How do you create a new habit?

It's easy to decide to change, but harder to make that change feel normal. Here are some tips.

Photo illustration / Stephen Matera / / Newscom / File
Want to summit Mount Rainier? Start by developing the habit of walking at least one mile a day, every day for a month. Every day you walk a mile, mark it off somewhere visible. If you skip a day, start counting your month over again. If you succeed in walking a mile every day for 30 days, you'll not only have walked 30 miles, you'll have created a habit – and those tend to maintain themselves.

A long time ago, I wrote about the idea of a money free weekend – two days spent doing stuff that’s free or extremely close to it. At that time, the idea of a money-free weekend was a bit of a challenge for my family – we almost always spent money doing something each weekend.

Now, the opposite is true – most weekends are spent doing things that don’t cost anything at all. This past weekend, we carved pumpkins, roasted pumpkin seeds, went to a state park, worked on homemade Christmas presents, planned a birthday party, played some board games, fixed a child’s scooter, and went on a bicycle ride. Virtually none of that cost anything at all, but I found myself happily exhausted from all of the activity by Sunday evening.

In short, the thing that seemed like drastic, painful change in the past now seems like the norm.

I’ll give you another example from my life where this transition is ongoing. A few months ago, I had some bloodwork done that showed elevated cholesterol numbers and some other unusual readings. I had a few follow-up tests and talked to my doctor and a dietician about it. They both strongly encouraged me to change my diet above all else, giving me one simple mandate: eat plants.

That seemed very difficult. No meat. No cheese. No milk. No eggs. What would my diet even look like?

I started it with gusto about a month ago. At first, it was incredibly hard. I wanted some cheese. I longed for a dish that I couldn’t eat. All it felt like I could eat was salad and peanut butter.

As time went on, though, I just kept trying new meals and new foods and new spices and things. I tried soups and skillet meals and smoothies and sandwiches.

After a while, I began to discover a lot of things that I liked. More importantly, my desire for a lot of the things I used to be enamored with began to subside. It’s reached a point where, quite literally, if I had a slice of meaty pizza or a bean burrito in front of me, I’d choose the bean burrito.

These two experiences – and many others in my life – have some distinct things in common.

First, a radical life change is easier if there is just one simple rule to follow. Don’t spend money this weekend. Eat plants. Play a game each evening. Read two books a week. A very simple rule is very simple to follow.

Second, the simple rule is tied closely to something I truly want to change in my life. I want to be healthy over the long haul. I want to be in financially good shape. These are strong central desires for my life, and because they’re strong, they trump the other shorter-term desires I have.

Third, the things I like or immediately desire are often influenced heavily by what I’ve been doing and thinking about recently. If I’ve been buying a lot of books and reading a lot, I tend to want to do it more. If I’ve been playing a lot of board games, I tend to want to play more games with my friends. If I’ve been eating a meat-heavy diet, I crave meat.

In other words, once I push through the “inertia” of my previous habits, it’s easy to find that new habits just kind of click into place.

If you’ve got something you want to change, try this. Come up with a rule for yourself that’s challenging, but extremely simple to understand and remember. Make it five words or less, for example, and make it very clear in terms of knowing whether you’re following it or breaking it. Eat just plants. Spend no money on weekends. Read two books a week. Run ten miles a week.

Then, simply follow that rule for one month. If you fail, start the month over. Keep retrying until you find yourself able to follow the rule for a full month. If it’s still tough, add another month at that point.

If you’re like me, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to follow that rule and suddenly you’re skating directly in the direction of the big life goal you want to achieve.

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