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6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick

6 Proven Ways To Make New Habits Stick

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!

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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

More by this author

Celestine Chua

Celestine is the Founder of Personal Excellence where she shares her best advice on how to boost productivity and achieve excellence in life.

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

What to Write Down

Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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Dates of Events

Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

Names of People

Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

Theories or Frameworks

Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

Definitions

Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

Arguments and Debates

Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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Images

Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

Other Stuff

Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

Your Own Questions

Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

1. Outlining

Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

2. Mind-Mapping

For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

Here’s the idea:

In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

3. The Cornell System

The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

The Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

More About Note-Taking

Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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