One of the mistakes I made early on, as I started learning about how to create habits, was juggling multiple habits at once.
I was still trying to figure out how to quit the smoking habit when I started running. And in the middle of starting the running habit, I started massively changing my diet, then decluttering, then waking up early. That all went fine until I started to falter with one habit … and it all came crashing down like a house of cards.
Don’t build a house of cards like I did. It took me a little while of feeling bad about myself and my newly failed habits before I got back up and started to rebuild everything from the ground up. This time, I built a more solid foundation, because I learned that you have to get one habit firmly established before starting on the second one.
So I now recommend doing four successful Habit Sprints with one habit before moving on to the next. At this point, you start to get good at the habit, and it starts running on autopilot.
Running on autopilot isn’t always a good thing — if you’re stuck on autopilot and keep doing things that are harmful (smoking, eating junk food, being angry), it’s much better if you’re mindful and consciously make a change for the better. But if you consciously make a helpful change and you stick with it for awhile, it starts to become automatic.
The automation process
In Chapter 4, we talked about triggers and tying them to habits in a heartbeat rhythm … this one-two combination becomes automatic after a bunch of repetitions. They become bound in your brain through repetition, so that when the trigger happens, the urge to do the habit comes up automatically.
If you’ve ever driven home from work without thinking about it and arrived home not fully remembering having driven there, you’ve seen the power of triggers and habits. Driving home has become a series of trigger-habit responses for you, because you’ve done it so much.
The first few times you drove home on that route, you had to do it very consciously, taking note of when to turn and where … but after a few times, it becomes a little more automatic, and after 50 times, you can do it without thinking. Visual signals (that oak tree, that church, that house) become triggers that automatically signal for you to make a turn, and you just go through a series of them on autopilot.
That’s how habits become automated. You’ll see this after doing a series of four Habit Sprints where you had a decent success rate (say 70-80 percent). So if you barely did the habit the first sprint, don’t count that … but if you got better the second sprint and did the habit five out of seven days, that sprint helped you get to automatic. Do a few more sprints like that, and you will start thinking about the habit less.
That doesn’t mean you can just forget about it completely. After about four successful sprints, it should be automatic, but you can’t just abandon the plan and accountability you’ve been using. I’d say it takes about 10 good sprints in a row before things are fully on autopilot.
Starting a new habit
That said, after four good sprints, you can safely start a second habit and have the first habit be in maintenance mode. What’s maintenance mode? It’s where you keep an eye on the habit, keep up accountability, but don’t need to remind yourself about the habit as much as it becomes more automatic. Instead of daily accountability, you might have weekly or semi-weekly check-ins. You should still have a big consequence for missing two days in a row.
If you have not done well for four sprints, don’t start a second habit. Stay focused on improving your consistency on the first habit, or toss out the first habit and try something new, but don’t take on two habits at once if you haven’t done well for four sprints.
If you’re ready, start the second habit the same way you did the first, with a habit plan and accountability and everything else (see the Habit Plan Guide in the Appendix). It will take just as much focus for this second habit, so don’t take it lightly.
But the advantage now is that you should be a little better at creating habits. You’ve learned a lot from your first habit attempt, and the adjustments you made each week with your first habit will help you take on potential obstacles with this second habit. With each new habit, you’ll get better and better at change.
Mission: Assess whether to start a second habit
Today, assess your fourth Habit Sprint in your journal: How many days in the last week have you done the habit? Did you face any obstacles? What can you do to overcome those obstacles in the next week? Add those obstacles and solutions to your Habit Plan.
Are you ready to move on to a new habit? If so, what will you do to put your first habit in maintenance mode? And what have you learned about habits that you can apply to the next habit?