How to start (and maintain) a healthy habit

The idea is to force yourself to do something, but something that you are not emotionally invested in. This will build up willpower that you can then apply to the things you’re emotionally invested in.

Beyond age

This is the time of year when we focus on (natural) new beginnings, but you should also take the time to re-evaluate old commitments to see if you’re truly committed to them. This is one of the most useful lessons I learned from David Allen’s organizational classic Finish the job ($18, Amazon). Allen considers everything you have to do or want to do as an “open loop”. Open loops, no matter how small, take up space in our brains. It’s space that you can’t use for other things. So whenever you can close one of those loops, you get some energy back. As anyone who has done the exercises in Allen’s book can tell you, there’s actually something very powerful about freeing your mind from all those loops (not just by how to do them, but more importantly by making decisions about what to do with them).

This applies not only to the things you have to do, but also to the things you think you want to do. Maybe you think you should learn Spanish, but you haven’t done anything to actually learn Spanish. Acknowledging that you’re not really committed to the idea enough to do the work of learning Spanish can help close that loop. And letting go of the feeling that you should learn Spanish can be what frees your mind enough that you decide to get into sailing on a whim. The point is that the new year is not only a time to start something new, but also a time to let go of things in the past that no longer serve you.

In many ways, this is the antidote to that always-loved tagline, “just do it.” Just do it implies not thinking about it, not deciding if what you are about to do is something you really want to do or should do. Maybe don’t just do it. Maybe take the time to recall why you wanted to do it in the first place, and if those reasons no longer work for you, don’t do it.

If you like the idea, I highly recommend getting Allen’s book. It goes into more detail on this idea and has some practical means of letting go while keeping track of those things in case you decide, years from now, as you sail across the Sea of ​​Cortez, that now you really want to learn spanish and ready to work.


As one of my writing professors once said, to be a writer you have to sit still in your chair and actually write. To become a yogi, you must practice yoga. To run, you must run. There is no easy way around it. You have to put on adult pants and work.

However, on the other hand, as Clear pointed out early in atomic habit, the way to change who you are is to change what you do. “Every time you write a page, you are a writer. Every time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Every time you start training, you are an athlete.” Every time you do work, you become the person you want to be.

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