The idea this week: developing skills and habits takes time, effort, and using the right techniques.

At the start of a new year, we often reflect on how to improve and develop better habits. People often want to exercise more or become better at self-study. I, for one, wanted to consistently get to work earlier.

But actually making progress requires more than just wanting it — it takes a systematic approach. Doing this is a key part succeeding at your current job, improving your career trajectory, and even just being more fulfilled generally. (Read more in our article on all the evidence-based advice we found on how to be more successful in any job.)

You want to take something that’s a problem in your life and find a solution that becomes second nature.

For example, for some people, getting to work at an early hour is just part of their normal routine — they barely have to think about it. But if that’s not the case for you – like it wasn’t for me – you’ll need to make a conscious change, and work on it until it becomes second nature.

But lots of things block us from forming these new habits and skills.

The key is closing the loop — get feedback about your problem, analyse why you haven’t adopted the habit yet, make a change, test it out, and repeat:

  1. Feedback – track your progress and your errors, or get coaching.
  2. Debug – reflect on what has gone wrong and why (perhaps via journaling).
  3. Design – create a plan to improve, like changing your environment or using “trigger-action” habits.
  4. Test – try out the changes and see if they work.
  5. Repeat the loop – both at the object level (e.g. getting to work on time) and the meta level (improving your habit formation system).

habit formation loop

For example, if you want to develop the habit of exercising more, first track how often you currently exercise. Notice that you skip workouts frequently. Dig into the reasons why — maybe you’re too tired after work. So try shifting your workout to the morning. See if that sticks for a few weeks. If not, try something else you think might work, like exercising with a friend.

If that doesn’t work, keep debugging why exactly it doesn’t work, and trying new things that might help. For habits that I really want to form, I often debug for 5-25 minutes before picking a new test to try. If you keep this up, you will hopefully either develop the habit, or you’ll decide it’s not worth the effort to build the habit (which is also an acceptable outcome!).

To make habits stick, use “trigger-action” plans. Use habits you already have as triggers, like adding stretches to your routine right after brushing your teeth. Build chains and sequences of habits. Use supporting habits to reinforce others, like planning each morning to support getting to work on time.

Developing skills and habits takes patience, effort, and the right techniques. But with a systematic approach and deliberate practice, you can make steady progress. Over time, you’ll be surprised how far you can go.

For more practical tips, you can read our article on how to build useful skills and traits for your career and how to be more successful in your current job.

If you want to watch a video with similar advice about building good habits, we suggest this one from Kurzgesagt.

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