Habit Ramp Up

December 17, 2012

A new habit starts with a spark, an initial burst of excitement and hope.

Internally, you may visualize yourself in a state where you are already doing your new habit. This good feeling (and dopamine spike) are enough to get you pumped up and ready to make a change.

You are really excited by the prospect of building your own iOS app and getting it into the App Store. To reach this goal, you want to start a new habit of spending an hour each night learning iOS development and building sample apps.

The New Year rolls around and it’s time to kick off your new plan!

You boot up the Mac Mini you got for Christmas and are ready to get started on your journey into the world of iOS development.

Except there’s a problem. You don’t have Xcode installed and it’s a 3GB download (estimated time remaining: 4 hours).

While you wait on that, you decide you should probably find an introductory book. You spend the remaining 15 minutes of Hour One reading Amazon reviews and picking out a book.

The next two days you make very little progress as you wait for your book to be delivered and the Stanford video lectures to download (as you waffle over whether to use the Spring or Fall semester version).

Some friends invite you over the next night and — since you are still just getting your development environment setup — you take them up on their offer. You can always start tomorrow.

You suddenly look up and it’s January 8. You still haven’t written a line of code or cracked open your book. You’ve got 12 GB of unwatched video lectures sitting in a playlist.

Frustrated and disheartened, you abandon your new habit just a week after starting.

Most people try to harness this initial enthusiasm and use it during the first few days of trying to build a habit. But, in my experience, it is much more effective to use that initial spike to clear the obstacles in your way instead.

It is certainly not as glamorous as diving straight into a new habit, but taking time to set yourself up for success can mean the difference between a habit sticking or not.

When I set a “start date” for a new habit, I actually start 3 or 4 days early. This gives me time to work out any kinks in my plan1 and get into a rhythm.

I call this the Habit Ramp Up period.

By ramping up a habit before you “officially” start, you increase your chances of sticking with it.

It may sound obvious or simple, but I can attest firsthand that it really helps. Doing the dull busy work upfront — when your enthusiasm is highest — will remove the friction for completing your new habit the first few times.

As Merlin Mann puts it, the idea is to make the right thing the easy thing.

If you want to start a new workout routine, make sure that — before the first day you plan to start — you are already signed up for a gym membership. Figure out your first week’s routine. Program the route into your phone’s GPS. Pack your workout clothes and put them in your car. Set a reminder for when you need to leave work.

Plan out what you are going to eat dinner and what time you expect to arrive home. Make sure your car has gas. Hell, make sure the gym is even open (you never know with holiday hours)!

I think the New Year is a good external motivator to start a new habit, but the key to success is to spend the last week of December warming up. Consider trying out this technique if you are planning any resolutions for the coming year, and let me know how it works for you.

into full-blown analysis paralysis. This is one of the reasons why I start my ramp up just a few days in advance. There is still a hard deadline to start and the fixed time block helps keep me from spending too much time trying to find the perfect shoes.

  1. There is one issue that I’ve found with this approach. It is easy to shift from clearing obstacles 

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