The easiest tactic to actually make that habit stick in 2012

With habit building, as with most areas of life, there’s one place where your efforts will pay off disproportionately. That place is finding & defining your anchor habits.

What are anchor habits?

Anchor habits are habits, preferably positive (or at least neutral) habits, that you naturally gravitate towards doing on a regular basis. They can be used as a trigger to remind you to do something else, or as a reward for doing something else.

For example, tea is one of my anchor habits. Tea is good for you, it relaxes me, and it’s a pleasant sensual experience (the taste, the smell, the warmth), so it’s a positive habit on all levels. Without trying to force myself to do it, or having to remember to do so, I drink tea at least once a day – always in the mornings, sometimes later in the day as well. Without tea, my day would feel off, because it’s one of the foundations of a good day for me.

An example of a more neutral anchor habit might be taking public transportation – it’s something that happens on a regular basis, but not necessarily something you enjoy or look forward to. However, you can still use more neutral anchor habits like these by incorporating something else during that time – reading books or listening to podcasts on subjects that you want to learn more about, or writing, or drawing, and so on.

I’m focusing on more positive anchor habits in this post because they’re easier to build around, but once you’ve improved your habit-sticking skills, it would probably do you good to search for more neutral anchor habits and ask yourself how you can turn them into a force for positive in your day.

How to find anchor habits you already have

Look for things that you do every day, or almost every day, without trying to. If possible, keep a time log for a few days – it doesn’t have to be anything intense or complicated, it can just be notes like “7 PM read for an hour” or “8 AM ate breakfast, did crossword”.

Here’s some other examples of anchor habits to get your wheels turning:

  • Doing yoga
  • Exercise in pretty much any form
  • Going on a walk
  • Riding your bike
  • Making a smoothie for lunch or breakfast
  • Reading in the evenings

After keeping a time log for a week or so, you should be able to spot some definite patterns in things that you do every day or even 3-5 times a week – these are your anchor habits or potential anchor habits.

How to strengthen your anchor habits

Before you start trying to add other habits to your day using your anchor habits, you need to make sure that your anchor habits are as strong as possible. Even though you’re itching to start on that new habit, I would seriously recommend spending between a week and three weeks (depending on how strong your potential anchor habits already are) making sure that your anchor habits are firmly in place.

The great thing about this is that your anchor habits are things you already enjoy, so you won’t have to exercise a lot of willpower to get to the point where you’re doing them every day. The easiest way to make them stick is to start reminding yourself of them so that you can be conscious about it – set alarms to go off at specific times on your phone with a reminder, put post-it notes in places where you’re likely to be at that time, or even just tell people that you live or work with that you’re trying it.

The two factors to focus on are:

  1. Doing the anchor habit every day
  2. Doing the anchor habit at approximately the same time – or at least in the same order – every day

Keep track of your progress – when you’ve got 10-15 days straight without missing an anchor habit, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

How to add new habits using your anchor habits

You can add new habits using your anchor habits by putting something before, during, or after your anchor habits. For example, my morning routine looks like this:

  1. Get up, do yoga, crunches, push-ups
  2. Meditate for 10-15 minutes
  3. Shower
  4. Start making tea
  5. Either while making tea or while drinking the tea, transfer to-do list items and go over my plan for the day
  6. Open laptop, start work

Of course, I didn’t go from having no morning routine at all to having one that elaborate – it’d never stick. Instead, I started with my anchor habit of drinking tea every morning. I thought to myself: “I already do this every day, what can I do at the same time that will get my day started off on the right foot? Planning my day!” After a week or two of doing the planning while making or drinking my tea, I added doing yoga before that. And a few weeks later, I added meditating in between. (It helps that I enjoy all of these things & their impact on my day, of course!)

When you get started adding new habits, it’s probably best to add them either before or during your anchor habit – so that your anchor habit functions as a positive reward for your other, new habit. If you’re adding habits after your anchor habit, it helps to keep a reminder somewhere – the phone alarm and post-it notes work just as well here as in strengthening your anchor habit. By working with something that you already do every day, you can create a space for a new habit, that feels natural instead of forced, and it becomes a part of your routine much quicker.

Your mileage will likely vary, but by using anchor habits in this way to bring in other, new habits, I find that it usually only takes me 2-3 weeks to cement a habit to the point where I can start working on the next one, instead of the 30-90 days that most research suggests.

Ways you can use this:

  • Systems are nothing but sets of habits put together. Want to build a system that supports you & your work? Break it down into the teeniest habits, and then start working on those one at a time.
  • Goals are made up of two things: one-time actions and habits. And most of the time, the habits are more important than the one-time actions, because they lay the foundation. If you have a particular goal, break it down into one-time actions and habits, assign a specific day to do the one-time actions, and start working on the habits one at a time.
  • Systems and goals aside, anchor habits can simply help you incorporate more positive habits into your day.

Any questions? Anything that you were left wondering? I’m working on a guide to incorporating new habits into your work & life, so let me know!


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