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Forming new habits: approach the goal gradually

How did you do on your habit change for July?

Photo by Michael Wriston

I’ve been testing out the theory that it takes 30 days of consistent action for that action to become a habit.

So far, the theory has not really worked for me. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that I picked a very busy season in my life to start this – between April 2 and June 30, we had three weeks when we didn’t have house guests.

Still, though, I could have seen some improvement in my life, but I really didn’t witness too much, other than my being slightly more aware of those habits in my life I want to change. Hmm.

I’ve been mulling over why this may be the case, and a few weeks ago, Zen Habits had an article that I think may shed some light for me.

Kaizen is a Japanese word that basically means continuous but very small change. This idea can really increase the momentum needed for habit change, because it works up to change gradually – kinda like baby steps.

I’m not into zen at all, but I don’t think this is necessarily a spiritual concept. The truth found in the Bible – “you reap what you sow” – can actually be applied here as well. If you choose to continually cultivate soil and plant good seeds, your reward is a good crop.

And how this Japanese word applies to the analogy is this – a farmer doesn’t fertilize the soil, prepare the land for planting, plant the seeds, water the soil, and continue nursing his crop until it’s ready for harvest all in one day. He does these things a bit at a time, and after patience, work, and forbearance, he is rewarded with a bountiful crop.

Applying this to habit change

Photo by Michael Wriston

The easiest habit-changing example is the one also descibed at Zen Habits. Say you’d like to start waking up an hour earlier. You could approach this goal two ways:

1. Set your alarm an hour earlier, fight your body’s natural tendencies the next morning, and make it crawl out of bed, even when it just wants to sleep. After doing this consistently for 30 days, your body, mind, and spirit should be used to it, so it is therefore a new habit.

2. Set your alarm two minutes earlier, and when you wake up the next morning, you can hardly feel the difference. Set it two minutes earlier the next day, thereby making it four minutes earlier than when you first started. Chances are, it won’t feel too differently either. Continue with waking up two minutes earlier every morning, and after 30 days, you’re now waking up a full 60 minutes earlier. Your body was asked to gradually change, and it probably took its cues a bit gentler.

Now, technically, either method could work. My guess is that it depends on your personality, your stage of life, and how difficult this potential habit change is. But after three months of trying the “old school” method of consistently doing a difficult action with the hope of it becoming a habit, I think I’ll try the “kaizen” method this month.

(A side note: I know I have quite a few readers who follow Jesus, like I do. Please don’t let a Japanese word trip you up here. There’s nothing inherently spiritual about this word. In my opinion, you could believe that every word in the Bible is truth, and still see the basic truth in what this word describes.)

My habit change for August

So we’re going to see how this method works for me. By the end of the month, I’d like to include exercising three hours a week into my routine. That’s 30 minutes a day, with one day off. For me, this means starting the week of Monday, September 1, I’d like to begin this habit by working out three hours that week. So August, in a sense, is “training” up for that (those of you who work out like it’s going out of style, stop laughing).

  • August 4-10, I’d like to work out a total of at least 60 minutes. That’s one hour. Hardly anything.
  • August 11-17, I’d like to work out a total of at least 90 minutes. One and a half hours. Totally do-able.
  • August 18-24, I’d like to work out a total of at least 120 minutes. Two hours.
  • August 25-31, I’d like to work out a total of at least 150 minutes. Two and a half hours.

If you did basic math, you’ll see the first week is six days with 10 minutes of exercise. The second week is 15 minutes – only a five minute increase. The third week is 20 minutes, six days a week. The last week is 25 minutes. Each week is a five-minute daily increase. In my opinion, a five-minute increase is almost nothing. Yet from August 1 to August 31, I’m working out 15 minutes more daily.

So I’m hoping by September 1, I’ll have worked up to 30 minutes a day, six days a week. Then I can start my habit change goal of consistent, regular, beneficial exercise.

Your turn

Do you have a habit in your life you’d like to replace? Does trying to replace an unwanted habit with a wanted one just seem overwhelming sometimes? I know it does for me. But since we’re in this for the long-haul, it’s worth it to pursue methods that produce lasting results. We need to shower ourselves with grace as we pursue parenting, home management, and being a loving spouse, that’s for sure – but we also need to honor God with our lives by being good stewards of what He’s given us.

Photo by Gustavo

Think of those little things in your life that, stacked on top of each other, build a wall that prevents you from being who you really want to be.

  • Do you want to become more of a reader and less of a TV watcher? Then this month, gradually replace two hours of TV-watching time with reading time.
  • Do you want to stop drinking soda and drink more water? Gradually replace your daily soda intake with water, until you no longer drink soda at all.
  • Would you like to go to bed by 10 p.m. instead of midnight? Slowly call it a night a few minutes earlier each night, until you find yourself yawning and ready to hit the sack by 10.

What is your goal for August? Remember, habit change works best when we stick with only one, so I’d encourage you to pursue the one most on your mind. If you’re inspired to focus on this, leave a comment and share your goal. We can encourage each other by publishing it here. Do you have a method of changing habits that has worked well for you in the past? I’d love to hear about it.

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. WordGirl

    I start projects but get sidetracked and don’t finish. Currently, I have sewing, painting, photobook organizing, reading and gardening that are all half-finished. There are so many things I want to do that I don’t have time to do them all. Especially with a four-month-old, a husband and a house to take care of. I guess my “habit” will have to be finishing one project at a time before moving on to the next.

    WordGirls last blog post..Yeah, so?

  2. junebug69

    Thanks for the great post Simple Mom! I love your blog and really appreciate that you always entice your readers to give feedback.

    Here’s mine: I have always battled with my weight (really, always) and just since Jan. 08 I have found some success in losing 25 lbs. because of 2 things: 1) I am learning the 12-Steps of Overeaters Anonymous (which I compare to your farmer analogy…there are 12 Steps–not just one BIG one.) Little by little I am working my way through the steps and each one, though distinct and different, all lead me to the “harvest”. I have found a deeper relationship with Jesus while on this journey and because I choose to live my program “just for today” I have to keep coming back every morning to be renewed. In the past I would go like gangbusters with a diet and fizzle out in a few days or weeks. Now I only look at the next 24 hours and ask my Higher Power (Jesus in my case) for the willingness and ability to maintain my program each day.

    The #2 thing has revolutionized my thinking: planning what I will eat before I eat it. It is a simple concept but one that never occurred to me before I started OA. I have kept food journals several times in my life and they always felt like a burden…a big ball and chain to carry around. It was like someone was lurking over my shoulder watching every bite because I knew if I ate it I had to write it down. This dysfunctional relationship never lasted long and I would give up the journal and the diet. Since Jan. 08 I have planned what I will eat each day BEFORE I eat it. I don’t always stick to the plan (because of unplanned events, etc.) but I write down my plan and I try to choose things that I know I have on hand. There is no more guilt and after doing this for 6 months, it’s a habit. Strange as it may sound, there’s a certain freedom in having everything planned out for me. I don’t have to struggle with what to eat and I am not tempted to eat things I am trying to avoid because I pack my healthy breakfast and lunch and tote it to work with me. Habits can be good if we use them to our advantage… “A habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.” — Nathaniel Emmons

    Thanks for letting me share my two cents…be blessed!

    junebug69s last blog post..When it’s time to Change…

  3. simplemom

    @junebug69 – Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! Sounds like you’ve learned a lot this year – I really appreciate what you said about focusing just on the 24 hours in front of you, and getting renewed every morning for another day. Well said.

  4. Emily

    I am going to start drinking more water. Coffee in the morning and water the rest of the day.

    And I NEED to get more sleep. 10 or earlier.

    We’ll see. I am just going to take it one day at a time. I know my body will thank me for it.

    Emily’s last blog post…A Wedding Quilt

  5. Stephanie

    Hello, I really like your blog thanks for the time you put into it. You always seem to have something good to say.

    I HAVE to start reading my Bible consistantly. I had a baby #5 four months ago and any form of a good scheduling was lost. But I really don’t look at reading my Bible as “habbit”. It is really more of a privilege. Baby is now 4 months and sleeping through the night so I don’t have any more excuses, lack of sleep really isn’t an excuse anyway, and I don’t feel right about changing anything else until I have my “quiet time” consistantly. I am looking forward to this month.

    Thanks and have a great weekend.

  6. Nichole

    There are many things that I need to work toward, but I think I’m going to start with getting up earlier. I love the “2 minutes a day” idea. I’ll give it a shot!

    Nichole’s last blog post…Housekeeping

  7. LobotoME

    My goal for August is Fit ME – to workout EVERYDAY (even if it is 1/2 hour walk or yoga at home) – I keep saying (and preaching) about the importance of exercising daily to keep our bodies healthy and our minds sane but haven’t been able to do more than 3-4x week this summer. So, I’ve planned out a month of workouts, classes, etc. (a lot including meeting with friends or pre-paying) so I’m more apt to do it. Any of you can join ME!

    I agree that it takes at least 30 days to form a habit, if not longer. I have found that it helps to focus on just ONE NEW thing during that time…otherwise it gets overwhelming.

    J 🙂

    LobotoME’s last blog post…{ NO spend month redux }

  8. maya

    i’ll be joining you on your exercise schedule.

    maya’s last blog post…Routine: night

  9. Sandy

    I really would like to make it a habit to take a shower and dress prior to my children waking in the morning. The only way to do it is to do it. With the school year starting –I need to have my habit formed prior to getting my kids into their school morning routine. Thanks for spurning my on to actually do this.

    Sandy’s last blog post…Ode to my friend…

  10. Princess Leia

    I never quite lost the (extra) butt and thighs I gained during my first pregnancy (I lost all but about 5 lbs, but I guess those lbs were all in my butt and thighs) and am now working on #2. Just before #2 got started being knit, we borrowed a bike from my SIL and got a trainer…but then I got preggers and figured it out because of spotting caused by exercise. THEN I got the drug-requiring morning sickness which completely knocked my on my (too large) butt for several months. Now I’m feeling “better” (definitely a relative term) and have been thinking about getting on that bike when #1 takes his nap, but that 30 minutes I’ve decided on has definitely been daunting.

    I think I’ll take a cue from you and start off with just 10 minutes a day this week. The week after that, 15 minutes, and so on until I’ve worked up to my goal of 30 minutes.

    Thanks for “permission” to do things bit by bit! 🙂

    And btw, I totally agree (as a believer) that Truth can be found in many other world belief systems. If the Enemy didn’t include that spark of truth, no one would follow them. The issue comes in when you follow those belief systems exclusively, not when you glean the Truth from them, toss the rest, and move on.

    Princess Leia’s last blog post…THIS is Parenting

  11. Heather

    hmmm… there are soooo many bad habits! I think that the BIG one is staying up toooo late and thus not getting up early enough. School is just around the corner and we need to get back on “schedule”. If the sun would just go to bed a little earlier…. can’t do much about that, but I do like your post…. change things gradually. I am a “flybaby” ( and have learned that maintaining my home is best done with baby steps. Thanks for the great reminder!

    Heather’s last blog post…Passed down the generations…..

  12. simplemom

    @Sandy – You’re right; I suppose your habit goal isn’t really one to do gradually! 🙂 That would be funny, though.

    @Maya, Princess Leia – Please do join me! I’d be glad to have fellow exerciser wanna-bes. 🙂

    @Solutions – Thanks for the tip! I’ll listen to the podcast a little later on today.

  13. All Adither

    Oh, at first I thought I read you wanted to work out 2.5 hours per DAY. and I was like, this woman is superhuman.

  14. simplemom

    @All Adither – Ha! No, I’m actually pretty pathetic in the work out department, as you can tell.

  15. Vanessa

    I love the idea of starting off slowly, most of the time I am “an all or nothing” type. It’s funny to come across this now because I have been trying to do this for my whole family this past couple of weeks. We are about to start school here in CA so I try to get my boys into routine before the first day of school. I started with going to bed earlier, then added in shower times, then this week we add our evening play time outside to get everyone tired enough to go to bed early. So really I work backwards. I figured this month (August) I could start my routine of exercise in the mornings after the older two go to school and work my way up from morning to afternoon routines with the little guy, and with any luck we’ll have our school day routine down and flowing just right by Sept.

  16. simply

    wow what incouragement…I’ll need to think awhile on this one (lol) Maybe I should work on procrastinating..??


    simply’s last blog post…The Reunion…

  17. Ellen

    This is a very good post – very good to think upon some more before really responding. Too often, words and ideas come easily, but it’s putting those things into action, firming up what you say and want to accomplish with actual ‘doing’. I have lots of habits I’d like to break and lots that I’d like to begin. Thank you. I’ll have to go back and read your previous posts now.

    Ellen’s last blog post…Restless

  18. Frugal Dad

    I want to start a walking program, and work up to a running program. I’ve been largely (pun intended) sedentary for the last few months, wallowing in self pity after shoulder surgery, and spending too much time in front of this monitor. I would like to eventually walk/run for 1 hours a day, either 30 mins. before and after work, or just one long walk early in the morning. I’ll start slow and work up to this goal through August–thanks for the push!

    Frugal Dad’s last blog post…Weekly Roundup: Dear Readers, You Inspire Me

  19. christy

    i love your post about how to make a new habit. i started a new habit this year and i have been successful with it all year so far (no candy in 2008). just this morning i was thinking as i was reading my scriptures i need to be in a better habit of getting to bed at the same time consistently and getting up consistently. three days a week i get up and exercise with some friends of mine but i find that on the days that i exercise i stay up way later because i don’t have to get up early the next morning.
    my goal for august is to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every day.

    christy’s last blog post…ohhh, so yummy!

  20. Amber

    Like several others mentioned, I need to work on going to bed earlier.

    Unfortunately, I work well at night when the house is quiet, but then I have a terrible time rising the next morning before my daughter does.

    When I don’t have that morning time alone, devotion time is often cut out, which negatively affects all aspects of my day.

    I think this month, I’ll start with shutting down the computer and sewing machine 10 minutes earlier each night–no matter what I’m working on–until I reach my goal of being in bed at 10:30. Maybe I should set an alarm!?!

    Thanks for the inspiration!

  21. Carrie at Natural Moms Talk Radio

    Getting up earlier. I have a bad habit of sleeping until my youngest wakes up. I use the excuse that since she’s still nursing some at night, I’m sleep deprived. But I have the same amount of energy if I get 8 hours or 10 hours of sleep.

    I need to get up at 6 so I can work before the kiddos wake up. I’m often able to do it, but sometimes… how do people get up early consistently?

    With the exercise thing, one thing that works for me is to do it DAILY. If I only do it 3 or 5 days a week, I’ll get off track and not keep it up.

    Carrie at Natural Moms Talk Radio’s last blog post…The Creative Family Book Giveaway

  22. anja

    love the idea of getting the kids back into a regular “school year” routine BEFORE school starts, rather than spending all of September yelling at them because they had to do it all at once. Also, I’m learning Spanish, and I want to spend an five hours per week on it. I like the idea of starting with 15 minutes, and working up to that. I think these are both good goals for the month of August. Thanks for the inspiration.

    anja’s last blog post…Vertical Gardens

  23. Julie K.

    Oh my. I’m one to get all excited about all the things I want to work on and I tend to tackle them all at once. I appreciate your realistic insight regarding tackling one habit at a time, one day at a time. Isn’t that all God asks of us anyway? It seems He only reveals one thing at a time that we need to work on … not all our sin all at once – we should extend that grace to ourselves as well. I’d like to focus on the regular exercise with you, however, since I can only choose one for August I think I need to focus on spending less time blogging and more time in creative activities! I get sucked into the computer so quickly and then I’m frustrated with the lack of productivity in my day. That needs to change for sure.

    Julie K.’s last blog post…BOOM!

  24. Francois

    Thanks for another great tip. I’ve got a list of things I’ll try it out on (e.g. also exercise, sleeping patterns, spending time with God, etc.). 🙂

  25. blogversary

    I would like to go to bed earlier and get up earlier. My goal is to be in bed an hour after I put my little one to bed. And get up an hour before they do.

    blogversary’s last blog post…turning point

  26. Tameka

    Great post!

    I love the idea of starting a new habit. 30 days is better than the 14 days that I’ve read in other articles. lol…
    For me, the month of August will have to be getting up earlier to study the Word & starting a running program. I already have a schedule that will have me running 3x’s per week – the first week 1 mile, 2nd 1.5 and so on…
    Thanks again.

    Tameka’s last blog post…The Golden Seven

  27. Miriam

    I think habits have to be built and/or change both ways, and determining which will get me there is the challenge. For me and exercise, it’s got to feel like I’m doing something significant (and I think there are studies about people who work out intensely being more likely to stay with it) and that means just doing it, like Sandy’s shower (hee). For going to bed early, eating well and reading my daily verses, the gradual thing seems more effective lately.

    Either way, the idea of “showering myself with grace” is a great one. Most of my failed attempts have come about after I start to avoid thinking about the habit at all because of the guilt and self-flagellation involved. Have you read Future Grace by John Piper? I think you might like it.

    Miriam’s last blog post…Organize and simplify

  28. Miriam

    ps. Your daily docket has me totally inspired and more productive. First time in my life I’ve ever memorized verses. WOO!

    Miriam’s last blog post…Organize and simplify

  29. Joelle

    thank you for the refreshing approach to making changes with baby-steps. The most important change I’d like to make right now is to incorporate exercise into my daily routine. Starting with 10 minutes seems like something I can actually do…p.s. as a fellow follower of Jesus, I appreciate your “gleaning” useful information from the great big world God created and getting down to the simple basic truth. happy exercising!

    Joelle’s last blog post…it’s been way too long

  30. Cheryl

    I always love reading your posts!! My husband and I actually quit smoking 2 months ago and that was a HUGE change in our lives. Not only with quiting smoking, but not going outside every hour or so to smoke it, and I don’t drink at all anymore for the fact I’m scared that I will want one (for me drinking and smoking go hand in hand..not that I drink ALL the time, but when I have a drink I use to need a cig.).

    Also, when I quit that habit, I started a new (good for me) one. I started going to the gym 3-5 days a week. It was very hard working out at first, but now that I’ve been going for almost 2 months, I look forward to it!

    Back on topic now…haha…I do that alot! The habit change I’m going to do is to shower and dress before my kids get up. My oldest turns 4 next month and also starts PK-4, so me waking up because the kids wake me up next to be changed. I am not a morning person, so I will do this for my new habit. I will however try, waking up for 30 days at the same time rather than two minutes earlier every day. Wish me luck!

    Cheryl’s last blog post…{Todays entertainment and Earrings}

  31. Ruthie

    Such a great post – thanks. I had never thought to introduce change so subtly. Exercise is the change so thanks for the great strategy!

    Ruthie’s last blog post…Big Changes Coming to Menu In A Box

  32. Faerylandmom

    I cannot believe I have NEVER thought of changing habits this way…I always go all-out for about a week, maybe two, and it just burns me out, and I wonder how on earth other people do it.

    I’m going to participate in this, I think. And I know just what habit I’ll start with. Quiet time. I have to work out the details first, then I’ll be sure to post about it, and link back here.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

    Faerylandmom’s last blog post…Summer Fun Photo Contest

  33. Monica

    Habits ~ don’t we all…..

    I’m planning to do more blogging on habits as well. Right now my biggest habit that I am working on is getting more rest. Its really hard b/c I can get so much accomplished at night, but then wake up tired the next day. Here’s the link

    Monica’s last blog post…

  34. Sarah

    Those are really good hints for change. I think that even I can handle that!

  35. Denise

    Kaizen is also used in the manufacturing world. I work for a large company who has studied other companies and their processes. This word was introduced to our company a few years ago. Small gradual changes to produce long lasting change sounds good to me! That’s why the latest and greatest diets don’t work – they are not sustainable. It’s all about making the process or habit a part of your lifestyle just like brushing your teeth.

    Denise’s last blog post…she’s no Laura and we don’t live on the Prairie

  36. FitMom

    Great article. Very helpful. Love the part about the exercise. Do you have a plan to do in those ten minutes each day? Obviously, this is my area of blogging!!

    As far as a new habit, MY HOUSE. One part of the house needs to be cleaned and organized each day.

    FitMom’s last blog post…I am not a patient person

  37. Vanessa

    We didn’t do so good on July’s habit focus of excersising four times a week however I am still sticking with creating a new habit every month. This month I plan to read more. I read a lot for school but rarely just for enjoyment. I’m hoping to be able to read a book once a week this month and hopefully carry on into the months to follow.

    Vanessa’s last blog post…A Month of Reading

  38. Francine

    Thank you for setting a great example in this post and for all of the thoughtful, helpful comments.

    I read that it takes 3-4 weeks until a new behavior becomes a habit and that it is best to replace a habit you are trying to break with a positive habit (running for smoking) to fill up the time you spent on the “negative” habit.

    I have 2 alarm clocks to get up- one near the bed and one in the bathroom. I also sometimes bribe myself to get up early with a Starbucks coffee (I have become one of the brew at home crowd).

    I have been getting to bed at 10pm. Did anyone else see the 60 Minutes segment about how Americans used to get 6-8 hours of sleep, but it is now 4-6? One side effect of less sleep is overeating. It is a comforting feeling to get to bed earlier – I feel like a little kid with a bedtime; wake up more refreshed; and feel like I am taking care of myself.

    Best Wishes,

  39. Meegan

    Well, July? That month seemed to just fly by!
    July, for me was to keep on top of the washing/folding/putting away… I’m sad to report that for the most part this did not happen. On the weekend just gone, I folded, sorted and put away 6 loads of washing, and that wasn’t any of the current stuff! In my defense, July was a month of visitors and appointments and starting preschool…. But, no excuses though, right?!

    So for August, I am going to maintain the laundry status quo in our house (already started on this one today – I even ironed what I got off the line straight away!) and attempt to go for a brisk walk twice a week. Being nearly 30 weeks pregnant and the middle of winter makes for a challenge, but one I need to attempt. I have to have this baby in late October and get back into some sort of shape to fit into a bridesmaid’s dress in early March!

    Meegan’s last blog post…Monday’s List

  40. Darcy

    I love this idea! It seems so much more manageable. My goal for August is the same that I started part way through July, start working out more to lose the baby belly. My youngest is 17 months so plenty of time has passed and the belly has got to go! I have workout video to do while the kiddos are down for a nap. But, so far the last two weeks (since I made it my July/August goal) I have done terribly because life just gets in the way.
    I love your comment of showering ourselves with grace. I feel this is a good goal, but it also ends up being one more thing I beat myself up about not doing if it doesn’t get done…
    Thanks for another perspective/idea on how to implement.

    Darcy’s last blog post…Sweet Ittybitty…

  41. Meg

    I love all your posts but this one is especially fab! In June I joined a gym and made a promise to myself that I would ‘get fit and come off the blood pressure meds’. I didn’t want to put the stress of “losing weight” on myself but really I guess deep down that’s my ultimate goal here. So I started to go to the gym with a buddy, as I am 32 years old and couldn’t step foot in a gym on my own for sheer embarrassment.

    After three weeks of going I was able to get to the gym on my own and didn’t feel ashamed of my size any longer. I go to the gym 5 days a week for an hour at time, I haven’t lost more than 5 lbs but I do notice a difference in the way I feel and for sure have built some muscle. I am now 12 days smoke free as well and I know this is a slow day by day process too. I find that once you commit yourself to something and you begin to see the bennifits of that action you gain inner strength and can accomplish more goals.

    Thank you for your blog, I love the nuggets of knowledge you lay out. :o)

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