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Fix Bad Habits: Insights from a 7-Year Obsession

Getting rid of bad habits isn't just about saying NO. To truly succeed, we must replace the bad behavior with a better behavior. Here's how.

We all have lousy habits. Things we’d like to do, or know we should, but just don’t seem to happen: exercise, diet, productivity or flossing longer than a week after the visit to the dentist.

In that sense, I’m like most people – still a work in progress.But, unlike most people, I’ve had on ongoing obsession with figuring out how to fix those lousy habits. I’ve spent thousands of hours being an experimental guinea pig, uncovering surprising findings, such as:

  • Implementing a daily exercise plan is easier than exercising 3 times per week
  • Changing 10 meals will change 90% of your eating habits
  • Learning a new skill or language can be accomplished with 5 minutes a day

I don’t expect most people to replicate my, perhaps unhealthy, obsession with self-experimentation. Instead, I want you to save years of trial and error so that you can fix bad habits without frustration.

Why Bother Changing Habits?

My obsession came from a simple idea: with the right conditioning, you could automatically do what you normally need willpower for.

Many people make a commitment every January to start exercising. And, by February, many of them have already given up. That’s because sustaining good behaviors normally takes a lot of effort.

But with habits, you don’t need willpower, they just happen. This concept – that everything I currently spent so much effort on could be made effortless had huge appeal. Even if perfect automation were impossible, if you could make those behaviors much easier then life would become more enjoyable as well.

How to Change a Habit

The first principle is a conditioning period. This is a period of time when you put in effort to make the habit automatic.

A good way to think of the conditioning period is like a rocket entering orbit. It takes fuel to escape gravity, but if you use the right trajectory, you can enter into an orbit, which prevents you from falling back to earth. The goal with creating a habit is to reach orbit (habit) before you run out of fuel (willpower).

Also like a rocket, how you handle the conditioning phase can make a huge difference. A poor trajectory, and you may waste tons of fuel and never reach a stable orbit. The right approach, however, can make the habit change relatively easily.

1. Set a conditioning period.

My practice is to set the default conditioning period for 30 days. Too short, and you’ll fail to reach orbit. Too long, and you won’t summon the initial motivation to overcome gravity.During those first 30 days, your goal is simple – turn the behavior into a habit. It may take longer than 30 days (studies show 66 is a closer mean for true habituation), but this is the period of complete focus.

Making a habit is a different goal than many people have when they first start behavior changes. In most cases, people are after results – they want to lose weight, get a promotion, or master a skill.

But forming a habit is different than getting results. Some of the tactics I’ll describe are lousy for getting results, but perfect for quickly conditioning a habit.

What many people fail to realize is that getting results is much easier once you already have the habit. Being fit is easy if you show up to the gym every day. Being a skilled writer is easier if you’re already writing each day. Habits precede success.

Action Step:

Focus on a 30-day conditioning period.

2. Make the habit every day.

Another mistake people make is believing that performing a behavior 3 times a week is easier than doing it every day.In a naïve way, this makes sense. After all, if you spend 30 minutes every day at the gym, that takes 3.5 hours per week – time out of an already busy schedule. Going twice, in contrast, only takes 1 hour. Therefore if you’ve struggled to stick to exercising, going twice weekly is probably the best first step.

The problem with this logic is it assumes time is the most relevant factor. But aside from rare cases, time is almost never the factor. For most people, if you added up all the wasted moments of procrastination, distraction or gaps between work, there would be more than a few hours left.

If time isn’t lacking, then why is it so difficult to “find the time”?

The reason is that we may be able to find the time, but not the energy. Going to the gym, when it isn’t a habit, requires willpower. After a busy day, you probably don’t have a lot of spare willpower.

Focusing on a daily habit, instead of 3 times a week, is better because the conditioning is stronger and the habit becomes automatic faster. Since every day you exercise, it quickly becomes an automatic part of your routine.

I went through four conditioning periods before the habit of exercise finally stuck. After I did, the habit stuck for 6 years, so that I no longer need to exercise every day to sustain it. Exercising daily was the difference between the first three failures and the eventual success.

Action Step:

Make the habit daily.

3. Strategically replace your biggest lost needs.

Through a conditioning period and daily habits, you alter your trajectory to make it more likely you’ll reach orbit before you run out of fuel. Replacing lost needs is a way of reducing gravity itself – so you are less likely to slide back to bad habits in a moment of weakness.Think of how many diet books exist. Each of them claims some magical cure for losing weight, and each promises to be easy to follow. Now think of how many people actually stick with them. What gives?

Part of the problem is that diets focus only on removing bad habits, “Don’t eat that!” But this leaves a vacuum, which tends to pull people back to lousy ways of eating.

The rationale behind this advice is that people want as much variety as possible – otherwise why would restrictive diets be difficult to follow?

I’ve found a different answer. People don’t want variety. In fact, I’d wager that the top 10 meals of the average person constitute 90% of what they end up eating. If variety were so important, why do people always eat the same meals?

When I switched to a vegetarian diet five years ago, I focused less on what I shouldn’t eat, and more on creating a new list of “Top 10” meals. If I could replace my menu with meals that fit my desired eating habits and taste buds, then my willpower would only be necessary for the less common occasions of eating outside that menu (such as restaurants or family dinners).

Action Step:

If you’re giving something up, focus on replacing the most common 80-90% of that habit.

4. Begin with the start in mind.

Woody Allen famously quipped, “80% of life is showing up.” With habits, I’d guess it’s even higher.The trickiest part of starting a habit is the first step. If you’ve got that handled, the rest usually flows smoothly.

This is easy to understand intuitively. Exercising is mostly about that first step into the gym. Writing is mostly about opening up that blank page. Overcoming procrastination is mostly about the first five minutes of work.

What I learned in creating habits was that this knowledge could allow anyone to make their conditioning efforts vastly more efficient. If the first step required the most conscious control, then habituating that first step would cover most of the habit itself.

This means that learning a new skill or language doesn’t need to begin with commitments to invest dozens of hours each week. Simply committing to starting for five minutes every day conditions you to get used to performing the habit.

Once the conditioning period is over, it’s much easier to scale up your efforts, than to build the habit from scratch.

Since the conditioning period is a race between reaching orbit and running out of fuel, this principle has drastic implications. Conditioning the first 5-15 minutes of a habit takes a tenth of the effort, so even for stubborn habits, you can make them automatic before worrying about performance.

One way to do this is to commit to only the first step of your habit in the 30-day trial, with the rest being optional. For example, committing to jogging every day, but not committing to any specific workout length (allowing you run for just 15 minutes if you really have no time).

The advantage of this approach is that even though your commitment is minimal (5-15 minutes), in practice you’ll probably do the entire habit most of the time. This lets you leverage a bit of willpower to get larger results.

Action Step:

Focus on making the first 5-15 minutes of your habit your “must” during the first 30 days.

Results from a Habit-Obsessed Life

After repeating this process dozens of times, the intuition is that it would turn you into a robot. You’d be so obsessed with performing your habits, that you wouldn’t have space for spontaneity or fun.But my experience actually taught me the opposite – knowing how to change your habits gives you freedom. Like the discipline of the pianist frees him to play any song, the initial ability gives new flexibility.

Knowing how to create habits lets you put your energies into other pursuits. I’d rather put my time into figuring out how to write better, than worry about meeting my quota, or how to be stronger than guilt myself for missing the gym.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my experimental odyssey, it is that we’re all governed by habits. The difference is whether you control your habits, or whether they control you.

Comments (56)
  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Fun tip! Thanks!

  • Davidstowers

    Thank you.  Very very good information.

  • BJ Heinley

    Hey.. I really like the gravity / orbit / vacuum analogy. 

  • Tera Kaur

    Brilliant! Thank you. It will be my pleasure to share your tips with others!

  • EricShun

    I’m good-but Thanx anyway!

  • Scott Robertson

    Great article Scott. Love it.

  • Sharonthoms

    What an awesome article.  I really don’t think you need to worry too much about your writing it’s really very good.  I also am facinated by habits and have had many good and bad ones over the years.  I firmly believe by knowing how to develop good habits and having routine habits to handle the unexciting things we have to do in life eg: house work, cooking, doing paper work, free’s up our time to concentrate on the exciting things.  I like your idea especially about the ten meals, am going to try it. Also the 5 – 15 min idea is a good one and one that will hopefully help my son with both his homework and study time, he’s only twelve. 
    One other point i’d like to make is that by concentrating on the “why” you want to start a new habit and by using pictures, lists of reminders on the fridge for example is also very helpful. 

  • SWesleySteam

    Fantastic advice that can be applied to any aspect of our lives. Thanks for a great read!

  • João Garcia

    Thank you for the advice. I appreciate it.

  • Keane Angle

    Just started a 30 onboarding period with reading 30-45 min per day (a book) and working out 30 min per day. I have a huge whiteboard I drew a grid on and check off each day. I’ve missed only one day in the last week – but it was due to work related obligations.

    So far so good, I already feel the habit setting in. Can’t wait to try it on other things that are a little more challenging. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Mooersrealtymedia

    Patterns start one day at a time, one conscious item, thought, desire at a time. Healthy habits are not automatic, they are woven in to the day to day and reinforced by your own effort, fire in your belly passion.

  • Jye

    Fantastic tip! I’m implementing a 30 day habit change into my life starting tomorrow!
    Thanks so much!

  • Cirillica

    You are a genius!!! You just explained the magic trick for a long-time life changing 😉 Thanks

  • Jackiwhitford

    I would add one more thing that has helped me exchange old habits for new ones. As part of that 30 day conditioning period, let the first week be a planning week. Planning your change or new habit sets you up for success. What time each day will you start this new habit? What do you need to implement it? Are there any other steps or adjacent habits that are impacted or need to be changed? For instance, if you decide to walk 30 minutes a day (ultimate goal) you should start with 5 minutes a day. But what time are you walking? When you wake up, at lunch or after dinner? For most people, after they wake up ensures that it gets done. What do you need? Do you have proper walking shoes and clothes to wear? Are you walking outside or to a DVD inside? Are you going to have a glass of water nearby to sip during your exercise? Are you wearing a pedometer? How are you going to track your progress? An EXCEL spreadsheet or an exercise diary? Planning ahead and taking small steps will help you easily create new habits.

  • Stuart Gardner-Vaughan

    I can’t stress enough the benefits of daily discipline.  Whether you “feel like it or not”, being disciplined to keep working at and focusing on your goals pays huge dividends.  It’s the times you “REALLY don’t want to do something” and you “do it” that provide the greatest benefits.

  • Hypnopardis

    Bad habits are unwanted automatic behavior
    patterns that we do not want to do but for some reason cannot stop it either.

    An easy and effective way to break the bad
    habits behavior:

  • research papers

    Thanks for
    providing such a great information here. Very interesting.

  • Hertha Gearin

    Fixing a lousy habit takes a lot of discipline and self-control. It is better to start when you’re fully determined to do it. Well, these tips make good points. Thanks! They’re of big help.

  • Daniel Todman

    Bad habits are hard to break because we are fighting our own nature. To succeed, commitment and determination are needed. Thanks for those experience-based tips!

  • cheap papers

    nteresting thoughts!

  • Justin

    If anybody still reads this, a friend of mine build a website to assist you with your habit forming for a 30 day period. Check out the website at
    And oh yeah, offcourse it’s free. And you’ll get support e-mails and a support croud/forum!

  • olee22

    Started to eat salad every night, instead of focusing what not to eat.
    Works well.
    Thanks a lot!

  • Paul Denni

    This is what I’m talking about! Not that I’ve said this before, but you know, I’m on board with the whole thing. Love the top 10 replacements idea.

  • sanjeev

    i have to say, this is by far the best and original thinking i have seen.

  • Sarah Peterson

    This is definitely design thinking at work. If you take a moment or two to plan, analyze, and map out the action steps, the work can be easier/more successful. Makes sense that the same can be applied to habit building. Great article!

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