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How to build Consistent Habits: Zero-Day

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According to Market Research, the self-improvement market grew exponentially in the last decade, reaching the value of almost $10 billion in 2016 and estimated to grow to $13.2 in 2022 (only in the U.S.). But still, we don’t know how to build consistent habits.

In 2015, a study showed how 94% of the millennials will invest $300 a month on self-improvement. Since then the trend had an average growth of 5.6% and it’s turning into a genuine contender in worldwide economics.

We are living the self-improvement era, the personal growth renaissance. Our culture turned back the focus on the individual, pushed by the powerful need of becoming entrepreneurs and self-sufficient beings.

We crave to find our peace of mind and get in shape and we want to understand personal finance, or how to invest in our future. So we start hundreds of healthy practices to improve our lives and make them better.

But the urge of growing is a motivational boost. Eventually, we miss one meditation session or one workout session, and we give up slowly. In those moments, we need an anchor to save us from drowning.

Since I took the self-improvement path, I failed many times. I did many things — like meditating, regular exercising, cold showers, fasting, journaling, and many more. But then I stopped each of them and I had to restart.

Breaking the series was painful every time. Still, I did not give up. On the contrary, I developed a technique to restart any practice easily and without shame. I built that anchor and I can use it every time I fail.

The Zero-Day Technique and Consistent Habits

Have you ever said to yourself: “I will do a diet, starting from next Monday.”?

It happened to all of us at least once in our lives. Whenever you start something new, you need to have a zero-day, which means a day to say goodbye to your terrible habits. In the example above, Sunday is your zero-day, while Monday is your day one.

This is an unintended zero-day. You want to start a diet, so you choose the day most suitable for you, usually Monday, and use it as a day one. What you should aim for, instead, is to recognize when you are renouncing your healthy practices, so you can force a zero-day whenever you need it.

The Zero-Day technique implies the possibility of having a day one from which to start, even if you already started a habit. In this way, you trick your mind into a reset. You get motivated again thanks to the expectations your brain builds when you enter an unfamiliar environment.

What happens next?

Once you realize you are not meditating consistently, or writing, or running an hour per day, it’s important to force a zero-day as soon as possible — which means today or tomorrow.

It’s useless to pressure yourself into performing today. Your brain will build a natural resistance to your action since it will see it as an external imposition. Decide which will be the last day you miss out on your duties instead. By doing that, you will mislead your mind and use its planning propensity to break its resistance.

The Zero-Day technique is fundamental when you try to build a new habit. When you are fresh into an activity, you will probably over-perform, and thus skip repetitions. Your mind will get overheated by your motivation. Your old patterns will get disrupted unexpectedly, and this will cause a state of discomfort too big to manage.

If you skip once, it’s not a problem. The problem arises when you skip twice, then trice, and then stop performing for good. In those moments, you need a zero-day.

What to do on a Zero-Day

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

A zero-day is not the day in which you start again, it’s the day before that.

On a zero-day, you need to concede to your brain laziness and allow yourself to recollect and get ready to start again with healthy practices and hard work. You need to relax and be lazy.

Do the things you enjoy the most. Read a book, watch tv, or go for a walk. Take a one-hour bath, or a massage, or pass the time cooking something special while listening to an inspiring podcast. Spend time with your family, or with your friends. Spend the day outside if you wish. Plan a shopping trip or an entire day in an amusement park.

It is not important what you do — on the zero-day stop working on yourself. Forbid the self-improvement topic or anything that relates to it. Think about yourself and yourself only.

How to understand when to force a zero-day

There are no stable limits you can impose yourself to understand when forcing a zero-day is necessary. This is because everyone follows their own rules with healthy practices.

If I run twice a week, for example, skipping one session will be a significant warning, while if I run every day that wouldn’t be a problem.

Even if there are no strict rules, you can use two thresholds to track your consistency: skipping twice and the 20% limit.

1 – Skipping Twice

For activities you perform every day, or almost every day, skipping one repetition is not a big deal, while skipping two could be a warning event. If you bypass two repetitions in a row, you risk giving up on the practice. Your brain gets used to not doing it and builds the contrary habit because easier.

When you will try to get back on work, you will feel a resistance that will prevent you from enjoying what you are doing. So you will have to force yourself into doing it until you will feel trapped.

To prevent that, force a zero-day when you skip two repetitions. Take a day off, and plan when to start over.

2 – The 20% Limit

If you meditate for 10 minutes every day, then you drop to 9, and then 8, your brain is developing a resistance to meditation. This usually means you are overdoing it.

Here, if you drop below 80% of a planned activity, force a zero-day and start over from that 80% threshold, trying to reach 100% again.

Build Consistent Habits

Deciding to build a habit is simple, but keeping it can become the hardest thing you will ever do. When you miss a practice, it means it became a burden, so consider simplifying it and making it easier.

If you do it, you can force a zero-day and start again. If you don’t, you may give up, or fail, and each time it will be harder and harder to rebuild.


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Article first published on The Ascent.

Cover photo by Matt Duncan on Unsplash.

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