Life is busy and hectic and overwhelming. And it can be hard enough just starting a new habit much less figuring out how to make new habits stick in the long run. Add a crazy or non-traditional schedule on top of everything else, and making new habits stick can seem almost impossible.
A reader of my newsletter emailed me a few months back with this very dilemma:
I love what you write about creating and sticking to good habits and routines, but the trouble is, I have an insane schedule. I’m a medical resident, so I work incredibly long hours and my schedule changes all the time. Do you have any suggestions for sticking to good habits despite a crazy schedule?
I emailed her back with a few quick ideas that popped to mind. But after considering it for a few more months, and doing some research, I’ve expanded my list of ideas.
Here are 9 practical strategies to help you follow through on your goals and make new habits stick, even in the face of a crazy or unusual schedule.
1. Prioritize Your Habits with the 80/20 Rule
First thing’s first: Make a master list of all the habits or routines you would like to implement.
Sit down with a pencil and paper (or your phone’s notes app) and list every habit you would like to start at this point in your life. It’s important to be fairly comprehensive here. We want your brain to see that you’re considering all the options at the outset.
Once you have your list of potential habits, look at them from the perspective of the 80/20 rule.
The 80/20 rule says that in most areas of life, 80% of the results come from 20% of the efforts. Most major corporations, for example, get about 80% of their profit from only one or two divisions in the company.
The same will likely be true of your habits. 20% of your proposed habits on the list will likely lead to most of the benefits.
In other words, it’s important to ask yourself: Which of my habits will give me the most bang for my buck? Which will give me the most return on the time and energy it takes to establish them, especially given my constrained and hectic schedule?
TIP: Initially, consider prioritizing habits that are energy giving, and thus, will help establish future habits. For example, exercise and mindfulness meditation will both lead to more energy and lower stress in the long-run, which means you’ll have better energy to establish more habits in the future.
Need a little inspiration for habits that lead to big results?
2. Build One New Habit at a Time
When you’ve got nothing but time on your hands, starting a few new habits at once probably isn’t too big a reach. With free time comes lower stress, increased mental bandwidth, more energy, fewer responsibilities, etc…
But when you’re busy and have an erratic or atypical schedule, you don’t have the room to maneuver multiple habit building processes at once.
So pick one habit (based on your 80/20 analysis) and work hard to establish that one before you even consider moving on to another.
And one more thing: Once you think the habit’s established, give it another week or two before you move on. It’s especially important to give your new habits time “to set” when your schedule is erratic, unpredictable, or stressful.
3. Break Down Your Habits into Micro-Habits
A big mistake a lot of people make when building habits generally is that their habits are actually collections of habits.
For example, I hear from a lot of people who want to get in the habit of writing every morning. I think this is a great habit. But the tricky part is that writing every morning may involve multiple steps, each of which could be thought of as a “micro-habit.”
If you’re not a morning person, writing every morning may require getting up earlier than usual. In which case, it makes more sense to first build the micro-habit of getting up earlier and doing all your morning routines first. Then, once that foundation is established, build the micro-habit of sitting down at your computer and cranking out 500 words each day.
This technique is especially important if you have the added pressure of a hectic schedule since you may not have the time or energy to work on bigger, multi-step habits.
Interested in creating better morning routines?
4. Consider Revitalizing Old Habits
If there’s a habit you’ve established previously but fallen away from, consider breathing new life into that one.
Even though the circumstances may be different, you already have tangible evidence that you can accomplish this habit. This creates a greater sense of self-efficacy, which leads to more motivation.
What’s more, by revitalizing an old habit, you have a real sense for the benefits of doing so, which, again, will increase your motivation to establish and stick to your new habit.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you want to establish habit of exercising four times per week. A co-worker has taken up spinning and really enjoys it, so you’re considering doing that for your exercise habit. On the other hand, a few years ago you had a pretty consistent habit of jogging a few times per week, which you definitely enjoyed.
Consider going with jogging first since it’s a known quantity.
You already know all the little details that go into jogging regularly. But when it comes to spinning, there could be any number of small factors that you’re unaware of that might cause friction and decrease your odds of sticking with it.
You can always work spinning into your exercise routine eventually, once it’s fairly established, but initially it might be more strategic to go with something you already know.
5. Schedule and Track Your Habits
It’s a fact of human psychology that we thrive on structure and reward, especially in challenging contexts and situations.
If we want to build a new habit and stick to it, it’s important to lay the psychological groundwork or infrastructure the the new habit will sit “on top of.”
That sounds complicated, but it’s really very simple: All it means is that for a given habit, make sure that you have some way of holding yourself accountable for progress and rewarding yourself for achieving it.
I like The Seinfeld Method as a way to keep myself accountable. To learn more about it, check out this article I wrote about how I use it to build new habits:
As far as rewards go, just about anything will work. In fact, it’s the consistency and immediacy of the reward that matter most, not the size or intensity of it.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you want to start meditating every morning. You could set a reward of making yourself a pancake breakfast every morning after you meditate. The problem is (aside from the calories) it take a while to actually make a pancake breakfast, so the time between finishing your habit and getting the reward is actually a bit long. And if you already have a crazy schedule, making the time for a full breakfast each morning is probably going to be tough to sustain.
A better alternative might be watching a short video from your favorite YouTube channel, eating half of your favorite kind of granola bar, or even spending a minute looking out the window at your nice view of the sunrise.
The important thing is to have some immediate and consistent reward, even if it’s very mild, immediately following your new habit. This will greatly increase the odds of making your new habits stick in the long run.
6. Eliminate Counterproductive Habits
So far, everything we’ve talked about has taken the form of addition: adding new habits to your life.
But when it comes to establishing a new habit and making it stick, removing counterproductive habits and routines may be even more important, especially when you’re on a difficult schedule.
Just like you initially catalogued all the good habits you would like to build, it’s worth considering all the current habits you have which might be getting in the way of your ability to stick to new habits.
For example, a common counterproductive habit we all could benefit from reducing or even eliminating is social media checking. The mental cost associated with constantly plunging into what’s happening online and in your various social spheres is likely far bigger than you realize.
And by reducing that energy suck, you’d have far more energy to establish those new habits you aspire to.
Check out this article on Digital Minimalism and taking charge of your digital life:
7. Just Ask
Why reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to?
If you can find people you work with and respect, ask them if they’ve struggled to build new habits or make new habits stick on a crazy schedule and if they have any advice or suggestions.
Expect that at first most people will tend to give relatively shallow and superficial answers. But don’t let them stop there.
Ask probing follow up questions and get them to be specific:
- What time do you wake up exactly?
- But when specifically do you make time to do regular chores around the house?
- Do you shower before or after meditating?
- Do you do the same thing on the weekends or your days off?
This strategy is pretty low cost (takes a few minutes) and even one good piece of advice or tip from someone with more experience could be incredibly valuable. The reason is, co-workers often share a similar set of constraints (i.e. a similarly crazy schedule), something neither I nor any other person writing about this stuff online likely does.
This means you have a better chance of getting situationally-specific advice, which can make all the difference.
8. Batch Process Tasks on Your Days Off
Making new habits stick can require a lot of mental and physical energy, something that’s probably in short supply if you’re busy and/or on a difficult schedule.
This means it’s extra important to minimize and streamline as many energy-taking activities in your life as possible. And one of the best ways to do this is to batch as many superficial/small tasks and decisions as possible into confined periods of time.
I remember a great example of this from my childhood:
I was over at a friend’s house getting ready to go to a basketball game when my friend asked his mom for a snack for the road. I was amazed when his mom reached down, open a drawer in the bottom of a kitchen cabinet, and there were HUNDREDS of little zip lock baggies full of pretzels, peanuts, gram crackers, and other snacks!
As the busy and active mom of a bunch of little kids, she didn’t have the time or energy to make snacks each time they were requested. So—I assume—she spent a good chunk of time once a month or so packing tons of pre-made snacks so that in the midst of a crazy day, snacks were already ready.
It’s tempting in our time off to not want to do much, but it might be worth trying to keep track of all the small tasks and decisions you regularly have to make that could be decided on or performed ahead of time. Then, dedicate a few hours once every few weeks to “batch processing” as much of it as possible.
Meal prepping is a great example of batch processing. But you might also consider:
- Clothes prepping—deciding on and laying out all your clothes for a week.
- Chore prepping—choosing a couple hours each week when you batch all your little household chores together.
- Communication batching—if you make regular phone calls each week, try to schedule them all into a given time frame.
- Email batching—instead of checking and responding to email whenever you get a notification, turn off the notifications and dedicate a half hour each day just for email checking and don’t check outside of that half hour.
By batch processing small but energy-sucking tasks into confined periods, we minimizes the amount of energy suck they exert on us, leaving us more energy to establish new habits.
9. Make Time for Genuine Relaxation
A common mistake a lot of us make when we work a lot and have extremely busy schedules is that we relax the wrong way. Specifically, the things we imagine as relaxing aren’t actually as cognitively relaxing as we think.
Social media and reading the news online are a great example. It’s tempting in a 5 minute break to just pull out Instagram and mindlessly scroll through photos, or read headlines on CNN. But both social media and the news are actually cognitively sophisticated activities—there’s a lot of subtle analytical and social processing that goes on which prevents our brains from really relaxing in a deep way.
Similarly, chatting with co-workers about work is a tempting default break option, but it actually is not very restorative and therefore not very useful as a true relaxation technique.
Instead, aim for things like going for a short walk with music playing. Or watching old family videos/photos on your phone. Mindfulness meditation and deep breathing are great if you can make time for them. Even 5 minutes of meditation will be massively more relaxing and truly restorative than most of the other default relaxation activities we tend toward.
As several of these strategies have pointed out, establishing and making new habits stick requires good energy management. We all have a fixed amount of energy and we need to be smart about how we spend that energy.
Similarly, we need to be proactive and intentional about building up our energy reserves in the first place. And making time for genuine relaxation is one of the best ways to do this (getting good sleep is also huge).
More Resources to Help Make New Habits Stick
Habit formation and making those new habits stick is a big, complex topic. Here are a few of my favorite resources and writers on the topic:
- James Clear is one of my favorite writers when it comes to habit building. This article is a good place to start: The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick
- BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course is really useful (and free!)
- Benyamin Elias at Routine Excellence has a great article on The Psychology of Habits: How to Form Habits (and Make Them Stick)
- Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits is one of my favorite blogs of all time and takes a mindfulness approach to habit formation. His guide to Sticking to a Habit is excellent.