Chances are that you’ve come across tips on how to develop or change habits before.
You may have read that a habit is the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire according to Stephen R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
You may have heard that developing a habit takes around 66 days (according to Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, authors of The One Thing), 30 days (according to Hal Elrod, author of The Miracle Morning), or 21 days (according to plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz).
You may even have picked up the book The Power of Habit by author Charles Duhigg who says we should recognize the habit loop (cue, routine, and reward).
But in spite of all these findings, it’s no secret that many people still have a hard time —
Before they even begin, they get overwhelmed and end up procrastinating. If they do succeed in getting past the first hurdle, they lose motivation and are tempted to give up.
Are you someone who's having trouble with habits? Try these three activities.
01. Set a timer for 5 minutes
Starting the habit is oftentimes the most difficult part.
Right when you’re about to begin a new task, your body will resist while your mind will come up with all sorts of excuses to 1.) keep doing whatever you’ve been doing instead or 2.) do something else entirely.
For these reasons, it may be helpful to set a timer for a short period of time, say five minutes, and allow yourself to stop doing the task right after.
By setting a short time limit, you’re overcoming overwhelm and procrastination by tricking your mind. You’ll think the task will be easier and you’ll also feel relieved to know that you’ll need to work “hard” for only five minutes. Once you’ve reframed the way you view your task, you won’t be left with a whole lot of excuses to not do it anymore.
But here’s where it gets interesting. After the first five minutes, you’re more likely to continue doing the activity, ride that wave of momentum, and even complete it.
For example, in terms of exercising, you’ll think you’re already in your workout clothes anyway. In terms of writing, how can you leave incomplete sentences at this point? In terms of reading, you’ll realize the book just got interesting.
Try this five-minute timer method and you may be surprised how much longer you can keep going. If this still fails, at least you’ve got five minutes of work done as opposed to nothing at all.
02. Transfer paper clips from one jar to another
Once you’ve gotten over procrastination, the next step is to keep going. If the five-minute timer method wasn’t successful in helping you complete the task, you can try transferring paper clips from one jar to another.
Here’s how it works. Place two jars on your desk; one empty and the other one filled with paperclips. As you continue to do the activity, keep transferring paper clips, one by one, to the other jar until all of the paper clips have been moved.
As you progress, you’ll see the first jar empty little by little and the second jar get filled up. This simple reward system is designed to help you stay motivated and not stop until you’re done.
For example, if you need to brainstorm 30 blog post headlines within a timeframe, place 30 paper clips in one jar and for each headline you come up with, transfer one paper clip to the other jar.
Of course, having two jars and paper clips with you isn’t possible for all kinds of habits. The idea is simply to break down the task into small, easy steps to prevent overwhelm and build momentum by keeping track and rewarding your progress.
Instead of using jars and paper clips, you can try other tracking and reward systems by using an app, planner, or timer, or enlisting the aid of an accountability partner or group.
Here are more examples and ways to break them down:
- Exercising - complete one interval or mile
- Writing - conclude one 25-minute session
- Reading - finish one chapter
- Sales - make one cold call
- Freelancing - complete one client proposal
03. Don’t break the chain
Now that you’ve started an activity and completed it the first time, it’s time to turn it into a habit by committing to do it on a regular basis.
Since we know it’s helpful to track your progress and build momentum, get a calendar (preferably a big one) and post it somewhere you can easily see it every day.
If your task needs to be done at home, post it on your mirror, fridge, or journal. If your task is for the workplace, consider putting it up in a corkboard, in your planner, or on your desk.
The objective of this exercise is to cross out each day that you succeed in completing the activity. Similar to the paper clip method, once you see more and more Xs on your calendar, you’ll be more motivated to keep going and not break the chain.
Your sense of accomplishment and accountability will increase and strengthen as the chain gets longer after each week and each month. If you don’t do the activity even for a single day, the blank space will be a stark reminder on your calendar (provided you keep it visible).
Interestingly enough, this calendar method was attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, the famous actor and comedian. He would reportedly cross out dates on his calendar and create a long chain as he habitually practiced his jokes and performance on a daily basis. Seinfeld, however, said in a Reddit thread that he doesn’t really do this and wonders how he got credit for it.
Remember that your habits determine the quality of your life. Developing or reshaping them will not only allow you to get things done, but they will also help you move closer towards your goals. Obstacles are all part of the process so try to just find the root of the problem and come up with manageable solutions. If all else fails, try to set a timer for five minutes, transfer paper clips between jars, and not break the chain.
Share in the comments below: What habits are you having trouble with? Are you stuck starting, continuing, or being consistent with it?