How to Make Habits Stick in 5 Amazing Ways

Learn how to make habits stick with this actionable guide

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This guide will tell you the truth about how to make habits stick. It is different from any other guide you see online, because here we provide actionable tasks that you can do. While most guides are full of blab like “enable your habit” or “keep focus”, here we reference things that you can actually do and that are backed by science.

How to Make Habits Stick

If you want to know how to make habits stick, it means you want to change your life, even a little bit. Today, you are doing X every day/week, and you want to do Y instead. X can be anything that you want to change (not working out, eating meat, scrolling Instagram) and Y can be anything that you actually want (workout, eat more vegetables, read books).

You know the new activity is good for you, and it is what you should be doing instead. However, somehow, you struggle to do that consistently. Why?

Biologically, we are optimized for the short term. Whatever you are doing right now and that you want to change is giving you immediate satisfaction. Your body (and brain) knows, without even thinking, this is good for you right now. Not working out is good for you right now because you do not feel the pain or the fatigue of training, eating junk food feels satisfying, and scrolling Instagram entertains us.

To make habits stick, we need to fight our biology. This is why humans behave differently from other animals. As an animal, when you go to the supermarket and see ripen avocados on shelves, your instinct would be to simply crack them open and eat them. And yet, you just put them in your basket, pay at the cashier, and then go home and eat them there. This is against our bodily instincts, but it what makes society functional, and it is a pretty engrained habit for most people.

Building a habit is not different than that. You would like to sit Sunday morning in bed to chill, but instead you conquer your bodily laziness and wake up and go for a run. Eventually, it comes so natural that that is just what you do. You don’t even have to think about it, and just go for the run. This is how to make habits stick.

As we will see in the rest of the guide, we have many levers on how to make habits stick. We measure and track progress, we reduce friction, and learn to withstand the pain.

How to Make Habits Stick in 5 Ways

Those that you see here are not alternative ways on how to make habits stick. They are various tools that you can (and should use) to boost our chances. The more of them you use and combine them together, the most likely your habits will stick.

Measure Progress in a Quantifiable Way

“What get measured, gets done”. The first thing you learn about how to make habits stick is that you need to have a way to tell if they are sticking or not. Even better, you need to have a way to tell how much they are sticking.

Most habits are about doing something every X day/weeks/months/whatever, and maybe do it for a given amount of time. Others are not measured in time, but across other dimensions, for example: “I do not want to spend more than $100 per month eating out”. In general, habits have at least some dimensions that can be measured. Think about the numbers you say when you talk about the habit you want (the $100, the 5 times a week, the 40 minutes workout, etc.).

Time measurement is one of the first key items in how to make habits stick
Most of the progress, when it comes to habits, is measured with time.

Once you find your target number, you have a benchmark, a number to compare you actual result against. You then need to store information about how you are actually doing, and compare it with the benchmark.

There are many way to track habits: journaling, smartphone apps, sticky notes, and more. However, I recommend using Excel. This software is perfect to store datapoints that repeat over time and visualize them in a simple way, such as in a chart. And if you don’t have Excel you can use Google Docs online for free just fine.

Create a table where each row is a unit of time: if you are doing something daily, each row represents a single day and you have the date in the first cell. Then, simply have two cells: one for your actual result (I had 0 minutes of workout today = I did not workout), and one for your benchmark (40 minutes of workout). Fill in only the numbers (0, 40). Once you do this consistently, you will be able to chart this with two lines and see how often you meet your benchmark.

The first habit you build is tracking time and measure your goals consistently. So, I would suggest spend about a month to fill in your Excel without actually committing to change your main habit first. That is, if you are not working out, just log every day that you haven’t worked out. This accomplishes two things:

  1. You get acquainted with filling this Excel every day.
  2. As soon as you start building your habit, you will see how dramatically your Excel has improved.

Measurement is key in how to make habits stick.

Seek and Destroy Friction

When astronauts get back from space (and they are not on a reusable rocket), they are dropped in a capsule that slows down just because it has to move through the air in the atmosphere. That is friction: something that slows you down.

Change requires some level of pain. After all, you have been doing something that is more comfortable in the moment, and you are foregoing that in favor of something that is better in the long run, but may be uncomfortable right now. However, not all of this pain is intrinsically embedded in the activity you are trying to do.

Let me explain. If your habit is running, then there is some inherent discomfort of that: sweating, short breath, feeling your legs hurt. However, that is not the only pain you need to withstand to conquer this habit. You will need to accept the possibility of running in the rain, the extra time spent to dress for running and then undressing and showering, the fatigue of waking up if you are doing this first thing in the morning. Those are collateral pains, but most of them can be removed.

If running in the rain is so uncomfortable for you that you may risk not building your habit, act smart. Buy a treadmill and run indoor. If running first thing in the morning is too taxing on your mind, do that after work.

In life, people who know how to make habits stick will inevitably have an advantage
To make new habits, know there is always some friction you can remove.

We can have a methodic approach to remove friction. Start to define the habit you want to build as a sequence of activities, and be incredibly detailed. For running, this would include putting on your shoes, go out of the house, turn on the alarm, walk 5 minutes to the next park, run for 30 minutes, and so on. Once you have this list, define what activities are core to your habit (run for 30 minutes) and what are not. Then, define which ones bring some discomfort to you. You will find a list of activities that are not core, but still somewhat uncomfortable. Those are the ones you need to attack, and we call them friction.

Not all friction can be removed. My advice is to rank the friction activities from the most uncomfortable to the least uncomfortable. Then, use this  as a prioritization mechanism to address them.

Identify and Accept “Good” Pain

The secret on how to make habits stick is that building habits is painful. Otherwise, there would be no smoker, and everyone would be healthy, beautiful, rich, knowledgeable, and charming. But the world is not like that.

You need to get into a mindset of understanding there is pain in your new habit, and yet still do it. If you go for a run your legs will hurt. If you cap your leisure spending, you will have to forego pleasant activities. All this sucks. There are two approaches to this: pretending it does not suck, or accepting it sucks, but do it anyway.

Let’s see this from a different angle. Most people do not like to go grocery shopping or take out the trash. Yet, if you don’t do these things, you will either starve or drown in your own trash. Therefore, even if they are uncomfortable or “painful”, you just do them because you have no other option. You should approach making habits stick in the same way.

Going for a run sucks? Yes, but I do it anyway. Now, accepting pain is easier said than done. But, since this guide focuses on things you can actually to rather than just learn “how to make habits stick”, here are some actionable tips on withstanding pain.

  1. List on paper all the aspects that you find painful of the activity you are trying to make into a habit.
  2. On the same piece of paper, list all the expected long-term benefits that are driving you to make this habit stick.
  3. Most importantly, list what is painful about not building this habit (Maybe you will remain fat and unhealthy, maybe you won’t be able to afford a house, and so on).

Think about this deliberately, and keep this piece of paper handing whenever you struggle to motivate yourself to a habit.

You are not quitting/starting to do X; You ARE a Doer.

I first heard this concept from The Minimalists Podcast, and I find this the most powerful change of paradigm when it comes to make habits stick.

Many people will say they are quitting smoking, as if it is something they are actively doing. But this is not true. One you smoke you last cigarette, you quit smoking already. Now, you are a non-smoker. If you are someone who runs every day, you do not need to wait two months of consistent running to realize it. Today you ran, and you run every day. This is who you are, so you will do this tomorrow as well.

This concept may seem philosophical, and on some level it is, but it is really powerful for your change. If you meet your friends and tell them you are quitting smoking, starting to run, or whatever, you have an implicit message. You tell them that this is something new, it is a change going in a given direction and there is no guarantee you will get there. In other words, you are just trying. Don’t do that, portray yourself as with your change already implemented, because that’s the way it is: you already smoked your last cigarette, you already run this morning already.

Embrace the Pain of Failure

Another key concept people often forget when thinking about how to make habits stick, is that you will inevitably fail from time to time. This type of pain is not inherently embedded in the activity you are doing (running, eating well, whatever). This type of pain is embedded in the process of making habits stick.

I call this the pain of failure. You will run every day for 20 days, and then maybe you fall sick and can’t go for a run two days. You break your streak, and it feels like you need to start over. This sucks, and feels like failure. On some level, it is. But you haven’t list the war, just a battle.

You will not be able to meet your targe every day, but that is okay: embrace failure
It is okay if you can’t stick with your habit some days. Look at the long-term trend.

At some point in life your heating system will break. You won’t freeze to death, you will have someone fix it. The same is true when building a habit: sometimes, things will break. Just fix them. If you could not run for the past two days, run the next two days.

This is why measurement is important. You want to look at your long term trend. How many days were you able to meet your habit target over the past 2 months? Is it more or less than the previous 2 months? Why? Is your trajectory improving?

If you accept the pain of individual failure, and maintain your focus on the long-term trend, you will be amazed how far you can go.

Use an Anchor Habit

The people who know best how to make habits stick are the ones that are already making habits stick. Do you have the habit of building new habits?

Just like any other activity, building habits takes practice – and it becomes a habit. To say it another way, building your first habit will be harder than building your second one. The third one will be a breeze, not to mention the fourth one, and so on.

Often, what it takes is just to build your first habit. Here, I recommend going with physical exercise, and especially aerobic exercise (running, cycling, rowing – anything increasing your heart rate significantly). This is because building this habit builds discipline, but it also changes the way your body work.

Embracing physical activity will result in embracing a healthier lifestyle, and soon you will start to dislike junk food and prefer healthier options automatically. That’s two habits with one effort. In short, you will get physical fitness, discipline, and healthier lifestyle. All this combined makes you a prime candidate to build even more habits.

How to Make Habits Stick in Summary

In this guide we saw how to make habits stick in 5 great ways. Start by measuring your progress (or lack thereof), seek and destroy unnecessary friction and identify good pain. Then, consider yourself as if you already have acquired your new habit, embrace the pain of failure when it happens, and start with physical exercise as your first habit.

If you are into making habits stick, then you should learn more about effective time management.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio