Amos Yee

How to Form Good Habits, Break Bad Habits, and Do Anything You Want

I mentioned before that meditation is the most important skill you can learn. The ability to form good habits though might be the second most important skill in life to learn. Why? Because if you want to do something but then can't do it, you're fucked. You'll want to exercise or eat less or start meditating or want to learn something. But you procrastinate, you lack motivation. Maybe you manage to do what yo uwant for a few days and then fuck, suddenly you don't have the willpower to continue. What is happening? Why am I so lazy?

Anything you want to do is less done through habits, which is defined as an action you do repeatedly. And really, anything meaningful is achieved not through a single action, but the repeated work you do every day to cultivate skills and complete projects. To quote the Aristotle saying used in over a hundred self-help books, "excellence is not an act, but a habit".

There's been hundreds, thousands of books and blogs on how to form habits. Showing that just like anything meaningful in life: habit-development is hard. And no one book can solve everyone's problems because everyone is different. So what I hope to accomplish in being the 10201st writer on habits, is to emphasise the habit-building principles that seem to work for everyone, as well as include unique ideas in the process that have worked for me. Definitely not the definitive just-read-this-one-post-and-everyone's-problems-will-be-solved blog post. But really, no single piece of writing can ever be that (though the closest book on habit-forming to being definitive is James Clear's "Atomic Habits", which you should definitely read).

Let's begin!

Know Your Minimum

The most important principle to forming habits is to "Know Your Minimum", meaning knowing the amount you are fully confident in doing almost every day. So say you want to exercise more, maybe you know you definitely have the motivation and time to do 12 sets of resistance training every 2 days, or walk for 20 minutes every day. Or say you want to eat healthier, you can definitely reduce the amount you eat by one quarter, and instead of 3 candy bars you eat daily you can drop it to 2.

If you just started a habit, it's said to take about 5–30 days before your minimum increases (like from doing 3 sets of push-ups a day, after a week you'll feel ready to increase it to 6). From my experience, your minimum also increases or decreases depending on how much activity you have in your life. For example, if you were running 30 minutes every day while having a busy work schedule, if suddenly you have a holiday when you don't work at all, you might feel comfortable running maybe 2 hours a day. Or if your work schedule suddenly becomes even busier, your 30 minutes of running might drop to 20 minutes.

It's very useful to know the minimum you can consistently do on a typical day. You can feel challenged, but should never feel overwhelmed by the amount you're doing. Most people can't do a full-time athlete's routine of exercising 4–6 hours a day, 5–6 times a week. Maybe at first you watched a ton of motivational videos on getting big, and in a burst of passion for 5 days, you really do workout 4 hours a day. But after that your motivation drops dramatically, and you can't get yourself to work out for one hour, or even get up to work out at all. You beat yourself up, you think how much of a lazy bum you are. You can't just get yourself to make the right decisions and improve your life you are such a failure!

But really, you're not expected to exercise 4 hours, or even 2 hours a day as a regular person. So just reduce the amount you do to one you're confident you can hit consistently.

You should guard your minimum like it's gold. Say you hit your minimum of 20 sets of weightlifting and random Bob says come on do this so-and-so exercise that doesn't even target the body part you want to build. You should tell random Bob to fuck off, because if you've read my post on productivity debt, any work you do past your minimum will affect the next day's minimum (if say your minimum is 20 sets but you do 24, next day you might only be comfortable doing 16). So if your priority is meeting your exercise goals, stick to your minimum. (Though of course it's your choice if some days you want to do spots leisurely with your friends and skip a workout. Don't want to be too much of an overworking Oliver y'know?) If you're peer-pressured to do more exercises that don't make you better and it makes you do less exercise tomorrow, fuck that.

Your minimum should also be bullshit-resistant. As in whatever petty reasons you have for missing your habit: oh it's cold outside, oh I don't feel as motivated today, oh I have a small headache, fuck all that. You can definitely hit your minimum for the day, so no excuses. And really, the most successful, mentally resilient people are the ones able to perform excellently under imperfect conditions. Whether it be LeBron James reaching the NBA finals with terrible supporting players, Tiger Woods winning the US Open with a torn fibula, professional singers still able to sing on tempo when the instrumental suddenly goes off, Josh Waitzkin able to win the Tai Chi Chuan World Championships with sudden rule changes and unfair referees. Inconveniences and distractions will inevitable pop up in life, if you let them affect you to the point that you skip your habits, you're unlikely to put in the amount of work to achieve excellence. So no excuses. Your mother could have just died, your girlfriend could have been raped, you're still doing those push-ups (actually, actually, maybe if that happens it's fine to take a day or so off).

Do So Little you can't fail

If you're just starting out struggling to find the motivation to do something, know that even doing a very, very small amount daily will eventually balloon into a huge work.

For example, there was a time where for 3 whole years, I didn't exercise at all. Eventually I just wanted to stop sucking at life and realised: exercise is universally considered good, even to unhealthy fat people. There's no excuse not to exercise. But after not moving much for 3 years, even just walking for 5 minutes made me feel winded.

So how did I find the motivation? I told myself that I just have to do 1 push-up a day. There's no way in hell you can't do just 1 push-up a day right (actually, some people really can't physically perform 1 push-up, so just do an easier variation like do the push-up kneeling or something).

This 1 push-up a day sounds insignificant. If that's all you do why even exercise? But after a few days of doing 1 push-up, I felt comfortable enough to increase it to 2 push-ups a day. And after a few more days, I increased it to 3. And another week later, 6. Fuck me!

And then after just one month, I felt comfortable doing a strength routine for 15–20 minutes every day. Then I got a bike, started riding just 10 minutes per day, which I soon increased to 40 minutes every 2 days. And in 6 months I was able to bike a marathon in 4 hours. (Actually, I didn't really bike a marathon, but I did track my distance and it was definitely marathon-length.)

The Principle of doing so little that you can't fail works for any kind of habit. Wanna start reading? Start with 1 page a day. Wanna learn programming? Study for 5–10 minutes just before dinner. Want to meditate and your instructor told you you can't gain the full benefits of meditation without doing at least 20 minutes a day? Start with just 30 seconds a day and tell your instructor to go fuck himself (don't actually tell your instructor to go fuck himself).

And if you want to break bad habits, it's the same concept. If you want to eat less food, just cut down a few spoonfuls from what you normally eat. Wanna smoke less? Instead of 12 cigarettes a day, smoke 10. Wanna stop irrationally insulting people you disagree with? Instead of insulting them for 10 minutes, cut it down to 8.

And if you do the smallest possible amount: like 5 seconds of meditation a day, and you still don't feel motivated to do the habit, then just don't do it. That's your gut telling you that if you can't even take the smallest steps, the habit isn't right for you. A lot of times you just need to change the technique related to the habit. Like if you can't do 30 seconds of walking a day, walking isn't meant for you, so try a different exercise like sports or weight lifting. Can't do mindfulness of breath meditation for even a minute? Try a different meditation technique like chanting mantras or mindfulness of body.

Other times, like say you can't spend 1 minute to draw, or you can't read 1 page of philosophy. You might just want to abandon the habit completely. It's God telling you drawing or philosophy isn't right for you, at least at that moment of your life. Who told you to read philosophy anyways? Philosophy sucks!

Be Gradual

When you build or drop habits, you want to be gradual or take small, incremental steps instead of one big dramatic move. Like instead of being vegan immediately, you should just cut out eating animals with 4 legs first.

People are tempted to be vegan immediately, or bike until they are blue in the face, because they're eager to reach their goals quick. But in the long-term that's just not good for motivation. People are far more likely to stick to something if there's positive reinforcement, as in the bubbly feelings you get when you hit a daily goal (remember little gold star stickers you got as a kid for getting an answer right?). That's far more effective than negative reinforcement, caused by not setting realistic daily goals and therefore never feeling rewarded for accomplishing something daily and being constantly reminded that you're not good enough. Constantly pushing yourself to do more than your minimum and beating yourself up for not doing as much the next day. Not only will you likely just get sick of the habit and stop doing it, you'll also start developing mental issues.

But of course, there are exceptions to this rule. They say you can develop habits in 2 ways: either gradually, or if something life-changing happens to you. Like say you are suddenly diagnosed with diabetes. Instead of being gradual, you could be inspired to eat healthy right away. Or if you're an alcoholic and your friend dies of alcohol poisoning, you'd quit drinking immediately. Or say you're a serial rapist, you can't just instead of raping 10 people a year, you drop it down to 8. You have to stop raping now! But of course these life-changing moments rarely happen, so for a constant source of motivation, being gradual is key.

So don't try to replicate that 3 hour impulsive workout you did after your friend insulted you for being skinny. You were successful at being vegan for 2 days, but what about 2 years? You'd probably anxiously devour some fried chicken on the 5th day. So just chill and take it slow.

Habit-building as an art

Now there are 100s of other techniques to make habit-forming easier. Like logging your habits, setting weekly monthly yearly goals, visualising your outcome, doing an unfamiliar habit right after a habit that's already natural to you. All these techniques I've found useful, though they aren't absolutely necessary. (Of course if you want, feel free to try them out. Once again the recommended habit-building book that mentions these techniques (and more) is James Clear's Atomic Habits (and James Clear's blog and the blog Zen Habits are pretty good too.))

What is something you should definitely do is incorporate the 80/20 principle. This principle claims that for anything, doing 20% of the most important skills yields 80% of the result. Essentially it means that for any habit, you should identify and prioritise practicing certain skills to more quickly and efficiently meet your goals. Like knowing that if you want to build muscle, you should do sets to failure instead of a count. In chess especially as a beginner, you should focus on tactics instead of memorising openings. In language learning, you should learn the most common words that apply to your life (why memorise the Spanish word for nephew when you don't have a nephew?). How to fully utilise the 80/20 principle might be a blog post for another day (though I do recommend googling "80/20 principle" you'll yield plenty of results. People who have read a lot of self-help books are probably sick of that phrase).

In your habit-developing quest, you might add techniques and break rules. Some might build only 1 habit at a time, some might try 3 small habits. You might do 1 big session a day, or 2 small sessions. You may want to work every other day, or every day except the weekends. Basically, just experiment with whatever variation you want and see what fits.

Habit-building really is an art. The steps you take might be very different from other people because your decisions are on expression of your unique personality and preferences. You might say habit-building is difficult. But break what seems difficult down to manageable, easy steps, and what's difficult becomes easy.


And that's it. No more will you experiencethe emotional rollercoaster of working hard one day and then lamenting you lack of motivation the next. No more pontificating about your lack of willpower and feeling guilty about wasting your potential. You will simply know what you have to do, do it, and that's it. How rare is it to meet someone who says he's going to do something, and then actually does it. And all of you can be that person. You will do what it takes to achieve your dreams, fulfill your destiny, and unlock your fullest potential.