How Many New Habits Should You Start at Once?

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
New Year’s resolutions often fail. There’s a better way to approach habit building, and you can do it any time of the year to achieve the changes you want to see.

As the year draws to a close, a lot of folks are already thinking about goals they want to achieve in the new year. Habit-forming isn’t an exact science, but if you’re looking to make some changes in your life, you might be wondering how many habits you should start at once. The answer, as with most things related to productivity, is that it depends. In this post, let’s look at some factors you should consider when deciding how many new habits to take on.

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We all know that making changes in our lives can be tough. We’re creatures of habit, after all. Often we decide we want to make a change – whether it’s exercising more, eating healthier, or spending less time on our phones – and we think the best way to make that happen is to try and incorporate all those new habits into our lives all at once.

While this can happen at any time of the year, it’s pretty common at year’s end. We get quite impassioned about what we want to accomplish after New Year’s and make a bunch of resolutions. Then we fall through on them. Why?

No Progress Without a Plan

Here’s one example, from my circle of friends. See if it rings a bell:

“I’ve been trying to change my habits for a while now. I know I need to start building new, healthier habits if I want to improve my health. But it’s not easy. I don’t know where to start. And I’m not sure how many new habits I can realistically build at once.

Plus, even when I do start forming a new habit, it’s hard to stick with it. I always seem to fall back into my old ways.

But I’m determined to keep trying. I know it won’t be easy. But I’m hopeful that with time and effort, I can finally start making some lasting changes in my life.”

Sound familiar? Don’t feel bad, we’ve all been there. The problem with the above line of thought is two-fold. For one, my friend knew he wanted to make a change, but he didn’t have any sort of structured way of going about it. Of tackling it head on. Second, he was hoping that things would sort of just pan out on their own.

Building a new habit doesn’t have to be overly complicated. However, having a plan of action—some form of systematic approach—will set you up better for success.

Habit Building, Little by Little

Building a new habit can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is to start small. Break things down into baby steps so you get a feeling of accomplishment along the way. And be patient with yourself. There’s a lot of literature out there on the subject. To me, the following seem to be some of the best takeaways.

Think about what habits you want to build, and why. The “why” is important; it helps you better formulate your goal. It could be something as simple as doing some form of light exercise so that you pass your next checkup at the doctor’s. Or maybe just making your bed every morning because you want your room to look tidy when you come home tired in the evenings.

Start with baby steps. When you’re building new habits, you’re essentially re-wiring your brain! Every iteration of the habit sticks a little better in your head than the last. Let’s stay with the health goal from above and say you want to go for a walk every day to get your 10,000 steps in. If you start off with 10,000 steps on day one, you’re going to be pooped. You might hang in there for a week or so, but five bucks bet that by week two, you’re back on the couch.

What’s the fix? Start by walking for just five minutes a day. That will quickly become comfortable and you’ll feel good about yourself. Then you bump it up a few minutes. Soon you’ll be at 20 minutes. Then you can aim for 30, 45, and so on until you have your targeted steps in.

In case you were wondering, 10,000 steps are roughly 7.6 km and can be walked at a pretty chill pace in around 90 minutes, give or take.

So make it easy for yourself by breaking up your goal into a more manageable path of action. And remember the saying: the journey is your destination. So celebrate the incremental successes you achieve along the way, instead of always focusing on the goal you haven’t achieved yet.

You can also devise small tricks to help you on your way. If you’re determined to make your bed every morning, then keep your work shoes and keys near the bed so you have to walk back to the bedroom before you leave home. This will remind you to do it. If you’re trying to cut back on sugar, only buy two packs of cookies this week at the supermarket, instead of your usual three. Replace the missing pack with sweet grapes or something you like that has natural fructose instead of sugar. This helps ward off the cravings. You can then keep scaling back the sugary items you usually buy until you’re where you want to be.

If the new habits you want to form are things that need to be scheduled, then make that schedule. Slotting enough time for them will make it less likely you’ll slip up.

You might also like to find an accountability partner, make use of an app, or join a group to help you stay on track. When I decided to stop drinking, I stuck with a programme for 30 days. It kept me accountable even though I was doing it from the comfort of my own home. I also made sure to carve out a fixed time in my schedule for every one of those 30 days. Both of these things were key to my success. I have been sober ever since.

Be patient. It takes time to form a new habit, so don’t expect results overnight. Some authors say it takes a good 21 days, others say 30 days. Just keep at it and eventually whatever new thing it is you’re doing can become second nature.

So How Many Habits Should You Start at Once?

The answer to this question depends on a number of factors, including your motivation for changing habits, the difficulty of the habits you’re trying to change, and your overall inclination to stick to your goals.

In general, if the new behaviour you are trying to build is something major, it’s probably best to focus on changing one habit at a time. This will give you the best chance of success and help you avoid feeling overwhelmed. James Clear, author of the bestseller Atomic Habits, seems to also favour mastering one habit at a time before moving on to the next.

Personally, I say if you’re motivated and confident that you can handle two or three smaller changes at once, there’s no reason why you couldn’t try building a few new habits in parallel, especially if they are related or require little effort like bed-making. Just be sure to start with small, manageable changes and increase the difficulty level gradually.

I have seven new mini daily habits myself, which I started all at the same time about two months ago. And it’s been going well! I’m the kind of person though who needs structure in her daily life. So before I started introducing these changes, I made sure I was clear on the intended outcomes I was aiming for, and that I had enough time every day, seven days a week, to start putting them into practise.

You don’t have to go all out as I did though. Habits are not all created equal. Doing five minutes of gymnastics while you wait for your coffee maker in the morning is not on par with losing 50 pounds or giving up pain killers.

If you’re up against a tough challenge like replacing an addictive substance with something healthy, leaving a toxic relationship, or losing a lot of weight, it’s better to focus your new habit-building efforts solely on that one goal. It might help to also remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day. So take baby steps and be proud of yourself for all the little wins you make along your journey.

Good luck, whichever path you are on!

Twenty-something South Asian woman with long dark hair, in a light grey blouse with dark grey ribbon trim around the neck, sitting at her desk and smiling up to her left.
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