#41: How to Create and Stick to Habits—the Backbone of Your Life and Business

On today’s show I am going to go through several tips and tools for creating and sticking to new habits, as outlined and inspired by James Clear’s book “Atomic Habits.”

But first, please consider donating $5–10 to a fellow freelancer, Cat DiStasio, who is recovering from a severe stroke that happened right before Christmas 2019. Cat was my guest on episode 30 about how a virtual assistant (VA) can help your business. She is a former VA and now focuses on writing and project management.

Cat is a single parent and the sole income earner for her and her child. Unfortunately, in the U.S., we don’t have a safety net system when things like this happen to people. We have to rely on our community and the goodwill of others.

Under Resources below, you will find the link to a GoFundMe account set up by fellow freelance writer Jennifer Goforth Gregory. As a fellow freelancer, I’m sure you understand the fear of what would happen if you got sick or injured and couldn’t work—especially if you are the sole or primary income earner for yourself or your family. So, please consider donating whatever you can.

On the last episode, the Biz Bite I recommended was to pick a word of the year. I love this process because it allows me to focus on what I want to accomplish or improve in the coming year. For 2020, I have two words: Explore + Act.

Now, on to habit creation …

I believe habits are the backbones of our lives—and they can be the backbones of your freelance business too. Building a system of habits doesn’t mean you have to have this impossible, rigid structure throughout your day. It doesn’t mean you’re going to become a robot. You can still have spontaneity. You can have unstructured time in your days.

But when you truly embrace a new habit, it becomes old hat. You don’t even think about it anymore. It can be something you look forward to. A habit takes away the mental energy and anxiety and stress of thinking about what you should be doing next and the process and steps it takes.

Clear says something that I absolutely love and agree with: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

How many times do we set a goal for ourselves or for our businesses and then don’t really put a system in place to achieve that goal? This is one of the reasons New Year’s resolutions fail so miserably. What system have you put in place to achieve a goal? It’s not about willpower. It’s not even about reminding yourself of this goal. You need a system—you need a series of steps that will make this a habit.

Clear also says: “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.” This means you will not notice an improvement the first time you start a new habit; you may not even see improvements week after week. Transformation takes time. Clear believes we should aim to improve by just 1 percent each day. That doesn’t seem like much. But it definitely adds up.

For me, I’m trying to meditate every work day, anywhere from 5–15 minutes. I don’t really notice a difference right now. I feel the same. It feels like this weird chore I’m doing, maybe even a waste of time.

But if I meditate day after day, there will be a cumulative effect that I will eventually realize. The goal of meditation is not just to meditate. For me, it’s to build a healthy habit so that eventually meditation will help reduce any anxiety I am feeling and will calm down my racing mind before a busy, hectic day. Meditation will be the thing I know I can turn to when I’m feeling overwhelmed and need to take a quiet moment to calm myself, slow my breathing. That is my goal.

But I need a system to make sure I stick with the habit. So, I have a Post-It note on my laptop that says “Meditate.” That is my cue each morning. And I’ve paired meditation with my tea. So, after I fix my tea, I take a lovely sip and then set it aside while I do my meditation, returning to my tea treat after I meditate.

I also use a meditation app. In my case, I use the Breathe app. And it tallies my meditation streak—I want to keep my streak going. Plus, it gives me little badges for meditation milestones.

One of the concrete things Clear provides in his book are the four simple steps to building better habits:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

The cue is what triggers your brain to start a behavior. The cravings are what motivate you to do the habit. There has to be some sort of desire for you to do the thing or you won’t do it. The response is the actual habit. And the reward is what you get out of it.

To put that into action for your freelance business, think of a good habit you want to implement. Let’s say you want to be at your desk, ready to work, at 8 a.m. every day. To implement any habit, Clear takes his idea of cue, craving, response and reward and creates a practical way to implement it. He calls this the Four Laws of Behavior Change. They are:

  1. Make it obvious.
  2. Make it attractive.
  3. Make it easy.
  4. Make it satisfying.

For every habit ask yourself how you can make it obvious, attractive, easy or satisfying. If you’re working on breaking a bad habit, you just inverse this: Make the habit not obvious, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying.

I also highly recommend checking out Gretchen Rubin’s work on this. Her book “Better than Before” is all about habit change, and she gives dozens of ways you can create and stick with habits.

So, for example, let’s take “obvious” and “easy” together. If you want to be at your desk at 8 a.m. every day, you need a system that makes that obvious for you each morning. First, you need to decide what time you need to get up to be at your desk by 8 a.m. What time do you need to wake up to be ready? What time, then, do you need to go to bed to get up at that time? Maybe you need to set a bedtime alarm to remind yourself to go to bed.

Another way to make a habit obvious is to design your environment. One habit I’m working on is to eat apples as snacks, instead of reaching for chocolate. So, instead of having candy out and within my eyesight, I placed a bowl of apples on our coffee table. That’s the first food option I see when I’m thinking about snacking at night. I designed my environment to support my habit.

On the Happier podcast, Rubin and her sister, Elizabeth Craft, talk about the idea of reframing. Two ways to do this that I like is:

  1. Ask yourself what kind of person you want to be.
  2. Put a positive spin on a habit by saying you “get” to do something, not that you “have” to do something. (“I get to go to the gym. I get to eat healthy food.”)

Think also about how you can make your habit irresistible or attractive. I like to use the strategies of pairing and rewards. What would be a healthy treat for you each morning? How could you pair that with your morning routine or your 8 a.m. start?

One thing I do for exercise is I pair walking with listening to a podcast. I scroll through the latest podcast episodes each morning and listen to something while I get ready for my day. But, if I’m supposed to work out that day, I save the episode I really want to listen to and only allow myself to listen to it when I go for my walk. It’s a treat that I look forward to.

Clear’s last rule of habit change is to make it satisfying. He gives an example of a couple who wanted to stop eating out so much. They created an online savings account and named it “Trip to Europe.” Every time they wanted to go out to eat but didn’t, they transferred $50 into that account.

As you think about the habits you want to create, don’t just think about what habits you think would be good for you: more exercise, healthier eating, more sleep.

Ask yourself the bigger questions:

  • Who do you want to be?
  • What do you want your freelance business to look like?
  • What do you want to accomplish this year?
  • What major lifestyle changes do you want to implement?
  • What bad habits have gone on way too long in your life that you’re sick of and you want to change?

Scan through your day and week and analyze how you spend your time. What is good about that and what could be improved? What is missing from your life? What do you want more of?

Then, break down those aspirations into habit goals. From there, use the tools offered by people like Clear and Rubin to build the systems into your life and your business that will allow you to meet those goals.

Biz Bite: Set your non-negotiables

The Bookshelf: Final Girls” by Riley Sager`


GoFundMe: Help Cat DiStasio Pay Bills After a Stroke

Episode #30 of Deliberate Freelancer: How a Virtual Assistant Can Help Your Business, with Cat DiStasio

Episode #40 of Deliberate Freelancer: Reflect, Analyze and Plan Now for the New Year

Atomic Habits” by James Clear—book, blog and website

Better than Before” by Gretchen Rubin—book, videos and blog

Happier podcast

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