What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits (But Can't Get Started)
It was 1978. In the years that would follow, Dean Hovey would meet with Steve Jobs and design the first mouse for Apple Computer. But today, he was a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Product Design, and he was sitting in drawing class.
His professor, Jan Molenkamp, asked if Dean could draw the roof of Stanford’s famous Hoover Tower from memory. “Without looking, can you draw Hoover Tower’s roof? Can you recall its shape, color, and texture?”
Hovey was surprised. He wasn’t sure what to draw. Years later, he would write…
For the past three years, I had been a student at the University and ridden my bicycle or walked by Hoover Tower hundreds of times. Yet I couldn’t confidently state the roof’s shape or its color, or composition. While I’d seen it a hundred times — I really hadn’t.
Even though Hoover Tower was part of Dean’s daily life, he wasn’t really aware of it.
I find that our habits often work the same way. We fall into certain patterns and routines — sometimes good, sometimes bad — without really being aware of the factors that are driving our choices and actions.
More importantly, just as Dean Hovey couldn’t draw the tower without first being aware of it, you and I can’t master our habits without first being aware of the decisions and actions we are taking on a daily basis. Awareness is the first and most critical piece for building good habits and breaking bad ones. Without awareness, even the most intelligent and talented people can struggle to make the right decisions on a consistent basis.
This may have you wondering…
What can you do to raise your levels of awareness? How can you change your bad habits if you’re not aware of them in the first place?
Again, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here is one tactic that has worked for me…
For Better Habits, Measure Something
If you’re serious about making change, then you can’t sit around and hope to magically become aware of the important things. Instead, you need to make an active effort to measure and track what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
This is much simpler than you might think and it’s also one of the best ways to kickstart new behaviors. Here are a few examples…
Exercise — I have a good streak going with weightlifting right now. I’ve trained at least once per week for over a year (which includes travel to Istanbul, Moscow, Italy, South Carolina, Portland, and a handful of other places). And for the last four months in particular, I have been in the gym at least 3 times per week.
It all started when I began tracking my pushup workouts. That simple action prompted me to track the rest of my training with a more watchful eye. It sounds so simple, but writing down how many days I was training each week helped me get my butt in the gym more consistently. (And along the way, I doubled the amount of pushups I could do.)
Writing — Before November 2012, I thought that I was writing consistently, but I wasn’t. Eventually, I decided to measure my writing output and realized that I was unpredictable and erratic. I wrote when I felt motivated or inspired, which turned out to be about once every three weeks.
After becoming aware of how inconsistent I was, I decided to set up a Monday and Thursday publishing schedule. It’s been 10 months now and I haven’t missed a week. (You can look back in the archives and see every article I’ve written.) My Monday and Thursday posts might look like an old habit now, but the only reason I started writing on this schedule is because I measured my output and discovered my inconsistency.
Money and Business — According to many historians, John Rockefeller was the richest man in the history of the world. Recently, I read about his life and learned that Rockefeller was known for tracking every single penny across his massive empire. After reading about Rockefeller’s strategies, I was inspired to track my own finances even more closely.
What happened? I quickly became more aware of my finances and discovered a handful of places where I could cut costs and increase earnings. Furthermore, my increased tracking and measurement has helped me learn about things like tax efficiency and asset allocation, which I had previously thought very little about.
Notice that in each example above, I didn’t start by worrying about all the improvements I needed to make. I simply started by becoming more aware of my behavior. I tracked and measured. And by paying attention to what I was doing and how I was spending my time, ideas for improving my habits naturally presented themselves.
Nothing happens before awareness. If you aren’t aware of your decisions, then you can’t do anything to improve them — no matter how smart you are.
With that in mind, I’d like to challenge you to measure something in your life for the next week.
Pick something that is important to you and make an effort to be more aware of the things that drive your decisions and actions. Don’t worry about changing your whole life. Don’t judge yourself for not being as good as you want to be. Just pick one thing that’s important to you and measure it. Take stock of it. Be aware of it.
Your awareness and your habits go hand-in-hand. The simple act of noticing what you do is the first step for improving how you do it. If you recognize how you’re spending your time, then the next step will often reveal itself.
James Clear is a writer and speaker focused on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement. He is the author of the no. 1 New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. The book has sold over 5 million copies worldwide and has been translated into more than 50 languages.
Clear is a regular speaker at Fortune 500 companies and his work has been featured in places like Time magazine, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and on CBS This Morning. His popular "3-2-1" email newsletter is sent out each week to more than 1 million subscribers. You can learn more and sign up at jamesclear.com.