Nick Ang profile picture

Nick Ang

The key to forming new habits

single red rose against brick wall Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

Over the last 6 months or so, I’ve been using a mobile app called HabitBull to measure my success at forming new habits. It’s a free app for tracking up to five habits and it works exactly as it should, without frills, just the way I like it for tools!

But this isn’t a review of the app/tool. This is about forming habits in general. HabitBull is just a tool designed to help us get there.

What I’m about to say is not original. In fact, it was said as part of the onboarding flow of the HabitBull app:

You should try to pick up one new habit at a time.

Having tried and failed at picking up several new habits since the beginning of 2018, I stand behind this proclamation. You should try to pick up only one habit at any given time.

Otherwise, you’re most likely going to fail.

Silent failure

If the failure is the fall-flat-on-your-face kind, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to realise it.

This is a silent failure. If you try to pick up multiple habits at the same time, measuring everything as you go, and realise suddenly that you haven’t been able to keep up a consistent streak, you might feel like you have failed.

But here’s the thing: you also wouldn’t feel like a tremendous failure. Because hey - look at that streak that you did manage to keep up!

This insidious “I just didn’t keep at it for long enough for the habit to stick” self-blame and rationalisation is cyclical. I think I’ve been through about three or four cycles of trying to pick up these habits in 2018:

  • Sit and meditate for 10 minutes every morning before work
  • Do 3 compound exercises in the gym every morning before work
  • Read a book for 30 minutes every day
  • Publish at least 5 posts every week
  • Learn something new about computer science every day

I would always reason with myself that something hadn’t gone right this time, attempt to eliminate that “something,” and try again.

Only recently did I realise that I had set myself up for failure from the beginning. By trying to create several new habits all at once, I couldn’t draw a clear hierarchy of which tasks should be prioritised over others.

Forming new habits one at a time

The one-at-a-time approach is like constructing a building out of bricks - you focus on one layer at a time. By the time you’ve finished laying the first layer, the cement would have dried, and your life would be ready to take on a new layer.

Before an activity becomes habitual, we’d usually have to think before carrying it out. When there are always five things simultaneously vying for our attention at any time, we usually choose to do the easy stuff first. And the easy thing to do is usually not the thing you want to become a habit; otherwise, it would already have become one.

The only feasible way to create multiple new habits then, I think, is to build one at a time. This way, I can focus on restructuring my life to incorporate this new habit.

When decisions need to be made, I’d know to prioritise this activity over almost any other. Because once the activity has become a habit, it will take a lot less effort to complete. Ultimately, this helps me do more things each day that I want to do.

Nick Ang profile picture
Senior software engineer, dad, writer-thinker type. Big on learning something everyday and trying to have fun before the lights go out.
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