5 of my best habit building tricks

The path to health, loving relations, and reasonable wealth aren't much of a secret. It's theoretically simple. The hard part is doing what it takes consistently and over a long time. Change is hard. Our habits are a result of years of conscious or unconscious training, environment, and brain chemistry. It is hard to change old habits or develop new ones overnight. 

Over the years, I have learned, reflected, and experimented with many tricks to establish new habits. Here are the top tricks that have worked well for me.  

1. Big Why and Small Hows

To do anything hard, you need to have a deep desire. Only pick a few goals where you can respond to "Will this make my life amazing?" and "Will I really regret not doing this?" with a resounding yes. Don't set arbitrary goals - you are likely to fail or, worse, spend your limited time working towards something that you don't really want. 

My personal goal is to be as peaceful and joyful as possible and spread it to a few others. To do this, I need good health, clarity, acceptance, cheerfulness, low-ego, free time, loving relations, sufficient wealth, kindness, and integrity. I'm very motivated to practice these every single day as they are core to my life.

The big whys should be accompanied by specific, small hows - what actions should you take, when, backup options, and how will you keep track and course-correct. Without specific hows, your goals are just dreams, and you are only signing up to feel guilty and sad about the lack of progress. Make your hows very practical and exciting too so that you actually stick with them. 

Another useful filter for both the Big Why and Small Hows is asking whether they'll be relevant for 5-10 years - that ensures that the whys are actually essential and the hows are sustainable. 

2. Keystone habits

Keystone habits are those that will automatically lead to a lot of other good habits. For me, weight training is a keystone habit for health. If I lift weights, I tend to also eat better, drink more water, stretch more, sleep more, and be less stressed. I also enjoy lifting weights. So all I have to do is focus on lifting weights, and everything else follows. Another keystone habit is a weekly reflection or hike where I get to take a step back, reset intentions, and course-correct. 

Identify a few keystone habits rather than aiming to make a laundry list of things. It's easier, simpler, less cognitive load, and way more likely to work. 

3. Habit stacking

Combine new habits with habits that you already do. I have developed a life-long habit (probably an addiction at this point) of starting my day with coffee. I enjoy my coffee and can't start without it. Now I combine coffee with filling my water bottles for the day. I stack filling up my water with taking vitamins. As I take vitamins, I say a couple of prayers (mine is "peace, joy, love"). As I drink my coffee, I prioritize my main work for the day and reflect on the previous day - another keystone habit. Another example of habit stacking is when I force myself to smile like an idiot or dance to a song as I walk to the train station in the morning - it sets me up for a cheerful morning! 

Think of your current habits and stack new ones creatively on top of them. Your coffee addiction can positively change your life! 

4. No Zero days

Do something every day (or week depending on the goal), regardless of how small the action is. If you can't do the 30-minute exercise, do 5 minutes or just do 10 squats. This does three important things - it keeps your momentum going, gives you a small win instead of guilt, and it helps you get over the initial hump, which stops most people. Skipping days does the opposite. Most change happens over the long-term, so simple actions, every day, puts you on the path. 

5. Cues and Rewards

The four steps of a "habit loop" are Cue, Craving, Action, and Reward. Most people think of the Action (the specific hows) but don't design the Cue and Reward, which is a crucial miss. 

Cues remind you to do the activity and make it a default rather than an exception. If you want to eat healthily, remove snacks from visible places in your house and replace them with healthy snacks. I also stick vision boards and posters with my goals and motivation as my phone wallpaper and around my house - in the mirror, in the bedroom, living room, etc. Habit stacking uses current habits as cues. 

The more rewarding the activity, the more likely you are to do it. I prefer activities where the rewards are intrinsic because I enjoy doing the exercise. Interesting is always better than the perfect or most effective, as you'll enjoy yourself and sustain it for a long time. For, e.g., To become a clear thinker and to learn, I write this blog. I just enjoy writing, so I don't need any will power. Similarly, I play squash instead of running on a treadmill because I enjoy the sport and get to hang out with friends. 

If you can't creatively develop an exciting activity to move towards your goals, then combine the activity with rewards. For e.g., combine the activity with your favorite food, listening to your favorite podcast, or meeting friends. 

Good luck, and share your own tricks via comments or email!