Most of the advice we read about habits is fairly general: start small, create accountability, have a reward system, etc.
All great advice. But why so vague?
Because people have lots of different habits they want to change, and general advice can (hopefully) be applied to any of them. People like Leo Babauta and James Clear have broad audiences for a reason.
Of course, the cost of such generality is that nobody gets a tailor-made plan for creating their specific habit. Which makes it easier to rationalize not starting at all. At least, not yet. (Though it’s quite possible that if you search Zen Habits or James’s blog for a specific habit, you might find it. Worth a shot.)
Here’s exactly what has worked for me
I can’t fix this problem, but I can offer something else: the precise details of my own plan for getting back into running, in hopes that reading the specifics might make it easy for you to envision the mechanics of your own change (even if it’s not running, and even my exact plan isn’t perfect for you).
From time to time I get as deeply not into running as any runner I know, and twice this plan has launched me right back into it — and really excited about it, even feeling halfway fit again — in the span of less than a month.
Although I’ve only done this with running, there are certainly a lot of other habits an approach like this would work for. I’ll give a few suggestions at the end.
Here’s what I’ve done both times:
1. Start running every day, for 20 minutes at a time. Every run is slow — conversational pace — but if now and then you want to work in some hills or just pick up the pace, go for it!
Assuming you don’t miss any days, then:
2. After one week, increase the length of the run to 25 minutes.
3. After two weeks, increase to 30 minutes.
4. After three weeks, increase to 40 minutes, and stay there until the end of the month.
If you do miss a day (even one!), then don’t increase as scheduled. Instead, once you finish the week you were on when you missed a day, repeat that entire week before increasing again. Don’t think of this as a punishment, just a course-correction since the amount you chose turned out to be too much (by definition, since you didn’t do it!).
Why every day?
It’s not that I think running every day is particularly good. (In fact, if I were training for a race, I’d definitely take one or two days off each week.)
Instead, it’s that the everyday repetition helps to create the habit. More repetitions in fewer days, plus the continuity of having no days off. (Just for this month, to jump-start things. Then do whatever you want.)
Why 20 minutes?
Because for me, that amount felt manageable. Short enough that I could do it without procrastinating, or feeling like it was painful or even a big struggle. Short enough that it actually seemed fun.
I was already an experienced runner when I did this. If you’re brand new to whatever your habit is, 5 or 10 minutes is probably a much better starting point.
Why 5 minute increments?
Five minutes represents an increase by 25 percent of weekly mileage at first, which is a lot — way more than dictated by the questionable 10 percent rule. (I actually increased by 10 minutes each week the first time I did this.)
But since 20 minutes daily is a small amount compared to mileage I’ve run before, this is okay. One could make a good argument that the rate of increase should be less, but part of the fun of this plan is the challenge of the increase once you’ve built a little momentum. But don’t go higher: having tried it at 25 and 50 percent, I like 25 percent best.
What do you do after a month?
The first time, I kept this up for about 75 days, and I was so re-enthused about running afterward that I steadily increased my mileage and then trained for and ran a 100-miler within a year.
This time, I’m not sure what I’ll do. Maybe sign up for a marathon. Maybe take a day off!
I’ll say it one more time: this doesn’t have to be about running. While I doubt an approach like this one will work for quitting bad habits or starting habits that don’t lend themselves to time or mileage (“eat healthier,” for example), for something that can (reading more, doing yoga, knitting, writing, playing guitar), I think it will. And even in those tougher cases you might be able to adapt, with just a little creativity.