Habit routines — the easier way to self-improvement

In order to get organized and stay productive, we need to do things every day that we don’t necessarily want to do. We have to learn that “needs to do” goes before “want to do”. This is hard. That’s why there’s a gazillion self-help books and websites out there. So now I’m going to once and for all completely solve this problem for all people globally.

Well, perhaps not. But it might be useful for someone besides me, which is why I’m publishing this.

Forget motivation and build good habits instead

A habit is something you just do without really thinking about it. You do it even if you don’t feel motivated to do it, and this is key; do not depend on motivation, because motivation is inherently undependable — you will not always be motivated to do what you need to do. So forget motivation, and form good habits instead. I will tell you how.

This is Doug. Doug says that motivation is bullshit. In this case Doug happens to be correct, but make no mistake — Doug is still a bastard.

What we aim to achieve

The goal of all this is to establish routines of good habits that we go through at various points. You could, for example, have a morning routine and an evening routine that you go through every day. Each routine consists of one or more habits, such as “get out of bed right away when the alarm sounds” or “floss”.

Additionally, you could have an after work routine that you go through on workdays that might include habits such as “do laundry” or “make sure the kitchen counter is cleared of dirty dishes”. On weekends you might have a more comprehensive weekend routine, consisting of such habits as “vacuum the house”, or perhaps a more generic one like “do whatever housework needs to be done”. The point is to make habits of things that you should do, but otherwise tend not to. That way, you can enjoy your free time knowing that you’ve already done what you need to do; now you can do what you want to do. Procrastination is borrowing time from your future self, and you pay interest by feeling guilt. Future-you will not want to do it any more than present-you does, so just do it and get it over with. This method helps with that.

Start small

If you try to form too many habits at the same time you will likely feel overwhelmed eventually, especially when the novelty wears off. So don’t start with giant routines consisting of ten habits each. Start with something small, that you feel confident that you’ll be able to do 10 times in a row (that is, 10 days in a row if it’s a daily routine) without missing a single one — that means you should start with something small and easy. I started with the following two routines:

Morning routine

  • Get out of bed no later than 06:30

Evening routine

  • Go to bed no later than 22:00 (that is, lights out, go to sleep)

So, two simple routines consisting of one habit each that I’m pretty sure I can manage 10 times in a row without fail. If you feel that 10 is too low or too high, then go with whatever number seems suitable to you. But if you pick a number that’s too low, you run the risk of trying to form too many habits too soon, so you’ll end up overwhelmed. With too high a number, it’ll take longer than necessary to add new habits to your routines.

Keep track of your progress with a Habit Tracker

Get a piece of paper (preferably squared or dotted) and write down your starting routines with their habits. Make columns for dates to the right of them. Make sure you leave space under each routine, so you can eventually add more habits. This paper is now your Habit Tracker.

Each day that you successfully complete a habit, mark that with an “X” on the habit’s row, in that date’s column. Each time that you fail, mark that with an “-” (a dash). Remember to not judge yourself when this happens. It will happen on occasion, that’s to be expected. Note it, and move on.

A paper habit routines tracker

It’s very important to update your Habit Tracker after every routine, because it makes it easier to remember why you’re doing this stuff, and the importance of it.

So when can I add more habits?

You can add one more habit to a routine when you have successfully completed all habits in that routine 10 times in a row (that is, when you have 10 X’s in a row without any dashes for all habits in the routine), because that means you’ve now established those habits to such a degree that you’re ready to expand. Congratulations, well done!

What if I fail to complete a habit but it’s not really my fault?

Sometimes life happens, and you are unable to complete a habit that day for reasons that are outside of your control. Perhaps you were invited to a party, and didn’t have time to clean the house that day. That’s absolutely fine. When that happens, just mark that day with a zero, and don’t count it as a completion, but don’t count it as breaking your streak either. So, if you have “X X 0 X X”, that still means you have four X’s in a row. Just do what you can to prevent this happening too often.

What if I want to have routines that I don’t go through every day?

No problem. In my case, I have Shorinji Kempo practice two workdays a week, which means I don’t have time for my after work routine those days. On such days, I just put an “0” for such habits on your Habit Tracker, same as if you missed a habit because of something that was outside of your control.

How do I avoid forgetting to go through my routines?

This is a very real problem. Even with the best intentions and will power to follow through, you can still forget to go through a routine. This is where habit triggers come in. The idea behind this concept is that in order to not forget to do something that you want to turn into a habit, you should have a “trigger” for it. The trigger would be something that you always do and don’t forget, or something that happens automatically.

For example, most people don’t forget to brush their teeth every night. But most of us forget to also floss. Therefore, if we try to always floss every night directly after brushing our teeth, then the act of brushing our teeth will become a habit trigger for flossing. And an example of something “automatic” that you can use as a habit trigger would be a phone alarm that you set to go off at a specific time every day, or using “coming home from work” as a habit trigger to remember to start your after work routine.

Can you suggest some useful habit routines?

Sure! For weekdays, I’d suggest something like this:

Morning routine

  • Habit trigger: your wakeup alarm
  • Get out of bed on time
  • Strength exercises for 10 minutes
  • Stretching / flexibility exercises for 5 minutes
  • Shower
  • Read something worthwhile during breakfast

After work routine

  • Habit trigger: coming home from work
  • Make and / or have dinner
  • Take care of any dishes on the counter
  • Check if there is laundry to be done
  • Work on your todo list for an hour
  • Once you’re done with this routine, you’re hopefully free to enjoy the rest of your evening until it’s time for your evening routine

Evening routine

  • Habit trigger: a phone alarm at 21:00
  • Write / update a todo list for tomorrow
  • Meditate for 10 minutes
  • Brush teeth and floss
  • Read something worthwhile until it’s time for bed
  • Go to bed on time

That takes care of the weekdays. I’d also suggest having a weekend routine that you go through on either Saturday or Sunday, whichever day works best this particular week.

Weekend routine

  • Habit trigger: waking up in the morning
  • Eat breakfast
  • Clean your home
  • Do any laundry that needs to be done
  • Work on your todo list for two hours
  • Make a semi-permanent improvement for your home, such as putting up a shelf that needs putting up, or fix something that’s broken
  • When you’re done, enjoy the rest of your day

Doug thinks that productivity is for losers, and that you’re all a bunch of pansies. Yeah. I told you he’s a bastard.

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