Getting Started

How to build the habits that build success

One of the hardest things about making the transition from employee to business owner is staying productive. Nobody is looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re on task. It’s entirely up to you to get everything done.

That’s why successful entrepreneurs have two things most wantrepreneurs miss:

  1. A system for building your business
  2. A set of habits to ensure that you effectively follow that system, day in and day out

Zero to Launch solved the first part for me. To solve the second, I had to learn how habits work, what makes us follow them, and how they can be changed.

By improving my work habits, I doubled the amount of writing I got done while cutting my work hours from 40 to 30 a week. And my results skyrocketed. I grew my email list from fewer than a hundred to nearly 3000 subscribers in 15 months.

Growth in email subscribers
My email subscriber growth in 15 months.

Once you understand how to change a habit and make it stick, you can become more productive. You’ll have more hours in the day to build your business. But first, you have to know where to start.

The hidden power of keystone habits

Believe it or not, a handful of habits are more important than any other. It’s because they influence everything else you do. Take food for example. Once you eat a healthier lunch, you may find yourself with more energy. That could mean more productive afternoons, no more missed workout sessions, and the drive to work on your side business in the evening.

This is called a keystone habit: A small change that produces a ripple effect and automatically improves other things you do. The best way to identify your keystone habits is with the classic Five Whys Technique.

Here’s how this looks in practice:

Problem: You should be working on your side business in the evenings after you get home from your 9-5 job, but you keep flopping onto the couch and watching TV.

  1. Why? You’re too tired to do even more work at the end of the day.
  2. Why? You’re crashing from all the caffeine you drink around 2-3 PM.
  3. Why do you consume so much caffeine in the afternoon? Your energy starts to crash around that time, so you drink coffee to counteract it.
  4. Why does your energy crash in the afternoon? Probably because your go-to lunch is two slices of pizza and a Coke.
  5. Why do you always eat pizza for lunch? The pizza place is inside your office building, while the nearest place with healthy food is a couple blocks away. It’s about convenience.

Boom. Now you have a good idea of why you’re too tired to work in the evenings: You’re eating an unhealthy lunch, so your body isn’t properly fuelled.

We also know what’s driving that behavior: convenience. Maybe you need to grab a salad on the way into work and keep it in the office fridge. That way, eating healthy is more convenient than going to the pizza place.

Here’s how you use this:

  • Perform the Five Whys technique for 10-20 different habits you’d like to change, and write down the answers you get
  • Anything that comes up as the root cause of more than one thing is a keystone habit. That’s where you should focus your efforts for maximum impact.

Once you understand how habits work, changing them becomes easy

One of my favorite books of all time is The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. According to Charles, habits consist of four components.

The first is the cue. This is the signal that causes you to engage in the habit. For instance, your alarm alerts you it’s time to get out of bed. Or a calendar popup can prompt you to start writing. These are all examples of cues. Things that make you take action.

Next, comes the routine — the actual behavior you perform. This is what most people think of as the habit, but it’s really one component. When you get out of bed in response to your alarm, getting out of bed is the routine. When you write an article in response to your calendar notification, the writing is the routine.

After the routine, we have a reward — something you find enjoyable. When you wake up, the reward could be turning off the alarm, showering, or eating breakfast. The reward for writing a blog post might be seeing it published on your site. Note that the reward can be something tangible, like food. Or something intangible, like entertainment or a sense of accomplishment.

Finally, cravings determine why the reward is worth it for you. You might like showering because it feels pleasurable or because you feel good about starting your day. You might like seeing a blog post published because it gives you a sense of accomplishment, or because you enjoy the congratulations from friends when they see it.

When you understand what craving is behind the rewards you seek, you’ll also figure out which rewards you can use to motivate yourself.

Here’s what everything looks like full circle:

The Habit Loop
Understand your cravings, and you’ll know which rewards can satisfy them.

Before you try to change a habit, it pays to understand what craving is driving that habit. The way to do this is to experiment with different rewards or take note of which things seem to satisfy your craving.

For instance, suppose you find yourself getting distracted by checking Facebook when you’re trying to write your blog articles.

If this happens, it’s because you crave entertainment. A possible reward could be guilt-free entertainment after you’ve finished writing.

Or if you spend a lot of time thinking about going out with your friends, the craving is social interaction. A reward in this case could be happy hour after you’ve finished your work.

Once you’ve figured out which habit you want to change, and identified its four components, you can formulate a strategy to change that habit. Let me show you how.

5 techniques to change any habit

Now that you understand how habits work and which ones you should focus on, you’re ready to start changing them.

Focus on one thing at a time. It takes a week or two to change a habit. But if you spread yourself too thin, you’ll spend months working on changes that’ll never stick.

In over 2 years of fitness coaching, I’ve found 5 techniques to be incredibly effective in putting behaviors on autopilot. All it takes is 1-2 weeks to create, eliminate, or change a habit.

(I’ve also created a 2-page habit change cheat sheet you can use. Click here to download it for free.)

Technique #1: Prevent the cue

The simplest way to stop yourself from engaging in a habit is to prevent the cue from ever happening.

Here’s an example of how this works:

Bad habit: Your phone rings and distracts you while trying to work.

Solution: Prevent the cue by putting your phone in airplane mode or disabling notifications for the specific app that keeps distracting you.

Tinder notifications - not a good habit for success
Not something I should be doing during work hours.


Technique #2: Aversion therapy

Aversion therapy makes the habit less rewarding by linking it with something unpleasant. The classic example is snapping a rubber band against your wrist (hard enough to hurt) every time you do a habit you want to eliminate.

Use Pavlok for some high-tech aversion therapy
Pavlok: A high-tech way to “snap the rubber band” against your wrist.

Here’s an example of aversion therapy in action:

Bad habit: You browse “fun” websites too much when you should be working.

Solution: Listen to annoying music while reading Facebook, Reddit, or whatever website you tend to get distracted by. If you want to take a more high-tech approach, you could shock yourself with Pavlok.

Technique #3: Disable the routine

If aversion therapy isn’t your thing, an alternative solution for ending bad habits is to make it impossible for you to engage in the routine.

Here’s how this looks:

Bad habit: You keep getting distracted from your work by surfing websites like Facebook, Reddit, YouPorn (no judgment), etc.

Solution: Use an app like RescueTime, Cold Turkey, or Self Control to block the offending sites during work hours.

RescueTime is the reason I’m writing this article and not “liking” somebody’s cat photo.
RescueTime is the reason I’m writing this article and not “liking” somebody’s cat photo.

Technique #4: Routine substitution

This is my favorite option. It gives you two habit changes for the price of one. By replacing an existing routine with a new one, you can eliminate a bad habit while also building a good one.

With routine substitution, only the routine has to change — the cue and craving remain the same, while the reward may or may not change. This technique combines well with aversion therapy and disabling the routine, as both of those techniques weaken the existing routine while leaving the cue, reward and craving in place.

Here’s an example of routine substitution in action:

Productivity: Whenever you start to feel mentally fatigued at work, you start browsing websites for entertainment. Instead, you could read a business article when you feel fatigued, giving yourself a short mental break while also furthering your education in online business. Notice how this combines perfectly with the example given for number 3. You’re substituting something entertaining and helpful instead of going for pure leisure.

Technique #5: The piggybacking technique for creating new habits

Finally, you can create a new habit from scratch. However, most people take the wrong approach and never see any results.

The wrong way is to create a whole new cue for your new habit. For instance, if you want to start working while standing up, you could set a 30-minute timer every time you sit down, with the intent being to stand up every time the timer goes off.

The problem here is that you have to make setting the timer a habit of its own. This creates a recursive problem where you have to build a whole chain of habits to help you follow other habits.

Instead, the cue should be something that already happens with no effort on your part. It should also be something that gives you some momentum toward starting the routine.

For example:

Desired habit: You want to build relationships with bloggers in your niche, and get more guest posts.

Solution: Every time you log into the email account you use for your online business (cue), send an email to a fellow blogger in your niche. It can be a guest post pitch, a response to one of their emails, sharing one of your articles with them, or even just writing to tell them how much you appreciate their work.

You can change a habit and improve your life this week

As Aristotle so famously put it, we are what we do repeatedly. That means that by changing your habits, you can change who you are, and become the person you want to be.

Want to lose weight and fit into your favorite dress again? Be more productive so you can work on your side business and still have a social life? Build stronger relationships with your friends, family, and professional contacts? You can do all of that by changing your habits, one at a time.

That’s enough theory. Here’s a challenge for you:

Identify the number one habit you want to change. It can be a habit related to productivity, or something else entirely. If you’re not sure which technique to use, consult the flowchart in the habit change cheat sheet.

For the next two weeks, commit yourself to focusing on that one habit and working on it every day.

Leave a comment below and let me know which habit you’re going to change, why you chose it, and how you plan to change it.

There Are 3 Comments

Join The Conversation

“Bad habit: You browse “fun” websites too much when you should be working.”

This one right here haha. So true. I sometimes even open fun sites for no reason … I just do it. For some reason, I get distracted while writing on my next blog posts and it is still a mystery to me.

But glad I am not the only one, as this article talks to all of us :) Was enjoyable to read, John!

Yeah the distraction can be a killer for me. One thing that helps a lot is the pomodoro technique- focus for 20-30 minutes, then take a 5-10 minute break to goof off. That way your breaks in focus are planned, and at the same time you have a clear commitment as to how long you’ll maintain focus when you’re working.

Eridon Elshani

These are true words. When I am focused and working business in my phone or computer, if I see a great luxury car , or a funny video on instagram, I lose my seriousity, and this isn’t good, because time flies. Also I wanna break the habbit of staying up in late nights and waking up hardly. So here I have 2 big bad habbits to break. Thank you John!

Leave a Comment