Want to Make It Easier to Stick to Your Good Habits? Strengthen Your Foundation.

While some experts advocate focusing on one healthy habit at a time, to avoid draining precious will-power reserves, other studies suggest that people who work on developing one positive habit often find it easier to improve in other areas, as well.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: Good habits foster good habits. Change fosters change.

Certain habits, too, seem to be particularly important; they serve as the Foundation for other habits. I always remind myself, “First things first.” That is, pay attention to the obvious before worrying about more subtle concerns.

From what I’ve observed, people who get their basic Foundation habits under control find it easier to add additional good habits, even if those habits don’t seem relate.

Why? Because Foundation habits keep us from getting too physically taxed or mentally frazzled, and then, because we have more energy and self-control, we follow our healthy habits more easily.

From my observation, the four Foundation habits are:


The Strategy of Foundation holds that when you’re trying to change some habits, think about strengthening your Foundation.

Of course, a major challenge with Foundation habits is that, ironically, they’re often the very habits that we’re trying to adopt. Yes, exercise would help us stick to good habits, but exercise is the habit that we need help with. Outer order contributes to inner calm, true, but having inner calm makes it much easier to create outer order.

Nevertheless, because of the important role they play in boosting self control, and their helpful spill-over effect on other habits, it seems to me that Foundation habits are a great place to start, with habit change, and deserve specially protection from encroachment. Foundation habits tend to reinforce each other; for instance, regular exercise improves people’s sleep quality.

Agree, disagree? Do you find that working on your Foundation makes it easier to stick to other habits? Or that neglecting them makes it harder to stick to those habits? Do you think Foundation habits that should be added to the list?

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  • TripleS

    I would add practice finding joy in each day

  • Felicity

    I think you’re spot on with this, Gretchen. When I have these four things happening, I feel extraordinarily good, like I really have all my ducks in a row. So why don’t I make them more of a priority? Food for thought!

  • peninith1

    I think this is exactly right. I have pretty much insisted on the right amount of sleep since I was a sleep-deprived young mother, and my external order has been improving bit by tiny bit. Exercise, eating and drinking are the three things that I have been working hardest on getting right lately. I think you are right that these are foundation habits, but I think that being in charge of one’s eating and drinking might need some extra support for those of us who have problem eating or drinking habits.

    I am interested in combating what the author of a book you recommended calls THE OPRAH EFFECT (“Willpower” is the first word in the title, I think) — i.e., why can’t people who have exhibited fantastic willpower and accomplishment in other areas of their lives manage to keep a normal weight? Obviously it is not just about having a weak will, but also about some other factors.

  • peninith1

    P.S. MONEY management also seems to me to be a foundation habit. Dickens’s saying about being a few pennies ahead at the end of a year and pennies behind meant being in despair. My life became a lot better when I started being able to make ends meet effectively, and had enough resources for basic needs and bills and some savings. I think that this is a situation many can’t easily attain, with school loans, and low employment being two major drags on people’s ability to get those few pennies ahead.

    • Kristen

      I’m tempted to agree with this. Effectively managing money can result in lower stress and thus make sleeping and eating right easier. It could also support the exercise Foundation habit…and lots of others.

  • Ann

    I would add regular periods of prayer and / or meditation to calm the mind and focus the priorities.

  • Caroline Roberts

    I agree with these and would add Regular Planning to the list. I know that if I’m not reviewing my plans and am just going day to day, fire to fire, then all hell will break loose. If I don’t plan there’s a good chance I won’t fit enough exercise or sleep into my day.
    These foundations are like broken windows for me, if I’m not eating right or mess is piling up it adds to whatever stress is going on. Ironically time pressures and stress are usually why the snacking and mess start in the first place. The outer calm/inner calm loop again!

  • RubyRatt

    Yep. I think you have it figured out. I have always gone above and beyond on the “exercise” and “eating and drinking” part of my life. It’s not until recently that I had to consider the sleep factor. I had been getting up at 4:45 a.m. to workout like a banchy 5-6 days a week, and then losing it at 5pm when I got home because I was so exhausted. It wasn’t until I got it a very heated argument that I realized sleep was exactly what I needed. I cut back to 3-4 days a week for my early workouts leaving a little more room for sleep, and Now I feel so much more productive and “sane”. Next on my list is “creating external order”. Perhaps this is the hardest of all. Sometimes I feel like “order” is what makes me feel crazy in the first place. But then again, I thought that working out EVERY DAY at 5am was what would make me feel better and more productive in my day, when in fact it was the very problem!

  • Nancy

    All my resolutions always involve those four foundation habits. And yet, all my biggest accomplishments were finished at the expense of those four habits. Why is this?

    • Ann

      Maybe you didn’t allow enough lead time to get your goals met? When I was in university I would procrastinate and then study like crazy in long bursts of time; whereas my brother-in-law took more breaks and did things in a more balanced way. He did just as well as me and I ended up with glasses and he didn’t!! It took me many years to learn to start in immediately as soon as I learn about something I need to do. Then I can still follow my routine of all around healthy habits.

    • diana

      Good insight!

  • yozhik

    I love these. Sleep is the biggest one for me, and external order – and I really need to improve on sleep. I find that as I’ve become older, eating and drinking have been much much easier to manage. I’m a pretty healthy eater and I don’t drink very much, but the consequences of my actions are much more tangible to me than they used to be – it’s easier to make decisions like “If I eat this chocolate, it’ll keep me up too late, so I won’t” or “Having a second or third beer won’t really add to my enjoyment, and I’ll also have less beer later.” These are pretty prosaic decisions, but it’s something I’ve been pleased to notice myself naturally improving at.
    I really like the post on why you quit drinking – I can’t help myself from making the point that it’s possible to not drink very much, reap the benefits of not drinking very much (no hangovers, no waste of money, no staying out too late at parties or bars and feeling tired the next day) and still drink sometimes. I am definitely an abstainer as opposed to a moderator, but I find it pretty easy to eat and drink in moderation. (The things I need to force myself to abstain from are more along the lines of wasting time on certain websites!)

  • I’ve found that I can only create new good habits when my Foundation habits are strong,. This is especially true about sleep. But when my Foundation is good, I’m able to focus on multiple good habits at the same time without losing my momentum.

  • Felicity

    And that’s why having a new baby is such a disruptive (as well as wonderful) thing… not enough sleep, not enough time to exercise or clean up, and you can only eat food that you can pick up with one hand, frequently chocolate.

    • Haha, agreed! My wife and I had our first baby at the end of August, and I can attest to these foundation habits being thrown off as being the biggest cause of stress with a newborn.

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  • Vic

    We need to spend some time everyday with God. If we are looking for foundational habits, that is the place to start.

  • BKF

    I am a different person when I do even 3/4 of these things (eat well, exercise and sleep enough.) I have enough energy and feel so good about myself that I can even establish outer order (relatively) effortlessly. I can also believe that what I do is important. (On the other hand, when I don’t, it’s easy to spiral into self-sabotaging behaviour.) You are so wise to pay attention to a person’s baseline condition when they take on tackling bigger tasks such as changing behaviour. Otherwise, it’s akin to groping around in the dark looking for some lost thing as opposed to turning on the light.

  • Heather F.

    Absolutely agree with sleep & exercise; eating/drinking & external order seem less important to me. But I would add one more: a few minutes of quiet thinking time each day. Maybe it’s for planning, maybe it’s for reflecting on things, maybe it’s for calming down – but a few minutes of quiet each day, ideally in the morning, makes everything else work better.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great addition

  • Marquette Mary

    I think this is just what I needed today….huge reminder for me! Sleep is probably the biggest one for me. I am getting up at 5 am now, showering and then having a cup of coffee before heading to work. It gives me some extra time and I am finding myself more relaxed than getting up later and rushing out the door BUT…It also means I am getting less sleep and I need to focus on getting myself to bed at a reasonable time. Wow, if I could get these four things under control, I would be thrilled! I think I am going to make them my mission for 2014, because they are my biggest challenges! Thanks Gretchen!

  • Constance

    The four foundation points are excellent, especially the one about sleep. It seems everything else just falls into place when you are rested. Meditation is also good – I find exercising brings on an almost meditative state too: running, cycling, doing laps in the pool. I sometimes come up with the best ideas while taking a walk in nature. Of course, a lot of these things have a snowball effect: getting enough sleep and exercising makes you want to improve your diet, etc.

  • Laura Miller

    As a working mom, I have found that I can either get enough sleep and exercise, or I can have neat house. I’m getting enough sleep and exercise, but our house is out of control right now. Sigh.

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