Have you ever wondered why some habits stick and others don’t?
If you have ever failed to make a new habit last, it was not because you lack discipline or because of something related to your genetics. Instead, it was probably because you underestimated the complexity of the routine that you wanted to adopt.
In this article, you will learn about something that I refer to as a pre-habit. You will learn what it is and how it can serve as a catalyst or as an obstacle for making a new habit stick.
A Quick Story
It was 6:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, and it was still pitch-black outside. My phone said it was 22 degrees with a wind chill of only 14 degrees.
I opened the door to exit the first floor of my apartment complex and was immediately blasted with a huge gust of wind.
My car was parked one block away. I started walking quickly in order to get to my car and out of the cold as fast as possible.
When I got to my car, I saw that ice had formed overnight on all the windows. I was going to have to scrape it off before being able to drive to the gym for my morning workout.
I turned on my car, grabbed my ice scraper out of the trunk, and starting picking ice off the windows. As I worked, I reflected on everything that needed to occur that morning for my workout to happen. Each of the following eight steps was necessary before I could exercise that morning:
- Get enough sleep the night before
- Get out of bed when alarm goes off
- Take care of personal hygiene (wash face, brush teeth, use bathroom)
- Select workout clothes
- Get changed into workout clothes
- Walk to car
- Scrape ice off car
- Drive to gym
As you can see, “exercising before work” (like many good habits) is not a simple, isolated behavior. It’s actually a complex routine with multiple steps, including some that are not very pleasant in the winter.
While I have worked out before work for years now, this habit initially eluded me. My first few attempts at forming a morning exercise habit were total failures. At the time, I blamed it on not being a “morning person.” In reality, my strategy was the problem.
I was not aware at that time of something that I now refer to as a pre-habit.
What Is a Pre-Habit?
A pre-habit is my term for a preliminary behavior that has to occur before you can perform another behavior. When people think of a “habit,” they usually think it is an isolated behavior. In reality, many “habits” (such as exercising) are complex routines with multiple steps. In other words, many habits cannot be performed without certain other behaviors being performed first.
If you have ever failed to make a new habit last, you might have blamed it on genetics or on a supposed lack of discipline. In reality, the failure was probably because you underestimated the complexity and pre-habits of the routine that you wanted to adopt.
Examples of Habits and Pre-Habits
Imagine that you want to form the habit of eating a healthy breakfast each morning. Well, before you can eat it, you or someone else first needs to make it. So, one pre-habit here is to prepare or purchase the breakfast. Eating it is actually a separate behavior. In addition, if you plan to prepare the breakfast yourself, there is another pre-habit that is required before you can make it: you have to buy the ingredients.
As another example, imagine that you want to form the habit of making sales calls each afternoon at work. Well, before you can contact some prospects, you first need to identify them and obtain their contact information. So, one pre-habit here is to identify a list of prospects to call. Then, you have to find their phone numbers. Making the sales calls is actually a separate behavior that can only happen after that.
Finally, let’s go back to the story at the beginning of this article. Imagine that you want to form the habit of exercising before work. Well, before you can do a morning workout, you first need to wake up with enough energy to get up early and exercise. Not getting enough sleep was one of the main reasons why my initial attempts at morning exercise failed. One pre-habit with this example is to go to bed early enough the night before to wake up feeling refreshed. Another pre-habit is to lay out your workout clothes the night before.
Turning Pre-Habits into Catalysts for Good Habits
Here are four tips on how to use pre-habits to your advantage:
- Identify the pre-habits for the habit. Before you try to form any new habit, ask yourself, “What other behaviors will I need to do before this behavior?” As noted above, even a seemingly simple behavior (like eating a healthy breakfast) has some pre-habits (like making or buying the breakfast in advance).
- Be as efficient as possible with pre-habits. Whenever possible, try to reduce the frequency with which you need to complete pre-habits. For example, instead of shopping for new breakfast ingredients every day, it is much more efficient to purchase enough at one time to last you for one week or longer. Even better, you could prepare several breakfasts at one time, instead of making one from scratch each morning. If you have to shop and cook from scratch each morning, you will be much less likely to form the habit of eating a healthy breakfast each day.
- Do pre-habits as far in advance as possible. Completing them in advance increases your commitment for the actual habit that you want to adopt. For example, one simple yet powerful pre-habit that helps me stick to my morning exercise habit these days is laying out every piece of my workout clothing the night before. Several of the executives that I interviewed for my book Work Stronger even told me that they go to sleep in the outfit that they plan to work out in the next morning. In comparison, if you wait until the morning to select your workout clothes, it’s easier to bail on the workout. This might sound crazy, but it makes a difference.
- Try to eliminate the need for pre-habits. Some can be removed altogether. For example, if you want to simplify the habit of exercising before work, you could exercise at home instead of at a gym. That would save you from having to do the pre-habit of driving to the gym. It would also save you time, a valuable commodity in the morning. Note: If you are like me, and you prefer to exercise outside of your home, then you might not mind the extra effort and time required to get to your workout location.
Summary and Final Thoughts
Many “habits” are actually complex routines with multiple steps. Even a seemingly simple habit like “eating a healthy breakfast” requires that certain pre-habits be performed first.
If you have ever failed to make a new habit last, it was probably because you underestimated the complexity of the routine that you wanted to adopt. It was not because of your genetic makeup or because you lack discipline. You probably did not consider all of the pre-habits that were required.
Follow these four steps and you will be more likely to make any new habit last in the future:
- Identify the pre-habits for the habit.
- Be as efficient as possible with pre-habits.
- Do pre-habits as far in advance as possible.
- Try to eliminate the need for pre-habits.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the Creator of StrongerHabits.com. He is a best-selling author, keynote speaker, and executive recruiter, and his work has been featured on Fox News, CBS Radio, and CNNMoney.com. His latest book is titled Work Stronger: Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work.