Top 10 Ways to Establish New Habits – WITHOUT Discipline


By Mary Jaksch

“Incremental change is better than ambitious failure” ~ Tony Schwartz

All of us fear change. There is a simple reason for this: change hurts.
In his article Understanding the Science of Change, Christopher Koch explains:

Change lights up an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is like RAM memory in a PC… Like RAM, the prefrontal cortex’s capacity is finite-it can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts before bumping up against limits. That bump generates a palpable sense of discomfort and produces fatigue and even anger. That’s because the prefrontal cortex is tightly linked to the primitive emotional center of the brain, the amygdala, which controls our fight-or-flight response.

Apparently, even when someone gives us well-meaning advice, the prefrontal cortex soon threatens to become overloaded and exhausted. That’s one of the reasons we tend to get defensive.

The emotional cost of change.

All of us are resistant to change. Take a look at the following seven emotional responses that hinder change and see which ones you are prone to. (I’ve loosely followed a list compiled by psychologist A. J. Schuler)

  • The risk of change seems greater than the risk of standing still.
  • We feel connected to other people who identify with the old way.
  • We lack of role models for the new activity
  • We fear failure
  • We feel overwhelmed
  • Our self-image is threatened
  • We are reluctant to learn something new

Why discipline doesn’t work.

Discipline takes a lot of energy, because we try to bend our will away from what might be most pleasurable in the moment and towards what may be useful in the long run.

Author Tony Schwartz says :

A growing body of scientific literature suggests that people have very limited stores of will and discipline. Most of our energy is consumed by our existing habits, and by our reactions to demands in the environment. If we want to introduce new behaviors in our lives, we can’t count on will and discipline to make them happen.

Use positive rituals.

A great way to start and maintain new habits is through using positive rituals. Personally, I’ve come through three extensive trainings: professional music, Zen, and karate. As a musician, I had to practice at least three hours a day. At times I was tired or felt no motivation. But I had no choice: in order to perform, I had to practice.

I would drag myself to the flute and would then follow the established ritual, step by step: put the flute together, play tone studies, scales, technical exercises, then studies, and finally practice my performance pieces. This elaborate ritual led me right through my practice routine, like someone taking me by the hand. And as I followed the ritual, I would find motivation and joy on the way.

In an interesting article in the Harvard Business Review, called Manage Your Energy, not Your Time , Tony Schwartz explains that positive rituals are “…behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible.”

Together with Tony Schwartz, Jim Loehr wrote an inspiring and life-changing book: The Power of Full Engagement. In it they suggest using positive rituals  instead of discipline in order to change habits.

If we look at professions that demand peak performance, such as surgical teams, pilots, athletes, musicians and others, what we can observe is that they all use positive ritual to build focus and maintain safety. They don’t leave it to chance, conscious willpower, or discipline to come up with the right action.

Here then are practical ways to establish new habits without discipline:

Ten tips to change a habit by using positive rituals

1. Identify the value of the habit you want to establish.
To be truly effective, our goals must be aligned with our values. It’s not enough for someone else to say it’s a good thing to do. We ourselves must deem the goal worthy of sustained action.

2. Make your goal tangible
Let me give you an example: I’m establishing a daily physical workout at the moment. I’ve set myself a very simple goal. I want to fit into a slinky tango dress after four weeks of fitness training. I’ve taken a depressing ‘before’ shot that shows all the bulges in the wrong places, and will take another one at the end, hopefully showing a toned body. Fitting into a particular dress is a tangible goal. It works much better than saying something like: ‘I want to lose 3 kilos and have a resting pulse of 60 after four weeks of exercise’. Think of how you could make your particular goal more tangible.

3. Give yourself a clear time-frame
It’s easier to establish a habit if you give yourself a time-frame. An example would be, ‘I want to establish a daily meditation practice in the next 21 days.’ When setting a time-frame, keep in mind that new habits take at least three weeks to establish

4. Design and establish a positive ritual
Identify a flow of events that lead you to the action you want to establish as a habit. In his book The Power of Less, Leo Babauta talks of ‘triggers’. This is a similar idea. Establish a routine of events that lead, step by step, to the start of the action that is to become a habit.

5. Use your senses to make the ritual rich
Our senses are willing helpers that help us to make ritual meaningful.
Let’s take meditation as an example. The steps or early morning meditation could be as follows:
–    get out of bed and go to the bathroom
–    put on comfortable meditation clothes
–    put on some meditative music
–    make yourself your favourite tea in a little bowl
–    take your cup of tea to your meditation cushion
–    light a candle
–    turn off the music to enter silence
–    sit down in meditation posture and drink your tea – feel the heat of the bowl in your hands, smell the tea.
–    when you have finished the tea, place the cup by your side
–    start to meditate

In this example, I’ve used just about all the senses to establish a rich ritual. I’m sure you can imagine that you would be settled and disposed to meditate by the end of this ritual.

6.  Shout it from the roof top
Voicing our ideas creates activity and connectivity in the brain and creates a sense of ownership. It makes the habit ‘yours’.  Each time you explain why the new habit is important, you are convincing yourself and adding fuel to your motivation

7.    Feed you habit by reading
The more we know about our growing habit, the stronger it gets. If you are starting to exercise, reading about the experiences of others can inspire you. It’s particularly useful to read about your new habit before you go to sleep. In that way you prepare yourself for your next day’s session.

8.    Find buddies

Join with others who also want to change. If you’ve ever done physical training in a group you’ll know that we can achieve much more if there are others beside us. If we work with ‘buddies’, we utilize the synergy of all pouring energy into the same change.

9.    Report on your progress daily
This is an important piece of advice from Leo Babauta’s book. The act of reporting makes us accountable. And that is a great motivator. If you have found a buddy or have established a team, suggest that you report to each other.

10. Write a ‘Habit Journal’
This is where you document your new habit. Write down how you feel – with all the highs and lows. And also collect stats that pertain to your new habit.

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. ~Jim Ryun

These ten tips work for me, and I’m confident that they’ll work for you too.

There is one other thing that’s very important: whenever you work on your new habit, be fully engaged. In other words, you need to align all your energy: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The way to do that is to focus your whole being on your action.

Maybe you have some more tips on how to establish a habit without trying to force yourself through discipline. Or maybe you think discipline is absolutely necessary?
Please share your thoughts in the comments.

If you enjoyed this post, please tweet about it and boost it on Stumbleupon and Reddit – I’d appreciate it 🙂

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  1. janice says:

    Stunning post, Mary – one of your best ever and you’ve done some stellar posts in your time!

    I agree with all of these, have used them and introduced them to others. (I smiled when I read the flute and karate part!) I know they work. Please send us photos of the ‘After’ you in the tango dress!

    I’ve found the Kaizen approach to change very useful. I also think it’s crucial, if you’re an ‘away’ person and are trying to give up a bad habit to always make sure you replace it with something even yummier. When I was trying to change my shape one time, I cut down on how much wine I bought and used the money I saved to treat myself to a homestyle magazine I normally wouldn’t have justified. The most successful habit changers are those who adopt whole new ways of living like the 12 Steps programme.

    Thank you for this piece – the timing of it has made my day, and it will help a lot of unhappy, overwhelmed, stuck people!!

    janices last blog post..Claiming Your Voice

  2. Mary,

    These are great ideas – I had never thought about using positive rituals to change but it makes sense. I’ve been meditating every day for about nine months. There is a little ritual I go through that pulls me through this habit.

    I also appreciate that amount of science and research you use in your article.

    Roger – A Content Lifes last blog post..Your Mindful Eating Mission

  3. Jens Upton says:

    This offers a healthier, appreciative way to develop good habits. I like your emphasis on removing discipline and applying positive rituals instead. They allow space for enjoyment, creativity and appreciation of goals whereas discipline can too often emphasis a tension to complete.


    Jens Uptons last blog post..Sharing a Thought for Our Well Being

  4. Kaushik says:

    Great thoughts! I enjoyed reading the article.

    I don’t consider myself a person of discipline. I’m lazy. I’m also very lucky; I found with complete acceptance of who I had become, and just staying present, life naturally found its flow, and habits and goals develop on their own, without effort or discipline the need to make lists. All I have to do is get out of the way!

    Thanks for some great thoughts!

    Kaushiks last blog post..Being present – how to be present with what is already present

  5. Such GREAT advice here. I am totally inspired to establish some new, healthier habits right now. Thank you!

    Positively Presents last blog post..rainy days and mondays…

  6. Diane says:

    Thank you so much for this article! The timeliness could not have been better! Yes, dicipline is such a drag, but rituals are so refreshing and renewing of spirit. Now on to one habit at a time…

  7. Curzon says:

    This is good advice. No one can change themselves overnight, and when we decide to work on ourselves we get too ambitious and try to make too many changes at once. The result is that we tend to fail whereas slow and steady wins the race.

    Curzons last blog post..Toward Understanding President Obama’s Motives

  8. This pretty much sums up the process for achieving your goals.

    Well written. Thanks Mary. 😉

  9. David Cain says:

    Thank you Mary. This is great, and I’ve bookmarked it to apply to my next habit change.

    This approach makes a lot more sense to me than a lot of others I’ve read. It’s true, willpower is not sustainable; it’s a backup plan at best. I’m excited to try this on my next Raptitude experiment. I will report, of course.

    Point number two is especially refreshing. We hear so much talk about making goals “measurable,” when really, it’s rarely a certain measurement we’re after. I don’t care what my bodyfat percentage is, I care that I feel good when I look in the mirror. This ‘measurement doctrine’ has really just gotten in the way, at least for me.

    Thanks again!

    David Cains last blog post..Same Purpose, Different Styles

  10. I really enjoyed this post.

    I think all of these tips can be defined as, ‘strategy’. And certainly, using strategy will help us to succeed.

    That said, I would argue… that getting yourself to actually use strategy and then even staying with your strategy is going to require varying levels of self-discipline throughout the journey!

    So, I think it’s not an either/or but rather, a wise combination of the two.

  11. “Positive Ritual” requires no discipline?

    Amazing… :-/

    Ordinary Joes last blog post..Aikido, Zen, and the Clear Response

  12. Thanks, Mary. I appreciated the look into the brain, at the beginning. It’s so important, as you have said, to go beyond discipline. It’s such a rich topic, but you have summarised this in such a helpful way.

  13. Acai Berry says:

    his approach makes a lot more sense to me than a lot of others I’ve read. It’s true, willpower is not sustainable; it’s a backup plan at best. I’m excited to try this on my next Raptitude experiment. I will report, of course.

  14. Vince says:

    Hey Mary, this top ten list is awesome, thanks for all the recommendations. I’m still trying to hold on to the last of my New Year’s resolutions, and the ones that I am still keeping are the ones that I did with friends, so your buddies advice is working. You can post this to our site and link back to your site. We are trying to create a directory for top ten lists where people can find your site. The coolest feature is you can let other people vote on the rankings of your list.

  15. […] Top 10 Ways to Establish New Habits – WITHOUT Discipline | Goodlife Zen (tags: change) […]

  16. I’ve always thought that the creation of new habits shouldn’t be a painful process. It may require work, but that doesn’t mean it needs to require a ridiculous amount of willpower.

    A commenter recently put me in my place on my blog actually, and this really changed my thinking.

    He said this:

    “It’s not all “do what you love” but also “love what you have to do” or sometimes it’s “just do it” … as Bhagavad Gita says, if its something you hate doing but you feel great when you are finished, then you did something REALLY GOOD.”

    Thinking this way really helped me change my mindset and allowed me to stop resisting the habits I wanted to create that require a lot of effort.

  17. Sami says:

    Great post Mary! Love the positive ritual idea. Like you said, sometimes you don’t feel like doing something that you know is really good for you but if you go ahead and do it anyway, you often find motivation along the way. Using a positive ritual will make it that much easier to start.


    Samis last blog post..The Daisy List: #32. Plant a Herb Garden (Part 2)

  18. This is great Mary.

    My initial thought about this though is that positive ritual is simple discipline reframed. Which is by no means a bad thing at all.

    From what you have said, I feel that discipline is forcing yourself to do it and not enjoying, while positive ritual is forcing yourself to do something and enjoying it.

    What are your thoughts on this Mary?

  19. […] Then something not-so-good happens. You don’t practice one day and you feel like shit. You beat yourself up over it and now you’re not so sure you’re “disciplined enough” to practice mastering your craft. (You don’t realize that you can establish new habits without discipline.) […]

  20. Mary, you make some very valid suggestions here, but I tend to agree with Bamboo and Simon.

    Rituals and habits are very much related, and a certain amount of discipline (more related to teaching, training, and learning than to punishment) is required, at least to the extent that one remembers to keep practicing the positive rituals each day.

  21. J.D. Meier says:

    Really beautiful write up.

    I’ve found the keys are:
    – have a compelling why
    – decide and go (sort of Nike and Yoda)
    – reduce friction

    The friction is key. Many new good habits die the death of a 1000 paper cuts.

    J.D. Meiers last blog post..Life Experiences and Leadership

  22. […] This post was Twitted by troubledcrystal – […]

  23. Hi everyone! Thanks for the great comments. I’m going to try to respond to some of your wonderful questions and comments.

    First of all there are Bamboo, Simon, and Karen who all think that what you need is a wise combination of strategy AND discipline.

    So, their question is: don’t you need discipline when all is said and done?

    It’s a good question!

    I want to answer in a roundabout way with an example:

    As I said in my article, a beautiful Brazilian friend has been taking me through a daily fitness routine for the last week.

    I’ve been ritualizing the whole experience in order to make the habit stick after she leaves to continue her travels. And, in fact, she wasn’t able to work with me a couple of days ago and so I had to lead myself through the killer workout…groan.

    So, here’s what happened:
    I was very reluctant and thought, “Oh, good! I can do with a day off!” In other words, there was no motivation to be found anywhere.

    So then I said to myself: “Well, leaving the workout aside for the moment, would you be willing to walk to the bedroom?” Answer ‘yes’ – I needed no discipline for this action.

    When I got to the bedroom, I asked myself, “Would you feel able to change into your shorts?” Answer ‘yes’ – I needed no discipline for this action.

    Then: “Ok, how about going back into the lounge. Can you do that?” Answer ‘yep’ – I needed no discipline for this action.

    Then: “What about putting on the music you usually use for exercise. Can you do that?” Answer ‘yep’ – because there was no discipline needed.

    Next step: Then the music started (I use ‘Sweet dreams are made of this’ by the Eurythmics to which I do crunches, leglifts and other unspeakable things.)

    I then asked myself:
    “Would you be willing to lie down on the floor?” Well, that was an easy request!

    Finally I asked:
    “Would you be willing to do 10 situps?”
    At that point I was in my exercise clothes, with the music pumping and I was already lying on the floor. It was easy to start doing situps. And, of course, as soon as I had done 10, I was willing to do another ten, because the music led me forward.

    I’ve written about these steps in great detail so that you can peak over my shoulder and see how I get myself from a position of absolutely no motivation to lying on the floor doing situps.

    The trick is to line up a series of mini steps which are all easy to fulfill, in order to get yourself past the no-motivation barrier.

    Getting back to Bamboo, Simon, and Karen and their question: I definitely think there is another way, apart from discipline, but we are not used to using it. I know the difference because I’ve been so hard on myself in the past and so rigidly disciplined.

    Now I enjoy finding a way of kindness.

  24. Hi Mary,

    Great post. I have often thought that change is one of those things that gets a bad reputation for no reason. Stagnation is never good and change, in my mind, is always a good sign because it indicates growth. So with that in mind, I love the ten tips that you gave because it helps take out the negativity in the concept of change.

    Hope all is well! 🙂

    Nadia – Happy Lotuss last blog post..Pull Off The Labels

  25. […] This post was Twitted by phaoloo – […]

  26. Isobel says:

    A really good post with some great points.

    I think your quote at the end is by Jim ROHN not Jim Ryun. If so, I would love to see him properly credited; he’s been a major influence in so many ways.

  27. Mary,

    Your first point is what works for me.

    It’s all about keeping the end in mind. I do what I do because I know what I eventually want to achieve.


    Marc and Angel Hack Lifes last blog post..5 Practical Steps for Generating New Ideas and Insights

  28. […] Top 10 Ways to Establish New Habits – WITHOUT Discipline – Goodlife ZEN […]

  29. I like your “habit journal” the best. Weight Watchers believe in food journals. That would be the same thing right?

    Tess The Bold Lifes last blog post..Monday Magic Freebie Cheryl Richardson’s New Book

  30. Mary,
    Thank you for the additional example in the comments. Great to follow you through the inner dialogue.

    It seems like you are convincer strategy based on small steps, and somehow hoping that you won’t trigger the part of you that does not want to start the workout.

    How about if you took the inner dialogue directly with the part of you that does not want the workout, and asked it how you can motivate it directly!? 😉

    Anders Ronnaus last blog post..Er du i virkeligheden en Superhelt? Test dig selv hér!

  31. Hi Anders!
    That sounds like an interesting strategy. Can you please tell us some more about how you use it?

  32. Art Petty says:

    Mary, what a wonderful post with some powerful, positive and actionable ideas. I enjoyed this so much, I featured it in my “Fresh Voices” post on my Management Excellence site. Thanks! -Art

    Art Pettys last blog post..Fresh Voices: Perspectives on Change, Communication and Delegation

  33. Acai Berry says:

    That was really a great post and information – just bookmarked and keep up the good work

  34. […] Top 10 Ways to Establish New Habits – WITHOUT Discipline – Goodlife ZEN (EN) […]

  35. Tim Woods says:

    Thanks for the great article!

    I guess we raise different defenses to change because of our experiences and individual temperments. I love the idea of using positive rituals to make changes more palatable — connecting a new positive habit to a reward as a kind of spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

    Tim Woodss last blog post..To Work or Not to Work?

  36. Hi Mary, something fresh for me is the step no 7, reading more on the habit we want to cultivate. I believe it’s the power of focus, when we put our reading habit into the habit we’re growing, we can achieve more.

    Very useful article!

    Personal Development Bookss last blog post..Social Intelligence by Karl Albrecht

  37. Amit Sodha says:

    I think you hit the nail on the head with the first one in aligning it with your values. 🙂
    .-= Amit Sodha´s last blog ..5 Essential Communication Skills Everyone MUST Learn =-.

  38. Especially I like step 10 – Journal can really establish new habit.

  39. Kevin says:

    Absolutely amazing article. I have just started reading the book “The Power of full Engagement”, and have to start implementing these principles in my life. Tony has another new book in the market called “The way we are working isn’t working”. Any feedback on that?
    .-= Kevin´s last blog ..How to Get Your Ex to Call You Back =-.

  40. I appreciate the article but I can’t agree that “discipline doesn’t work”.

    And I don’t say this because I’m a monastic ascetic of some sort, but rather because I’ve been teaching at-risk young people boxing for the last 20 years and we’ve found that discipline and will-power are like muscles – they can be developed and strengthened and then provide a firm framework for a productive lfie.

  41. leon says:

    I like your post. Yes, to change a habit needs discipline but to change it without discipline is something new to me. But one of your point mention a tangible goal, i believe that should be the way to go. Often people held up too much to their goal and disheartened when not fulfilled.

    Leon latest post: inspire yourself.

  42. Well i need discipline in my life. I think without it then it’s impossible to learn new habits.

  43. Dean Duke says:

    I love that bird so much !

  44. Serg says:

    Thank you for this article. I am so impressed by the way you have described your habits.
    They are simple, achievable and very productive. I hope to build some of these into my daily routine.
    All in all the most important thing to achieve all these goals is mainly discipline.
    For an indisciplined person like me…this definitely is an Herculean task!

    For my good and bad habits I have bee using the android appliacation Habit!
    it helps me to monitor the progress of my habits change.

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