Productivity • Using Evernote

The 4 Ds of Habit Creation

Ciara Conlon is a leadership coach, Evernote Certified Consultant, and the author of three books, including Rise Before Your Bull, and other habits of successful people. For more productivity advice, visit her website,

In Evernote’s recent blog post “4 Simple Ways to Break a Bad Habit,” you learned about the Habit Loop and the role it plays in your life. Understanding the Cue, Craving, Response and Reward of the Habit Loop can help you identify patterns of negative behavior that have become automated in your life, often without your conscious awareness. 

Once a habit is automated, though, it is difficult to break, because it occurs in the most primitive part of the brain: the basal ganglia. In reality, the most successful way to break a bad habit forever is to replace it with a positive one.

So let’s delve a little deeper into the creation of habits and how you can change your behavior to make positive habits, such as planning your week, clearing your inbox, or even becoming a ‘morning person,’ easier and more consistent with each day.

21 days: myth or truth?

You may have heard it takes 21 days to form a habit; it turns out this may not be entirely true. The idea was first suggested by a plastic surgeon who observed that it took his patients an average of 21 days to get used to their new faces. But more recent research on the subject, by Phillippa Lally et al. in the University of London, found it took people an average of 66 days to create a new habit, with results ranging from 15 to 254 days. One thing, however, remains true: The more we repeat a habit under the same circumstances, the easier it gets.

While mastering the Habit Loop will help you build better habits in the short term, it doesn’t account for all the elements you need to consider before attempting to make life-long change—elements which, if absent, can actually sabotage your success.

Here then are my 4 Ds of Habit Creation, otherwise known as The Habit Method: Desire, Decision, Design, and Discipline.

Illustration of the 4 Ds of habit creation, plus environment.

Is the Desire there?

Desire is the first, and possibly most important, component of habit creation. You must have a burning desire for the new habit, and understand why you want it. 

What is the goal you long to reach? Why is it so important in your life? Without true desire your resolve will be weak when the going gets tough. Your desire is what will fuel the fire when the light is burning low.

Often our thoughts work against us, damaging our attempts before we have even begun. But when you focus on desire and are clear about what you want and why, your thoughts and beliefs will be in alignment, supporting you in moving in the direction of your goals. 

Try keeping a journal to capture your daily thoughts in relation to your new habit, to make sure they’re encouraging your efforts. Your positive thoughts will be the support system for your desire, propelling you toward your new habit. 

Has the Decision been made?

Making the decision to move forward will carry your desire from thought to action. When you decide you’re going to do something, you must make a commitment. Move away from half-hearted decisions and promise yourself you’ll do what it takes to reach the goals you’ve set.

Deciding what you want and making sure it’s your top priority are vital for success. But often we get confused about which direction to take and what to do next. The Eisenhower Matrix can help you identify your priorities and ensure the direction you choose is the right one for your life right now. Once you make the decision, this clarity will help you move forward fearlessly. 

Take time to Design your habit

Now you know what you want, and have committed to getting it, you need to make a plan. How are you going to achieve this goal? What do you need to get going? Who will support you? Spending time to get clear on these now will leave less chance for opting out later. 

Thinking through your plan in advance and having tools and techniques will help you move into action. The Habit Canvas is a resource that can help you plan out your new habit, paying attention to the 4 Ds and increasing your chances of success.

Do you have the Discipline?

Willpower and discipline alone aren’t enough to form new habits, but the latter plays an important role in the process. Until your habit becomes second nature, you will need to rely on discipline to help you establish the new routines. Using Evernote’s Habit Tracker template will keep you motivated while you’re working toward automating your habit. 

For discipline to work, it also requires a strong command of your thoughts. Meditation can help you rein in the ‘monkey mind’ and better manage your unhelpful negative thoughts. Insight Timer is a great tool for both beginner and experienced meditators and claims to have the largest free library of guided meditations on earth.

BONUS: Is your Environment right?

It’s an element that is often overlooked, but your environment has a big influence on your state of mind and state of being. Even Charles Darwin admitted he hadn’t put enough emphasis on environment in his theory of natural selection!

When your environment is designed optimally, it will be easier for you to take the regular action needed to create your new habits. A challenging environment is not an excuse to opt out or give up, though. It may require more planning and adaptation, and a little more creative design and discipline, but if you have the 4 Ds in place, your actions will still lead you to success. No matter what, take daily action to ensure your environment is supporting you and not sabotaging you.

A few positive habits to get started

If you’re looking for inspiration, here are a few powerful habits that can transform your productivity and positively impact other areas of your life.

  1. Start a weekly review
  2. Use Evernote’s Weekly Review template to help you stay in control of your workload and your life. Create a recurring appointment in your calendar on a Friday afternoon to review the week and plan for the upcoming week. You can find David Allen’s weekly review checklist here.

  3. Plan your life
  4. Build the habit of planning with Evernote’s daily, weekly, monthly and yearly planning templates, to keep your work in order and bring focus to your goals. Taking the time to plan will reduce the chaos in your life and make it easier for you to reach your goals.

  5. Achieve Inbox Zero
  6. Stop using your inbox as your to-do list, and store your tasks and goals in Evernote instead. Integrations for Gmail and Outlook let you forward emails from your inbox directly to Evernote, giving you a place to store all your stuff, and stay more organized and in control. Merlin Mann, the guy who made us all believe Inbox Zero was a possibility, has lots of tips on his website to help you to reach this previously elusive state.

Creating positive habits is about more than grit and determination; there is a proven method you can follow to greatly increase your chances of success. With some reflection and a little bit of planning you’ll be well on your way to creating the positive habits you’ve always craved.

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