Changing Habits One At A Time: The Complete Guide

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Changing habits sounds so simple yet there is a whole science to it, literally. Although we’d all love to change all of our habits at once, we often hear that this is not the right way to move forward. Why is it so important to focus on one habit at a time? And how can you do so, successfully?
To change habits successfully, it’s important to focus on just one habit at a time until you’ve ensured that it becomes an automatic behavior. This process can be difficult because it requires that you know yourself well, perform some trial-and-error, and stay focused and patient until you run on autopilot. When adding another habit too quickly, you run the risk of using up all your willpower and quitting altogether.

Read on in order to find out more about how to change your habits sustainably, one habit at a time. We’ll also share ONE SIMPLE HACK that you can implement easily in order to make sure you focus on just ONE habit at a time.

How Many Habits Can I Change At Once?

Sometimes, we feel like we’re able to move mountains. We decided that we want to stop eating sugar, start exercising, and work on our book project all at once. A few weeks or months later, however, we found ourselves back to zero. Why is that?

According to James Clear, you should really focus on changing just ONE habit at a time if you want it to stick “forever”. In his article, he mentions that the absolute maximum number of habits you could try and change at once is 3. This seems to be a consensus among scientists. However, as mentioned by James Clear, Dr. Fogg at Stanford University you can only change as many as 3 habits at a time if those habits are really, really tiny.

What kind of habits are tiny enough to implement them 3 at a time?

Really tiny habits, such as doing one squat, declaring “I am enough” in front of the mirror after you brush your teeth in the morning, or writing one sentence for your book or article.

Those habits are so tiny, that your brain and willpower are enough to sustain them until they become automatic.

If you’re feeling a bit read-lazy, in this video, you get a quick overview of why you should change habits one step at a time… enjoy!

Careful: Sometimes One Habit Actually Consists of Many “Sub-Habits”

We now know that it’s best to focus on just ONE HABIT at a time unless the habits you are targeting are so tiny that you can go up to 3 habits at a time.

So, if you are going to pick JUST ONE habit to focus on for the next few weeks or even months, which one is it going to be?

Be careful here. It’s possible that you choose what I would call a “super-habit” – a habit which is actually composed of many “sub-habits”.

For instance, many people want to change this one habit – they want to eat healthy.

Let me tell you that eating healthy is definitely a super-habit. Depending on your definition of a healthy diet – as everyone has a different body and perception of what’s good for them – this super-habit can be composed of the following sub-habits:

  • Eating 200g of salad every day.
  • Cutting out refined sugar.
  • Reducing the amount of red meat in your diet.
  • Heading for organic and/or local products whenever possible.
  • Consuming mostly freshly cooked meals.
  • Drinking enough water every day.
  • Introducing intermittent fasting.

And the list could go on, depending on your personal preferences.

Can you see the complexity of this super-habit? Why do you think that many people fail to stick to a healthy diet in the long run?

Even if we consider a sub-habit such as “cutting out refined sugar”, things can be more complex than you think. First of all, what do you personally label as being refined sugar? Does it mean that you need to change your breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner habit? If there is refined sugar in all of your meals, this one sub-habit will be a lot of work for you already…

If you feel caught up in an endless loop, where you often change many habits at once only to give it all up after a few weeks, you may also want to read these articles:

So, What Habit Should I Change?

Changing one habit at a time requires time and effort. So, you want to pick the right habit to start with, so that you can maximize the impact on your life. How can you pick to right habit to change and focus on, first?

Focus on a keystone habit. A keystone habit is a small habit that will have a strong, unintended ripple effect on your day and life, way beyond the habit’s area of action. The right habit to change for you is a habit that is simple enough to put in place sustainably yet will impact you in such a way that other areas of your life will quickly improve noticeably, too.

To find out which ONE habit you should focus on, first, I suggest you ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which habits have you been trying to change and why?
  • Are any of those habits “super-habits”, such as eating healthy? If so, split them up into smaller, “sub-habits” that you would like to implement.
  • Which one of these habits do you feel will have the most impact on your life, if you JUST implement this one?

For instance, if you want to have a healthy diet and lifestyle, maybe you can start by drinking 1 or 2 glasses of water 15 to 30 minutes before every meal. Or you could want to start putting some sort of intermittent fasting in place. Another option is to eat 10 portions of fruits and vegetables a day.

Keep in mind that everyone is different. One small habit may mean nothing to you, but change someone else’s whole life. So, instead of copying other people’s habits, put in the work and figure out which habits would make a huge difference to you.

With that being said, here are a few simple habits ideas that could help you brainstorm:

  • making your bed right after you get up.
  • tracking your expenses right when they occur, using an app.
  • replacing your afternoon cookie snack with an apple.
  • replacing your morning coffee with black or green tea.
  • do a 2-minute stretch right after you brush your teeth, in the morning and the evening.

You get the idea. Keep it simple, stupid (KISS), and make sure it becomes automatic before you move on to the next habit.

Why Focus On Just One Habit At A Time?

The whole purpose of forming a habit is that your desired behavior becomes AUTOMATIC. For your brain and body to run on autopilot, however, it takes a lot of repetition. This means that you are using willpower until your new habit is ingrained in your body and mind.

By trying to implement several habits at once, you risk running out of willpower, which is a limited resource, and, ultimately, quitting altogether. Instead, if you focus on one simple habit at a time until it becomes automatic, you will be able to move on to the next habit and stack it easily. The compounding effect will be exponential, whereas forcing habits with willpower will strongly limit the amount of behavioral change you can hold over time.

You may still feel skeptical that taking such small steps, one at a time, might lead to great results. I recommend you read through zenhabits.com’s successful founder Leo Barbauto’s Q&A here. It’s really tough to be patient enough to create long-lasting habits. But if you know for sure that you want a certain behavior to become a new habit forever, then focusing on this one habit until it becomes automatic is the way to go.

I feel like, nowadays, being able to stay focused is probably one of the biggest challenges. Gregor McKeown, the author of the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less*, has nailed it. According to him, you should learn to say NO to GOOD opportunities in order to be able to say YES to GREAT opportunities. Applied to changing your habits, it really means you should be able to deal with the fact that some habits will be on pause while you focus on your number ONE habits.

I know this can feel frustrating. I struggle often enough to focus just on one thing at a time. That’s also partly because, sometimes, we’re not 100% sure about the habits we are trying to implement. We are just trying stuff out. That’s OK, but once you know what you want, you probably should go all in and focus on this one habit.

Why Is It So Difficult To Change Habits?

Changing Habits One At A Time: The Complete Guide

Another reason why you should focus on just one habit at a time is that, depending on the habit you’ve chosen, the process of successfully changing this habit can be fairly difficult… And that’s because you’re unique, and you need to find habits and implementations that are custom-made for you.

Changing habits is so difficult because it often requires a deep understanding of yourself. Every habit is different, and you need to understand which identity it triggers, as well as what cue, craving, and reward are associated with it. Your environment and relationships also have a strong impact on your behavior. If you are trying to change an existing habit, it’s important to find the right substitute for it. This process requires a lot of trial-and-error as well as a proper amount of fine-tuning.

What’s really difficult when changing a habit is the tension between trying to rationally and consciously understand and change a subconscious behavior. Understanding WHY you do something on autopilot can be difficult, as it is not a conscious decision of yours to act in a certain way. And vice-versa – making sure that a conscious decision to implement a habit becomes an automatic behavior requires work, willpower, and a lot of (successful) repetition.

Basically, you need to get yourself HOOKED on this new habit for the long-term.  This also means that you need to be patient and make sure this habit really sticks until you move on to the next. Finding the calm and patience to stay focused is one of the biggest challenges, as there are often many areas of your life you’d like to improve.

If like me, you find it difficult to stick to this golden rule of changing just one habit at a time, you can also read through the following article, which I hope will give you more insights and motivate you: Are You Trying To Change Too Many Habits At Once?

Change One Habit At A Time, Step-by-Step

Now that you know it’s best to change one habit at a time, let’s look at the steps you should take in order to SUCCESSFULLY change your habits in the long run.

1. Choose One Habit

First, you should take your time to choose the right habit to start with. This step is important because if you doubt that the habit you are trying to implement will have a true impact on your life, you will most probably not be able to be patient enough to follow through and just focus on this one habit for enough time for it to become automatic.

Make sure that the habit you pick is a keystone habit that is simple enough and will have a big impact on many areas of your life. Are you motivated enough to focus on just this one habit for at least 1-2 months?

2. Make A Specific Plan

Studies have shown that you are 2-3 times likelier to stick to a new habit if you make a specific plan to implement it.

In order to be sure that your plan is specific enough, you should be able to answer the following questions precisely:

  • What EXACTLY will you be doing?

For instance, if you plan on being more physically active, it is not enough to say “I will exercise”. This is not precise enough. Instead, be more specific. For instance, you could decide “I will do 20 push-ups, 20 crunches, and 20 squats”. Now that is specific enough.

  • Where will you be doing it?

Again, it’s important to figure out where you will be performing your habit in advance. In our example above, you could say “at home”, but that’s not really specific enough. Your brain might struggle to find the right spot to do the exercises if you’ve never worked out at home before. So be sure to be more precise, for instance, “I will do my workout session in the living room next to the couch, on a yoga mat”.

  • When exactly will you be doing it?

The last component you should be planning precisely is the time at which you want to perform the new habit. It can be a specific time of the day, but it can also be right after a specific event. For instance “right after I get up, or right after I brush my teeth or have lunch”… You get the point.

Planning to workout “in the morning” is not precise enough. You’re creating a loophole that your lazy brain can easily exploit in order to avoid doing the new activity!

To be clear, making a specific plan to implement a new habit works wonders, BUT ONLY if you focus on one thing at a time…

3. Commit In Front Of Others

Committing in front of others can be extremely powerful. It can be a great step to cement your intention and boost your motivation to stick to the habit. I’ve just discovered the power of “sprint meetings”, which make me commit to a certain schedule with my business partner.

It works wonders for me! I talk about the amazing results I’ve achieved thanks to this method so far in this video, maybe you’ll find the idea helpful, too.

4. Track This One Habit For One Month

Here’s a very simple HACK to make sure your brain focuses on just ONE HABIT at once… Print a calendar and check off every day that you have successfully implement your new habit. Indeed, studies have shown that tracking your progress is a very effective way to stick to your goals and reach them. This will only work if you focus on just one habit at a time, otherwise, your brain may feel overwhelmed and won’t focus on getting this one thing done as expected.

5. Knowing How Long To Focus On Just This One Habit.

When implementing a new habit, it’s really important that you recognize when your new habit has become automatic enough or not. And that’s because there is no way to know exactly how much time it will take for it to stick. That’s why Step 1 is so important, because forming your new habit may take up to several months! You must be willing to put in the work BEFORE you can move on to implementing the next one…

So, before you decided to implement another habit, ask yourself the following question: are you truly running on autopilot, or do you still need some willpower to perform the 1 habit you chose to implement, first?

If you genuinely think that this new behavior has become automatic, it’s time for you to move to the next habit…

How Long Should I Focus On One Habit Before I Can Move On?

We’ve all heard the famous myth according to which we can change habits in about 21 days or so. If that were the case, it most probably wouldn’t be so difficult to change all the habits we want, rather quickly, right?

In our other article, How Long Does It REALLY Take To Break A Bad Habit? you’ll find that there is no exact science to it. That’s because every habit and person is unique. Also, it seems like how long you need to change a habit has more to do with frequency – how often you have repeated the habit over a certain period – than with a particular number of days or weeks.

For instance, it may take you a few months to automatically go to the gym twice a week, precisely because this habit only happens twice a week. On the other hand, provided you put in the work and focus, you could get over your habit of biting your nails in just a few days or weeks, since this happens several times a day.

So, how long should you focus on one habit before you can move on?

In order to know when you can finally start adding another habit to your mix, try to figure out whether or not you really run on autopilot. For instance, you can stop tracking it for a while and see whether you stick to it. But in general, you should probably give it at least a good 30 days before you start thinking about implementing a different habit on top of it…

Final Thoughts

Changing habits is not easy, but if done properly, it will save you a lot of energy and stir you in the right direction in all areas of your life. It’s important to realize that the best way to change habits is to do it ONE AT A TIME. Otherwise, you probably won’t be able to AUTOMATIZE your behavior, thus your new “habit” will quickly fade away. But is this what you want?

Maybe it’s worth focusing on just 1 habit over a few weeks or months if this means that you will keep it virtually forever?


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