Video: For Habits, the Strategy of First Steps.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.

I identify four strategies that are so essential that I call them the “Pillars of Habits”: Monitoring, Accountability, Scheduling, and Foundation.

Today I’m going to talk about the Strategy of First Steps, which is one of the three Strategies that relate to “The Best Time to Begin.” (Here’s a complete list of the Strategies.)


Want to read more about some of the ideas I mention in the video?

I mention “tomorrow logic,” which is related to the ever-popular Tomorrow Loophole. The fact is, once we’re ready to begin, the best time to start is now.

I also mention that some people do better when they start small; others, when they start big. This is a key distinction to understand about yourself, one which I cover in the Strategy of Distinctions.

I suggest that we should be wary of stopping. There are many reasons for this, and one is the danger of the finish line.

Finally, I refer to the “don’t break the chain” approach to habit-formation. Many people find this very useful.

How about you? Have you found First Steps to be a particularly important phase in your habit-formation?

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  • Mimi Gregor

    I know how lethal it is, even to a firmly established habit, to stop, even for a seemingly good reason. My weight machine, for lack of room in the house, is on my enclosed but unheated front porch. Normally, this isn’t a problem. Last winter, however, was bitterly cold for an extended period of time. “I’ll just do my yoga every day until the weather gets milder,” I thought. “That will keep me in shape.” No. It did not. By the time I resumed when it got warmer — which was closer to spring — I had lost a LOT of my upper and lower body strength. Unfortunately, I did not start over from scratch. I used more weight than I should have, and I strained my knee. Now, not only did I have to cease my leg exercises, but I hobbled along like an old lady for a couple weeks when I walked. It was embarrassing.

    After a couple months, I could resume exercising my legs. This time I started from a beginner’s level. My upper body strengthened pretty quickly. My legs are only NOW finally getting even remotely to where I had been when I “took a break”.

    After this experience, I’m not going to wuss out this coming winter. I bought a space heater to keep my area a bit warmer while I am out there. I will exercise, even if I have to wear a parka while I do so! It is just so difficult to start something like this over again from the beginning — not only from the physical standpoint, but mentally, it is very disheartening to have to go back to square one.

  • NJ Darling

    I read a lot of your writing about Upholders, Rebels, etc and to my surprise I came out Upholder/Obliger. The clincher was the Obliger’s morning question: “What do I have to do today?”
    I had thought I was Rebel. Even though my score was one higher for Upholder I think I am more like the Obliger. If I have an appointment or have made a promise I am almost paralyzed until it do it. This is a real problem for me. In fact, I hesitate to make commitments because I know I’ll be miserable and not get anything done until the commitment is met, the appointment is over. Whew. Now I can just relax and ….(whatever.) Promises made to myself mostly go by the wayside. Arghhh!
    To make matters worse, I’m mostly an (not shy) introvert, so I like not going on appointments.

    • gretchenrubin

      If you feel like a mix of an Upholder and Obliger, you’re an Obliger – and from your description of yourself, that’s right.

      • NJ Darling

        I would like to become more internally accountable and “organized” especially about use of time. Any ideas for this in addition to accountability? I can’t get much done like I am now but I can’t expect someone to be holding my hand all the time.

    • Gillian

      I too am an introvert and have the same problem getting anything accomplished before I leave for an appointment or commitment. If I have a commitment, even if it will take only a short time, that is what I am doing that day, period. I think it is at least partly associated with being an introvert.

      Have you read Susan Cain’s book “Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”? I HIGHLY recommend it for anyone who is an introvert or who lives or works with one. Many of my traits that I thought were just personal peculiarities are actually a result of being an introvert.

      • Mimi Gregor

        I thought that I was the only one with this infuriating problem. Whenever I have an appointment, whether it involve me going out to the dentist, or someone showing up to deliver a new stove, I can’t seem to start anything I’d normally be doing. I’m afraid I may get involved in something else and leave late… not hear the doorbell or phone… things that I KNOW do not actually make sense. I remember my mother having the same problem. I never related it to being an introvert, though.

        • Gillian

          2 of the traits of introverts are that we don’t like multi-tasking and we do like to do a job where we can dive in and not be interrupted. For me, multi-tasking isn’t only doing multiple things simultaneously but doing a lot of things consecutively. Doing a bunch of other tasks when my mind is focused on the primary activity scheduled for the day is next to impossible for me. It isn’t so much about being late for the appointment as it is having to split my focus in multiple directions.

      • That book changed my life.

    • Penelope Schmitt

      My technique for not wasting time while waiting to be ON time for an appointment (being on time seems to really matter to me) is this: I get completely ready to walk out the door, including being appropriately dressed, keys anything I need to take at the ready. THEN I set a timer (or if this is something that sucks up more than an hour for you, maybe an alarm) and turn my attention to other things until the bell rings and it is TIME TO GO. I satisfy my need to be completely ready, and don’t twiddle my thumbs until it is time to GO.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Of all the things I have learned from you, Gretchen, the ‘do it every day’ mantra has been the most important and helpful in keeping my habits. This is sooooo much more powerful and helpful than 5 days a week or even 6, certainly far superior to 3!!! Every day walking, food tracking, monitoring my steps, drinking my water and so forth. It makes all the difference.

    I had to learn to start with small steps, not because my temperament wants that, but because ‘starting big’ at my age (67) meant that I hurt myself pretty easily. With activity, I have had to learn to be incremental and go slowly. I wonder how many other people discourage themselves from exercise because they think they ‘can’t do it’. I excluded myself from helpful activities for quite a long time because I always started too big. When I started impossibly small (but daily) I slowly got stronger and was able to add more than I ever thought possible.

  • triciab

    I spent a lot of time trying to psych myself up to “start big” on a writing project, but have found it surprisingly easier to start small. Really small. I asked myself, what is the minimum number of words I KNOW I can write every day…for me that was 100. Now, if I actually write just 100 words a day I will never be done my project, but on many days, I go beyond that. Some days I just stop at 100, but feel really good knowing I can cross writing off of my list for the day.