How to develop a good habit

An easy and fun habit-forming trick called 'Don't break the chain'


An effective way to set and reach a goal is to create a new habit.

Habits are like your brain’s way of saving energy. Think of any task that you need to learn, such as swimming or driving a car. To begin with it can be really difficult. You have to deliberately think carefully about each movement. However, something strange happens after a certain amount of practice: you no longer have to think about it consciously, you just do it. Once you reach this stage, it seems to require less mental energy to accomplish the task. This is the power of habit.

Why is this energy drop important? We all have only a certain amount of – for want of a better term – will-power-energy. This is why we eat junk food when we are stressed, as we just don’t have the will-power-energy to resist it. Therefore trying to start a new behavior, which isn’t yet a habit, can take up a lot of energy and therefore (unless you have very strong willpower) can seem almost impossible. However, once you’ve got into the habit of doing something, it just seems easier and less effortful.

The more good habits you can start the more positive momentum you can create in your life. Momentum really is a good analogy: Its similar to rolling a ball down a hill, once you get it moving, gravity takes over and the movement of the ball requires no further energy from you. Once you start a habit, it takes on almost an energy of its own.

In order to develop a new habit you just need to keep doing it for a certain period of time. Exactly how many times is probably dependent on the habit, how hard it is, and on your own personality. However, an example of a typical number of times would be do to something daily for a month.

Here is a simple but surprisingly effective way to develop a new habit. Its called ‘Don’t break the chain’. Basically, you need to get a calendar, and each day you do the activity of the new habit, you make an ‘X’ mark on that day. Commit to a realistic amount of daily activity. For example, if you are trying to get fit, perhaps even 20 minutes of exercise (even walking) per day might be an achievable amount for you. Or it might not even be a certain amount of time or activity. For example, if you are trying to start the habit of eating healthily, then you would put an ‘X’ on each day that you managed to eat healthy food and avoid junk food.

Once you’ve managed to put ‘X’s for several days in a row you will have the beginnings of a ‘chain’. Here’s where this technique really helps motivate you: once you have your chain, you should try not to ‘break’ it, i.e. by going a day without putting an X. This should be relatively easy, as the length of your chain grows it will give you a feeling of satisfaction and to have to break it will feel annoying.

It taps into a known aspect of Human motivation: we tend to be more motivated by fear of loss than opportunity of gain. In other words, we get more fired-up by avoiding loosing something we already have (in this case, the growing chain) than by the hope of gaining something we don’t yet have (in this case, the habit).

The beauty of this habit-creating system is that its fun, simple, and you don’t even have to do it forever for it to be effective, only for as long as it takes to form the habit. You could even do it each month, and by the end of a year have 12 completely new habits!

Tips:

If you don’t have a calendar, you can easily print one up if you have Microsoft word.

Even if you don’t have Word, you can just make your own, using any software that allows you to make a table or grid, to represent the days of the month.

Try and put the calendar somewhere where you’ll see it a lot. However, if you really need to keep it private, you could just keep it as a file on your computer or phone, but it might not have quite as strong an effect. There is something particularly satisfying about physically marking your Xs onto a calendar!