Create a New Habit by Breaking the Rules!

by Joseph Kwon in


"If you obey all the rules, you will miss all the fun."    -Katharine Hepburn

Rules. We all need them, but we naturally bristle against them. Even, or perhaps especially, against the rules we set for ourselves. And let's be honest, we take a certain joy from breaking rules. It's in our DNA.

So, instead of denying this part of ourselves, how about using it to our advantage? I recently discovered that breaking rules can be an aid in developing a new habit.

Everyone has a good habit that they want to adopt. Intellectually, we know it is good for us. But for some reason, we get stuck in a loop with bad habits that deliver short-term gratification, but are long-term losers. And the best we ever seem to be able to achieve are glorious, but short-lived stints with the good habit. It doesn't have to be that way.

For example, I recently set a goal for myself to meditate for 30 days straight so I could develop this as a habit instead of picking it up for a few days and then dropping it as I had in the past. BEFORE you stop reading, I promise I will not spend a single syllable on telling you how great meditation is and how it will improve the quality of your life. It just happened to be the habit I was trying to develop. In your mind, replace "meditate" with exercise, read, or even call your mother. 

And since so many people have a visceral, negative reaction to the word meditate, I will no longer use the word after this period. Instead, I will replace it with a word has a special history of being banned, but not contained - dance! Cue Footloose music.

I'm happy to report I succeeded in dancing at least once a day for 30 days. I did this, and so can you, by setting certain rules and then, strategically breaking them from time to time. So let's begin.

EZPZ rules for Habit Formation

Rule #1. Set an ideal time.

What would be the best time for you to dance? Morning or evening? When do you have the least distractions? When do you have the most free time, the most energy or the most focus? Now set the same time each day to dance and do it.

How to break it.

The time you set for yourself is the best time, but try to dance as early in the day as possible. From time to time, we all stumble upon some unplanned extra time. Instead of using it to watch HBO Now or Netflix (my own cross to bear), use it to get a jump start on keeping your commitment for the day. This makes it less likely that distractions and unplanned events will prevent you from completing your dance session at your designated time or before 24 hours runs out.

Rule #2. Be protective of your time and prioritize your own needs over other commitments.

Regardless of the intention, the people in our lives can often be a barrier to our successfully developing a new habit. You should plan for this and where possible, avoid a direct conflict by setting your times to dance when others are not seeking your time. And where that is not possible, you should stay committed to your time and be firm that you will be available as soon as possible, just not at that time.

How to break it.

Keeping your dance time too sacred, regardless of the varying needs of others is a sure-fire way to lose friends and have everyone rooting for you to fail. Where appropriate, be flexible and show that you value the time that others want from you and prioritize your friends and family. You can stop for a few minutes or even reschedule your dancing for later. This will earn you credit, and perhaps more importantly, support down the line.

Rule #3. Set your threshold for completion.

How many minutes or repetitions do you want to do in a day? What amount of time do you need to even make it worth it? Based on your level of mental or physical fitness, your schedule and your intuition, pick a number and stick to it. The key is to maintain a chain throughout 30 days while you are establishing your new habit.

How to break it.

The period when you are forming a new habit is like riding a bike uphill. As soon as you stop pedaling, you lose momentum and balance and cannot continue. Going faster makes things easier, but as long as you are pedaling, even just a bit, the bike keeps moving. That is why doing even 1/10 of your planned commitment on a busy day is better than nothing at all. We all have had an experience where one missed day spiraled into total loss of momentum and failure. So go ahead and do what you can and try for better the next day. Don't fall into the trap of "I shouldn't even bother unless I have a clear x minutes available."

Once your habit has been formed, it's like riding a bike downhill. It happens more easily, 10 minutes starts to feel like 5, and you activate autopilot so that missing a day doesn't jeopardize your commitment in the same way it might have in the beginning.

Rule #4. If you miss a day, restart the count.

The goal is to have a continuous string of 30 days where you do the desired activity at least once a day so a habit starts to form. If you are not counting, it's easy to lose track and skipping one day becomes 3 days or more. Having a continuous string of 30 days will help solidify your habit for the long term.

How to break it.

Give yourself a bye. Either by design or chance, when there is an extra slot in a playoff, the best team often gets a bye or a free pass to the next round. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that since you are trying to better yourself here, that's pretty amazing. So give yourself a bye and don't let one slip up send you back to the beginning or spiraling into the depths of self-pity. Just pretend like you succeeded and make sure you get back with the program the next day. Be as gracious with yourself as you would be with others. You deserve it.

Now that you have these EZPZ rules and helpful ways to break them, go forth and in the immortal words of Kenny Loggins, "Cut loose, Footloose!"