How to Build Any Habit

I’m a strong believer in building habits and putting your brain on auto-pilot most of the day to free up mental headspace for hard decisions. I spend a good portion of my reflection time deconstructing goals and identifying which habits to build.

After many years of this, I finally have a framework which works for me.[1] I was able to go from couch potato to physique competitor and long-distance hiker, bilingual to trilingual, and designer to design manager. You don’t even need an app for it (hard to imagine, I know)!

There are four steps to building a habit: clarifying, pairing, measuring, and iterating.

The Framework


You can’t get to a destination if you don’t know where the destination is. There’s a reason why many fitness trainers recommend that you use a program: because they work. Break down your goal into small digestible chunks: if you want to run 25k, try to run 5k first. Then break that down. Maybe it’s just 0.5, then 1k, then 2.5k, then 5k.

Once you’ve broken it down, define what success means. Would it mean completing it at any speed? on any terrain? Or should you be more specific than that? If you don’t know what it is you want, you may have to identify goals that will help you figure that out.


The easiest way to learn something is to build on top of what you already know. This is how you turn short-term thoughts into long-term memories. To apply that to your habits, find a habit that you already have and pair it with the new one you want to build. If you want to floss every day, put it beside your toothbrush because you already brush every day.

This can be a bit more difficult when you are going into brand new territory but almost anything can be linked to something you already do. Aside from helping you learn the habit, it helps make the habit automatic, which is key to making it stick.


When clarifying what success means, ask yourself how you could prove success of the habit or even keep track of it. If you’re trying to run more, do you have a tracker for distance or heart-rate? Can you write it down in a journal? Can you simply just check it off on a wall calendar?

The simpler it is for you to track it, the more likely you’re going to be able to do it. Do not to overthink this. Celebrating your wins, seeing your streaks, and keeping yourself accountable will make sure you stay on track.


On a weekly or monthly basis, do a check-in with yourself. Ask yourself accountability questions: did I succeed during this time period? Did I do what I said I was going to do? Why or why not? What can I do to better ensure that I’m hitting my targets?

I recommend writing this down with pen and paper. Pen and paper boosts memory and it helps you learn more effectively.

Other Tips


As you are trying to pair habits to others, you may realize you also have negative anchors. If you’re trying to lose weight and you reach into a nearby snack drawer when bored this will quickly overpower your new fitness habit. Try to tackle these habits first by either replacing them or removing their source.


One of the most powerful tools at your disposal is your own mindset. Keep a positive head on your shoulders–celebrate your wins but don’t spend too much time feeling down. Stay objective, identify where you faltered, and do better next time: starting a cycle of negative self-talk will always lead to a worse outcome.

If you did something today: you don’t have to worry about never reaching your goal, because you will.


You may have heard that it takes something like 40 days (or whatever number) to build a new habit. This isn’t true–it can take any number of days depending on the habit itself and its complexity. You either repeat it until it becomes second nature or you iterate on the process until you can make it second nature. This will likely require more repetitions than you think.

The Silver Lining

The most positive thing about learning how to do this effectively is that it’s a skill which compounds. You can repeat it and your discipline and willpower becomes stronger over time.

Consistency always trumps motivation.

For more on goal-setting, check out my other post on how to set goals.

↩︎ [1] I didn't make this stuff up. A lot of what I know I found out through lots of research on learning and habit-building. I recommend the following books if you're interested in this topic: The Power of Habit↗︎, Deep Work↗︎, and Make It Stick↗︎

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