Build Daily Habits Faster With Habit Chains

Build Daily Habits Faster With Habit Chains

QUESTION: Why is it so hard to start new daily habits?

For me, starting new habits is really difficult. I just don’t have a lot of self-discipline, so developing new habits is a frustrating, time-consuming experience. Forget all that how-to-start-a-new-habit-in-21-days bullshit. I’ll need several months to lock in a habit, maybe even a year or more – not just a few weeks.

Anyway, when I try to start a new habit, I will sometimes do okay for the first day or two. Not always, but sometimes. But then I usually forget to do it by Day 3.

And every time that I forget to do the new habit, it makes it even more likely that I’ll forget again the next day and keep on forgetting over time. Or I might remember on a subsequent day. But then I’m in a pissy mood because I already forgot to do it the previous two days in a row. And now I’m like “screw it” and don’t even feel like trying.

So the process just unravels itself automatically, and I usually give up after a week or so.

At least, that’s how it used to go whenever I tried to start a new habit.

Now, part of the problem here is that I used to fall for the myth that you have to do a new habit every day in a row for XX number of days to succeed – which just creates a cycle of self-criticism, guilt trips, self-hate and self-sabotage (i.e. trying to be all hardcore and do it perfectly without missing a day just doesn’t work for me).

But the real problem is that building new daily habits is simply hard work because not only are you in the habit of NOT DOING the new thing – you’re in the habit of NOT EVEN THINKING ABOUT DOING the new thing. And you’re in the habit of doing SOME OTHER THING when you’re supposed to be doing THE NEW THING.

So on some days you forget that you were even trying to start this new habit. Plus, you’re also in the habit of giving up whenever you fail to do the new thing perfectly every day.

But linking that new habit to an old habit can make it easier to build the new habit.


What Is a Habit Chain?

A habit chain is simply a series of habits that you link together in sequence, one after the other. It’s basically like a routine or a sub-routine. But a habit chain doesn’t have to be elaborate. It can literally just consist of two simple habits.

All routines are habit chains, but not all habit chains are routines.

Difference Between a Routine and a Habit Chain

The difference between a routine and a habit chain is that routines are usually time-based. A routine is a group of habits that you perform at a scheduled time or during a specific part of your day (like when you wake up, when you go to the gym or when you get ready for bed).

A habit chain might also be done at the same time every day, but not necessarily. At least, the focus is not necessarily on doing the habits at any particular time.

A routine also tends to group habits together in a way that makes sense, usually because the habits are related to each other and serve a common purpose.

But with habit chains, it’s just about linking new habits to old habits to make the new habits easier to lock in. It’s not so much about the timing of them or that the habits are related.

They CAN be related and serve a singular purpose.

And they CAN be performed at the same time every day.

But again, those are features of routines but not necessarily of habit chains.

Habit Chains

How Do Habit Chains Work?

When you build a habit chain, the idea is that you start with an existing habit – one that you already have locked in pretty well – and then you build upon it. You link a new habit to it. And then you can link another and another if you want.

Like Links on a Chain…

Have you ever gone shopping in one of those hardware warehouse stores like Home Depot? One time, years ago, I was at Home Depot, and I remember waiting around for my wife in one of the aisles.

Well, this particular aisle had all kinds of chains for sale – made from a wide variety of different sized links and types of metal – on spools hanging from up above.

You just pick the chain you want, grab the first link and give it a pull. Then the chain comes flying off the spool as it spins. You just pull off however many feet of chain you want and then cut it and go pay for it at the register.

It might initially take a little effort to get the chain moving. But after you tug on that first link, it builds momentum and the chain just flows off the spool almost effortlessly.

So that image popped into my mind this past year when I was trying to start 40+ new daily habits at once. I loved the analogy and recognized the power in it immediately.

To get the chain moving along, all you need to do is grab the first link – the habit you are already doing every day. When you pull that first link, the next link automatically comes along for the ride. Along with the next link. And the next link. And so on.

That’s how habit chains work.

How to Start New Habits Faster With Habit Chains

Starting a new habit chain sounds super easy in theory. And for some folks, it might be very easy, depending on the habit (because some habits are much easier to start than others).

But for me, and maybe for you, it will still take some work to get that momentum going.

So don’t be too hard on yourself if it doesn’t happen overnight.

If perfectionism works for you, fantastic. But if not, then shift your mindset away from trying to do everything perfectly and in record time. Just go for progress, not perfection.

Okay. So here’s how to build a new habit faster using the idea of habit chains.

How to Build a Habit Chain Step-by-Step:

  1. Pick the new habit you’re trying to start.
  2. Identify an existing habit or behavior to link to.
  3. Think of ways to easily link the new habit to the old one.
  4. Practice your new habit chain.
  5. Improve over time with practice, patience and repetition.
  6. Add another link (another habit) if you want.
  7. Tweak the process as needed.

If you’re like me, you’ll still have a hard time at first. You’ll still forget to flow from the old habit straight into the new habit sometimes. But that’s okay because building habits is a skill. It will take time, patience, repetition and practice. You’ll get better over time, as long as you keep practicing.

To help you mentally create that link between the two habits and speed up the process even more, you might need to use some habit building hacks like the ones below to make it happen.

7 Simple Hacks to Build Habits Faster

You’ll encounter many obstacles when trying to start a new habit.

Sometimes you’ll forget to do it. Other times you’ll remember, but instantly skip it. And sometimes you’ll stop and think about it and argue with yourself for a long time – but you’ll still talk yourself out of it.

These habit building tips below can help you overcome that resistance and forgetfulness. Sometimes it’s just like rolling over a big speed bump or slogging through mud – if you just lean into it and keep gently nudging your way through, you’ll pick up momentum. It’ll get easier with practice.

So try some of these easy habit building tips:

  1. Use visual and audio cues (like sticky notes and alarms) to trigger the new habit
  2. Link habits together logically by location (e.g. in the same room), by time (e.g. same time of day) or by purpose (e.g. as part of an existing routine).
  3. Allow yourself to do just part of the new habit at first (e.g. only do your favorite exercise instead of the whole workout routine)
  4. Allow yourself to do a half-assed job sometimes (e.g. just floss one or two teeth)
  5. When you do think of your new habit, visualize yourself doing the habit chain effortlessly from start to finish (over and over)
  6. Focus on the outcome, rewards and benefits of locking in the new habit (maybe even write them down)
  7. Just count out loud from three (“3…2…1…GO!”) and then physically move into action immediately – one of my sons taught me that one =)

Habit Chains Don’t Have to Be Permanent

While many of your habit chains will develop into full-blown routines that you continue for life, some of your habit chains will only be temporary. You can intentionally break the chain and move the links around whenever you want.

Remember, the main reason you’re linking the new habit to an older habit is just to help you build momentum and create the new habit more easily. You can then unlink it later on and move it somewhere else in your day, perhaps by linking it to a different habit or putting it into another routine.

I actually did that a lot this past year.

Habit Chain Example

We have this Roomba robot vacuum that cleans your floor by itself. You just clean out the filter, charge it and push the button to start it up.

I wanted to make it a habit to run the Roomba in my home office every day.

At first I tried linking that habit to some other housecleaning habits like washing dishes, cleaning the countertops and taking out the trash. I wanted to create a daily housecleaning routine.

But I failed miserably at that.

I mean, I did the Roomba some days. But I usually skipped it because I was just lazy and tended to procrastinate on the other habits that preceded it.

So I unlinked that new habit from the cleaning routine and instead tried using the Roomba whenever I was working at my desk.

The difference was like night and day. Soon, I was vacuuming my home office almost daily before moving my desk back out to the living room last week (long story for another day).

But the point is that you should be flexible and intelligent about how you move those habits/links around in the chain – even to the point of removing them completely and linking them to some other habit chain.

Remember, building new daily habits is like a skill. It takes practice, time, repetition and persistence to get it right. Just focus on making progress instead of being perfect, and be patient with yourself.

With practice, you’ll get better and better at the new habits until they eventually lock in. Then you’ll do them on autopilot, without even having to think about it. You’ll pick up momentum and flow through those habit chains almost effortlessly.