7 Steps to Build Habits of Steel and Beat Procrastination

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It was 5:49 AM on Superbowl Sunday. Sunrise at the Sandpearl Resort in Clearwater Beach, where I was staying with friends, was 7:18 AM. I had just under ninety minutes to finish this article so that I could coordinate my daily meditation with morning’s first light.

Connecting a positive action, like meditation, with a daily trigger, such as the sunrise, is one way to create new habits. Rules, habits, and rituals can help you kick procrastination to the curb, overcome late-night junk food binges, and change your life. I know. These tricks have worked for me. In the past two years I’ve taken up good habits, such as meditating at least 5 minutes per day for over 750 days in a row, and I’ve quit bad habits like swearing in just six days. Today you’ll discover seven simple steps to building unbreakable habits so that you can overcome obstacles in your life.

“Human behavior is 93 percent predictable”, according to an article published in the journal Science. Researchers from Northeastern University found that, “despite the common perception that our actions are random and unpredictable, human mobility follows surprisingly regular patterns.” Simply put, we act out of habit.

Habits, both good and bad, are difficult to change. They are routine behaviors deeply ingrained in your nervous system. Habits are part of the electrical system connecting your mind with the rest of your body. Every time you default to a bad habit, like biting your nails, you make the wiring stronger, and the habit harder to break.

On that Superbowl Sunday morning, I was getting a late start on writing, not because I slept in, but because I foolishly interrupted my morning routine and let my good habits slide.

When I follow my good habits, I have perfect days because I win my mornings. The most important step I must take each day is to get up early and start working on my most difficult writing assignment on my to-do list. Alas, on Superbowl Sunday, I chose to fumble around with easier tasks first. I almost turned over my day, until I used a trigger to get back on track.

A day earlier I had the perfect start. Everything went according to plan. I woke up and went straight to work. I opened my laptop, avoided the Internet, and wrote an article on overcoming email addiction. In under ninety minutes, by 5:25am, I had finished a two thousand-word essay well before the sun was ready to rise over the beach.

It’s simple to succeed when you have the right habits supporting the right routine. It’s just not easy. But if you want to make the most of your life, you need to set up your life to rely less on willpower and more on habits.

“Only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action,” wrote the philosopher William James, “The more of the details of our life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own work. There is no more miserable human being than the one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.”

Habit is power. Power is productivity. Productivity is how you beat procrastination, win your mornings, control your time, and have a Perfect Day. Habits are the secret to getting ahead in life and achieving your big goals and dreams. Here’s what you need to do.

Step #1 – Figure Out What Matters…and Focus On It

What’s more important to your legacy, checking CNN headline news, ESPN sports scores, or writing your first book, securing your dream job, or providing for your family? The answer is obvious. For me, finishing my first book is the most important work-related task in my life right now.

Our number one priority in life demands maximum effort in our magic time. It requires us to do the first things first. Choose to use your time wisely. Figure out what really matters to you and then use the rest of the steps to build habits that allow you to focus your time on it.

Step #2 – Identify Steps to Success and Rules for Your Life

In 1726, after a frustrating first visit to London, England, a 20-year old Ben Franklin returned to America. His voyage left him at sea for months, giving him plenty of time to reflect on his experiences. Young Ben had grown weary of the inconsistencies in his life and he was not pleased with his habits. He was ready to enter a new phase of life when he returned to Philadelphia, and decided it would be most fitting if he had some rules for his life. He called these his ‘Four Virtues’ and they became his action plan to live a more organized, efficient, and successful life.

1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe.

2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action – the most amicable excellence in a rational being.

3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of growing suddenly rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty. 

4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of every body.

Not only did he stick to these habits for the rest of his life, but he was quite proud that – given his young age – he had the wisdom to communicate them so well. Fifty years later he looked back in reflection and said, “It is the more remarkable, as being formed when I was so young, and yet being pretty faithfully adhered to quite through to old age.”

Both Ben and I agree that creating rules for your life (you can read mine here) will guide you to a life of success and wisdom. Though no one will ever be perfect at keeping to their rules, you will be better for trying, and you will have stronger habits allowing to avoid the disappointment, guilt, and regret of wasted days.

You will have more Perfect Days because you will get more done and make more progress towards your goals. With your ‘rules written in stone’, your habits aligned with your dreams, and your steps to success laid out, you have a much better chance of getting the first things done first.

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Step #3 – Create a Checklist for New Habits

Rules guide your life and help you identify the habits you will need to succeed. But each habit needs to be broken down into action items for you to get started. Take for example my meditation checklist:

  • Time the habit with sunrise
  • Do a quick brain dump of ideas to clear my head
  • Set a pillow on the floor to sit upon for proper positioning
  • Turn off the lights in the room (slowly make way to pillow without stubbing toes!)
  • Sit on the pillow, cross-legged, and breathe slowly and deeply from my belly
  • Focus on my breathing to help clear my mind
  • Continue until I feel a sense of calm come over me

It was tough at first. Meditation is simple, but not easy. But thanks to practice and perseverance, trial and error, and making the path easier each day, I have built a lifelong positive habit. When you are starting a new habit, create a checklist to walk you through it, just as you strictly follow a recipe the first time you use it.

Step #4 – Prepare the Night Before

If I wake up and am unsure of what to write, I’m in trouble. Without a plan, the morning might be lost, all because I did not prepare the night before. I need to know exactly what word document to open and where to start writing when I wake-up. If I don’t, I’m like everyone else – weakened without rules and rituals on my side. Bad habits, the wrong routines, and obsessive-compulsive loops take control, wasting my energy and sucking important minutes out of my life. Winning habits begin with proper planning.

Prepare your checklist. Lay out an easy-to-follow pathway for success. Set out any tools you will need to do the first things first.

Step #5 – Remove All Obstacles

Removing obstacles, temptations, and bad habits is one of the most important changes you can make in life. Eliminating the negatives is often more important for success than relying on willpower for the creation of new habits. When you remove temptations from your day, it becomes much easier to make and stick to the right decisions.

No matter what your number one priority in the morning, whether it is writing, Bible study, or exercise, make sure that you are prepared so that nothing else gets in your way. You must remove temptations that allow procrastination. Make sure that your Bible is opened to the correct page and sitting at your desk, rather than a newspaper or laptop with access to the Internet. Do whatever you can to eliminate obstacles and overcome excuses. When you are starting a new habit, you might find it difficult to overcome the many obstacles and easy procrastination opportunities. If so, take time to come up with at least two solutions for overcoming each.

If you don’t want a bad habit, don’t feed it. Suffocate it by replacing it with a good habit. Celebrate each small victory the longer you can resist a bad habit and each time you practice a good habit. Build upon right decisions and right actions. Know what you want to achieve, and do the right things.

Step #6 – Take Massive Action

We can control what time we wake up, what habits we start the day with, what temptations enter – and are eliminated – from our lives, and what systems we have in place for dealing with all of these. We can believe in ourselves or we can have doubt. It’s your choice. We can take more control over our schedule and energy than you might believe right now. Most importantly, we can control our day by winning our morning.

It might not be easy at first. I’m squirming as I right this. My butt is getting numb from sitting in this chair. My monkey-brain wants to check the Internet and sales stats for Early to Rise. A small part of my mind is pushing to quit and switch over to an early meditation session. My legs want to go to the gym. My throat needs some water, but my bottle is empty and the fridge is across the room. Thank goodness the wiring from my brain to my fingers has been strengthened through years of habit and are cranking out the remaining words for this article. I need all the help I can get right now.

“To live a life of virtue, match up your thoughts, words, and deeds,” said the Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. Practice what you preach, take action on what you teach. Oh, and a little incentive never hurts. Give yourself a reward for taking action and following through. We repeat what we reward. It can be as simple as enjoying the beauty of a sunrise as you meditate. Find what you need to trigger your new habit.

Step #7 – Learn & Improve

Few days will be easy. Even yesterday, when I rattled off eight pages on how to overcome email addiction, there were still moments when I wanted to quit. Most days will require you to fight tooth-and-nail to stick to your habits and achieve your goals. On those days, take the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and struggles. They will make you stronger.

I have squirmed enough for one morning. This essay is ready to ship to my editor. It still needs improvement, but I have met my quota for the day. It’s 6:14 AM and it looks like I will get an early start to meditation.

As an early riser, I must control my mornings to win my day. Today is another victory. It wasn’t pretty, but the Patriots Superbowl win wasn’t either. What matters is that I found a way to concentrate on what counts and to work towards my number one goal in life.

That’s the power of routine, the importance of habit. Each day that we make the right decisions and take the right actions will make it a little easier to repeat in the future. When you follow those 7 steps, you’ll find a way to build the right habits in all areas of your life. With your Rules in place, you will win your mornings and own your days, but stray from your good habits at your own risk, for those are the mornings that will be lost and struggles will set in.

“When you know you’ve done the best you can under the circumstances, you can have a light heart,” said Epictetus, “You don’t have to make excuses, defend yourself, or feel guilty. You can simply move on to the next thing. It’s so simple: If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you start something, finish it.”

Though I did not officially play in the ‘big game’ on Superbowl Sunday, I won the day in my mind. I lived the hard way through habits and discipline, and because of that I have won my freedom. Tomorrow there will be another battle to fight against living the easy way, but victory will be easier because I have stuck to my rules. This system worked for Ben Franklin, it works for me, let’s make it work for you, too.

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  • scotirish

    Good Day, I am 70 years old. You know already I have read this advice many a times over my life span. Today, seemed to be a day I was listening more than usual. Probably because I am in a transitioning state of mind and could use some direction now.. These past few months have been a cleansing of bad habits, smoking (quit 8 months ago) alcohol (3 months ago) toxic people (8 months ago) Facebook (1 day ago). Your article was timely and most helpful in organizing my thoughts on what should be first things first. Except for getting the taxes done I am under no pressure to accomplish anything specific. But the things I’ve chosen would make me feel more productive and thats what I am looking for. Thank you

    • Great to hear from you, thank you!

  • Gabriel Costa

    According to psychologist Linda Sapadin’s book (“It’s About Time!: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them”), there are 6 different kinds of procrastinators.

    Knowing which applies to you may help tackle the problem. Hope it helps!