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To Cement A New Habit, Optimize For Repetition

The gist: For the best chance of creating a habit that sticks, focus on repetition and momentum before any other metric.


Every week, I record the miles I run in a tracking sheet1. Last week, I looked at the total distance for the year so far and realized my shoes were in dire need of replacement.

“So that’s why my feet are getting so torn up and my joints have been sore,” I muttered.

When my wife overhead, she offered to ask a friend for a pass to the Nike employee store. We live in Portland and have friends who work at HQ, so we have access to discounts on the best gear. We could get a pass in the next week or two.

I thought about it for a second then went online and bought a pair of shoes at full price. I even paid a little more for expedited shipping.

Why did I do that instead of saving money—an important goal?

One reason is that I planned my shoe replacement poorly (doh!). But the more important reason is, after years of success, I know exactly how to make myself stick to my running habit and, in this case, it meant getting a new pair of shoes on my feet as quickly as possible, regardless the cost.

Instead of going for savings—something that’s also important to me—I chose minimal down time instead. I was optimizing for repetition.

If you struggle to get new habits to stick, this way of thinking could make a big difference in your success.

Why We Fail At New Habits

By definition, the only way to succeed at building a habit is to do it over and over. Repetition builds familiarity and familiarity grows into automation2.

It’s a simple concept, so why is it so hard? Where do we go wrong when we fail?

Assuming you’ve picked a habit you actually care about, the culprit is in how you optimize your efforts to succeed.

When you start a new habit, it feels like there are many things you need to do—so many steps before you can even get started. Take exercise for example. If it’s never been a habit before, here’s a list of things you might think you need to do to get started:

  1. Find a gym
  2. Make an exercise plan
  3. Buy workout clothes
  4. Start exercising

See the problem? There are three obstacles in front of the thing you actually want to do. Successful habits are built on momentum, and now you have three opportunities to fail in front of your one opportunity to succeed. I’m not great at math, but those aren’t favorable odds.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

So, what to do instead? Eliminate those obstacles and get started, in the simplest way possible, doing the thing that matters.

obstacle-habit

To Build A New Habit, Focus On Repetition

Back to my shoe dilemma. Should I wait two weeks and save $50 on my new running shoes or pay $100 to keep going right now?

I chose to pay more. Not because I like spending money but because optimizing my healthy habit around money would not make me successful in the long run.

Waiting for a great deal would mean missing six runs. In the grand scheme of things, that’s not a big deal—I’ve been at this for years. But it sets a dangerous precedent.

I’m successful with my running habit3 because I only allow illness to stop me from running.

  • Not waiting to get a good deal on running gear.
  • Not feeling too busy.
  • Not bad weather.

None of these potential failure points are a part of the habit-maintenance process for me. If I’m alive and feeling at least reasonably well, I’m running on a pre-determined schedule.

How To Optimize A Habit

There are a few important things you can do to better support yourself and make sure you get your reps in and build momentum.

  1. Eliminate real obstacles at any cost. If there really is something legitimate standing in the way of getting your reps in and you can pay to fix it, pay for it!
  2. Optimize your schedule. If your new habit will take time to complete, put it in your schedule. And make sure you schedule it where other things won’t get in the way. Build your habit ladder.
  3. Remove distractions. If your new habit will take focus4, give yourself a place to focus on it where nothing else will distract you.

The focus in this article has been on exercise—it’s an easy, tangible example—but the strategy of optimizing for repetition works on every habit because every habit grows from repeating it over and over.

  • Want the habit of working on your business? Stop focusing your time on reading about business strategies and start actually experimenting with them on a set schedule.
  • Want to be a writer? Get out your default text editor and start writing. You can upgrade to a better one once you’ve written 100 articles.
  • Want to build better connections? Stop organizing your contacts list and just start sending emails and making phone calls. Who cares if your contacts are sorted when you never talk to them anyway.

When building a habit is important, optimize for what will actually make you successful—repetition and momentum. In my case, sticking to my running schedule at any cost will make me successful.

Saving money on shoes is nice, but it won’t actually contribute to the success of the habit—at least not in the beginning.

Do this now:

To put this concept into action, ask yourself this questions right now:

What’s the critical action you need to repeat to build the habit that’s important to you?

Once you know what it is, it’ll be easier to find and cut out the obstacles—usually prep work—that keep you from actually getting started and maintaining momentum.

Footnotes

  1. Nerd alert!
  2. Read more: How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
  3. And wildly unsuccessful with others!
  4. Hint: every new habit takes focus.