How to cultivate the habits that matter to you

How to create habits that matterA few years ago I made a dramatic move from Brooklyn to Maine. I didn’t pack my bags and leave because living in the city was a burden or too rough; quite the opposite, actually. Living in the city was fun. (A lot of fun!) 

But the day-to-day events of my life eventually overtook over my ambitions. Life was great, but it wasn’t exactly conducive to cultivating the kind of habits I needed to achieve my long-term goals. And make no mistake: To achieve your goals you have to cultivate the right habits. It isn’t easy, but it is essential. 

First envision what you really want

Picking the habits that work for you entails imagining the kind of life you want to live. It’s just impossible to transform habits into accomplished goals if you don’t even know what you want in the first place. Something that Barbara Sher suggests in her book Wishcraft is to imagine your ideal day: Where and when do you wake up? How do you spend your time? Who are you with? Where are you?

The important thing here is to be completely honest with yourself. Don’t sell your goals short. If your ideal day consists of waking up at noon and working with animals all day, own that. Too often we write our goals off before we even have a chance to articulate them. But once we can clearly picture our ends, it makes it possible to picture the means. In my case, I wanted to be around nature, water, bookstores, and to own a house. I also wanted to have the time and financial stability to write. And since I wanted these things more than I wanted to stay in New York, I moved.

Create an environment for your habits to thrive

The truth is that environment matters. Your ideal day can only happen in certain places. For you, that might not mean moving cities, but it could entail moving somewhere quiet where you can focus, more easily bike, or more easily walk to healthier food options. And it doesn’t have to mean literally moving at all. It can simply be creating the kind of environment where you can accomplish the things that you want to do.

One example: A nice work/life balance is important to me. That means I have a designated work area, family area, and sleeping area. For me, part of developing good habits is having clear demarcations between the different parts of my life and different activities.

Let health and wellness habits lead the way

Another fundamental part of living your ideal day is physical health. Not only is living a healthy life itself a good habit to get into, but being healthy and happy makes cultivating other habits that much easier.

Nick Baylis writes in his book The Rough Guide to Happiness that “Good nutrition in all its forms — from food and sleep to exercise and daylight — will help our mind-body system thrive profoundly.” And that’s a great way to think of it, as your mind and body being connected to form a complete self. There’s an old saying, that you should jog for your mental health and meditate for your physical health, and recent science suggests that kind of holistic approach to health is true.

How to really get started

At this point you might be thinking, “That all sounds great, but how do I wake up tomorrow and actually make myself work out or meditate or read for 30 minutes?” Well, don’t. That is, don’t make yourself. Instead, find someone to pair up with or help hold you accountable.

“A workout buddy can help because it encourages people to make connections with others who share common values and are pursuing similar goals,” Dr. Philip M. Wilson, a professor of the Behavioural Health Sciences Research Lab at Brock University told Prevention magazine. And it’s true. You’re a lot less likely to cancel on a friend than to cancel on yourself.

Create rewards to avoid getting sidetracked

Healthy habits are more likely to stick if you don’t see them as a chore. Knowing why you’re doing them and having a community of like-minded people to help you along are great, but it also helps to identify certain triggers that might knock you off the path to your ideal day. For me, that is without a doubt spending too much time chatting with friends online. Granted, chatting with friends online isn’t necessarily a “bad” habit, but if it starts to distract you from the work of achieving your ideal day, then it might need to be reined in a bit.

Something that works for me is to set socializing as a reward for working. For instance, if I spend three hours straight writing, then I get to chat with my friends for twenty minutes. This is called “if-then” planning and research has shown that it’s a pretty good way to avoid letting triggers become an obstacle to cultivating good habits.

Habits are important. Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do, and that excellence itself is a habit. In order to cultivate good habits ourselves, we need first of all to know what we want. Secondly, we need to be in the proper environment. But it’s also important that we understand how to reward ourselves for the good habits that we cultivate. Speaking of, think I’m going to chat with a few friends for a while.


Scott Beauchamp is a writer who lives in Maine. His work has previously appeared in The Guardian, Bookforum, Dublin Review of Books, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter here.



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