and practice. For those habits — yes, go with the one-habit-at-a-time approach.

However, there are a lot of habits that do no require this much focus and practice.

These are habits that you can only work on when you are int the right location — and at the right time. By their nature you have a lot of control over them when you want to exercise them and I call them “controller habits”. These are the ones you can make habitual very fast with two simple technique that will I reveal. By applying these simple techniques I was able to learn five habits in a month without any problems.

Pinging and sticky notes

The “life hacker” way of learning these controller habits involves pings and sticky notes. Like I said before, for certain habits you just need to work on them when you are in the right place and at the right time. A ping is sending yourself a reminder about the habit you want to work on. This is a process you want to automate so you don’t rely on your memory. Examples of how you can ping yourself is by setting reminders, automated emails to yourself, and text messages. These little pings will happen at a specific time and will remind you that you have to enforce the habit you want to learn.

As an example of a ping, I set calendar reminders for every day at 2pm to drink green tea. If you have your phone synced up with your desktop through the cloud (like with iCloud, MobileMe and the like), calendar reminders are awesome. You can setup the reminders on your desktop (make sure there are popup notifications set) and each time a reminder is due you will get notified on your desktop and mobile phone. That way you will not lose sight of the habit you want to work on. Whenever you read the ping is when you have to take action to cultivate your desired habit. Remember to do it right after you read the ping.

The second technique requires a simple prop: sticky notes. For each habit you want to cultivate, write down on a sticky note the action you need to take. For example, “floss your teeth” or “take your supplements” would suffice.

Now this is the essential part of making the sticky notes work. Place them visibly at the location where you need to exercise the habit. This is really crucial. This acts like a reminder for you to build your habit. When I wanted to build the habit of flossing every morning, I wrote down “Floss my teeth” and I posted the note on the bathroom door. This meant that each morning when I went into the bathroom, I would see this note that reminded me to floss my teeth. Likewise for my daily supplements, I posted the note in the kitchen on the cabinet where I stored my supplements. Every morning when I was in the kitchen it would help me remind me that I need to take my daily supplements.

There is another benefit to these pings and sticky notes. Not only do they remind you of working on your habits but they will also help in getting those habits “burned” into your subconscious. The more you see it, the stronger it will be in your subconscious. Each time I go to my bathroom, I read the note about flossing my teeth — but I don’t have to exercise it each time. However, because I’m reminded of it all the time it becomes almost second nature to me — I now know that I have to floss my teeth in the morning. Repetition is not only the mother of learning, but also the father of getting something stuck in your subconscious.

One Last Thing

If you combine both the pings and sticky notes you can learn a lot of habits at the same time. To round it up, here’s how I used the pings and sticky notes to build those five habits:

  • Flossing – sticky note on my bathroom door.
  • Reading – ping at 10pm and sticky note in my bedroom.
  • Green tea – ping at 2pm and sticky note in my kitchen.
  • Supplements – ping at 8am and sticky note in my kitchen.
  • Stretching – sticky note in my bedroom I would see first thing as soon as I wake and stand up.

If you can chain multiple habits, you will create very effective rituals — or “super habits” as I often call them.

What 5 habits can you learn in 30 days? Let me know in the comments — and hopefully with this advice you’ll be able to make all 5 of them stick!

 

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