Kolja Sam Pluemer

An opinionated guide on building habits that stick

How principles from Software Engineering can help you achieve your goals


Desk with notebook

Welcome. What follows is a comprehensive overview of my current understanding on how to build habits. It’s not revolutionary. It’s hardly even provocative. It is an attempt to write down my process for creating and sticking to new habits, as I do it currently. No more, no less.

What kind of habits are we talking about?

Before you are going to commit time and mental energy reading this, you probably want to know what I mean when I say “habit” - or rather, whether this article applies to you.

Answer: I will try my best to keep any advice high-level and general, so it should be applicable to all kinds of things, such as:

  • going running or to the gym
  • writing diary
  • learning frontend development
  • spending more time with your kids
  • being nicer to your spouse
  • learning Portuguese
  • side-hustling on Gumroad
  • going about your day more mindfully

I will focus mostly on building habits (eating more veggies) not breaking habits (eating less junk food), however most principles are reversible and thus applicable to negative habits as well as positive ones.

Success rate and time until payoff

Proving great restraint, I did not title this post “How To Instantly Achieve All Your Goals With Bulletproof Habits”. Instead, here as the attempt to honestly appraise my method:

Nowadays, I succeed in building a consistent routine with around 70-80% of new habits. The time until habit-building pays off can mean two things:

  • Time until the habit is effortless and easier to do than not to do. There are a lot of specific numbers floating around for this, which I consider kind of silly. In my experience, the time until this happens is between one week and never.
  • Time until you achieve visible progress (e.g. practicing guitar > being able to play the song you want). This is highly dependent on the topic, and I would say varies between instantaneously (applying the principles of NVC in conversation) and two years (reading foundational papers of my field). Any longer without any clear success and chances are that either the goal is bad, the habit is bad, or they don’t match.


That said, let’s dive in. Here is my four-step plan for habit-building. It is vaguely linear, although you may find yourself going back and forth between the steps a couple times.

One more thing: Almost none of the stuff you are going to read here was invented by me. I stand on the shoulder of giants, as the saying goes. A lot of my sources are stuff that you would tag self-help, or adapted from software development.

1. Ask why, then ask it again

First giant of the day: Toyota. Sakichi Toyoda, in fact.

Toyota’s engineers are using (or pretend to use, I wouldn’t know) a principle they call Five Whys. Essentially, it goes like this:

  1. You want to know, do, build or fix something
  2. You ask “Why?”
  3. You take the answer to that, and ask “Why?” again
  4. You take the answer to that, and ask “Why?” again
  5. You take the answer to that, and ask “Why?” again
  6. You take the answer to that, and ask “Why?” again

Now, Toyota is probably mostly concerned with chasing engineering problems through a globally distributed mesh of software-hardware complexity, and you are reading this article because you want to read more and go running again (or something). I know. Bear with me.

The goal of the Five Whys is finding the real root cause of something. It’s insanely powerful in engineering, and I would say the same applies to habit building. That is because there are several dangers in trying to build habits without knowing why you want to do so.

Let me illustrate with an example:

Say you commit to loose weight. You build an elaborate habit. It works, and you start seeing results. But you are still unhappy with your weight, even though you are hitting your goals, most of the time. Finally, you loose motivation and stop. You are disheartened and confused.

Now, what the hell happened here? I would argue that your goal probably wasn’t to loose weight. Maybe it was pleasing a nagging relative, overcoming insecurity, finding a relationship or even impressing a hypothetical person you will never meet.

Without even judging any of these deeper goals, they have a damning common factor: Loosing weight is only tangentially or not at all related to them!

As a result, your subjective feeling of success or failure is decoupled almost entirely from the habit you are trying to build. A recipe for frustration.

Prevent this from happening by taking just a couple minutes to figure our why you are interested in building habit X, and why the reasons for that matter.

Be aware that I am not recommending to rigidly apply the Five Whys to habit building. Rather, be flexible about it. There are a couple of reasons why the Five Whys should not be applied religiously when creating habits:

  • Some stuff is not that deep. E.g., you want to implement a certain diet because your doctor told you it will improve your general well-being. Fair enough.
  • Some aspects of you may be hard of even painful to face. For example, it may be a good idea to implement a light exercise habit without doing a mental deep dive into all the trauma and insecurities that may be connected to the topic of health and exercising for you.
  • It is totally possible and probably not bad to do stuff for silly reasons. I have a friend who learned two languages just to be less reliant on mediocre translations of movies and shows. Good for him! If you are considering building a habit “for shits and giggles” or “because my friend bet $20 that I won’t achieve X”, it is probably not worth analyzing it to death; just go ahead.

To summarize: Think about your motivations and the reasons for that motivation for a bit - in moderation. Be OK with the possibility that you will ditch your whole habit idea here and now. Before you go ahead with building a habit that serves no master, read up on Sunken Cost Fallacy.

2. Find the minimal habit

Now that we have a goal, we are going to do what you came here for: Design a habit. Ditch your original habit idea, and take only your goal; that is, your deepest Why? from the previous step. It’s ok if you arrive back at your original habit at the end of this step, but don’t fool yourself! Always find solutions to problems, not problems for solutions.

To illustrate how we get from goal to habit again, let me draw yet another parallel to software development. In startup circles, there is often talk about an MVP, a Minimal Valuable Product. The idea is:

Once you identified the real problem (see step 1), find the tiniest possible system, thing or process that solves it.

You will want to do that - for your goal. A Minimal Valuable Habit, if you want. This is hard. Don’t be discouraged. If you are serious about this - or seriously struggling with this - I can not recommend Atomic Habits enough. It’s a densely packed wealth of information on this topic, and probably the best self-help book you will read in quite some time.

In case you are not willing to read a whole book, let me give you some pointers. Divide & conquer. The way I see it, there are two main components to finding a minimal habit.

On the one hand, you have to find a really tiny activity that nonetheless moves you towards your goal. Ideally, it should be doable every day, any day. Independent of your will-power, condition, mood and daily schedule. Resist the urge to be grand. You won’t go from 0 minutes in the gym to 4h at the gym every day in one day. That’s ok. A good Litmus test on whether your habit is good is whether you are willing to do it on the same day you plan it (as in: today). No, no starting tomorrow or next Monday or next year. If you are unwilling to commit to your habit today, it’s probably not minimal enough.

On the other hand, you have to keep your habit tiny. In software, developers and managers are often tempted to “enhance” their planned MVPs with bells and whistles. Wouldn’t our product be better if we add user accounts, chat, search, customization, social media support and a blog? You will experience similar urges when planning your habit.

Resist this.

Contrary to the opinion of affiliate bloggers and excluding stilettos as well as ice-climbing rated hiking boots, you can go for a short run in any kind of shoes. You can write blog posts on any platform with all kinds of hardware, including that shitty phone from 2015 that you happen to have at hand. You can spend more time listening to your spouse without restructuring your career or even your daily schedule.

Take your time, especially to carefully consider the kind of resistance you are encountering. Perfectionism? Anxiety? Wishful Thinking? Accept, understand and work around. Stay minimal.

3. Optimize, Refine, Sharpen

Now you have a goal, and a habit. Or rather, a proto-goal and a proto-habit, because they aren’t perfectly defined yet. Chances are that you still have ambiguities and snags build into them. Ignore them and preventable failure looms.

What you have to do to prevent this is detail work. There is no reason to be inventive here; use the SMART approach for the goal and the Four Laws of Behavior Change from Atomic Habits for your habit. Go over both and and make sure that the following points are met. While there are endless excellent sources for both [0][1]; here is my own short summary:


  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound (not as important with habits)


  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

If you want to go deeper on this, I recommend reading up on the concepts of Anti-Fragile, internal/external locus of control, Bewaring Minor Inconveniences, The Slight Edge, The One Thing and of course MVPs.

Anyways, this is the fun part. As such, it’s very easy to overdo this and in the process fail to actually start the habit. Overcome this by limiting the time-spend on this aspect to a single day - ideally today. And don’t forget to do your first iteration of the actual habit on the same day! Always stay minimal.

4. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

Now, do the thing. Seriously, you don’t really gain anything from this chapter unless you did your habit at least once or twice already.

Once your habit starts rolling, a somewhat frustrating revelation will follow: You can never just build one habit.

At the very least, you need one other habit to surveil how your other habit is going. And probably another one, to surveil the surveillance habit. For example, say you are going for daily runs. Are you going to track the runs, and if so, how? What if the tracker breaks down or is full? Where do you keep your running shoes? What if they break? What if you are sick, or traveling? What if you just straight up forget your habit, how will you remember that you forgot? How bad does the weather have to be to count as an excuse? What will you do when your initial goal is met, or turns out to be too hard? Do you want a running partner? What if they stop the habit?

Some of these may seem silly, but don’t underestimate this stuff. I once inadvertently interrupted a long-running reading habit for several months by placing my Kindle in an inconvenient place in my apartment and then just sort of forgot about reading.

You cannot foresee every snag. Don’t try. Instead, continuously review, improve, iterate, optimize.

The mean thing is, there is no silver bullet for that either. Or there might be for you, but you need yet another habit to continuously search for it. As in, you may want a habit to improve your habit-building strategy. Fun. Adding to that, there is ongoing danger of both overdoing and underdoing it; you need to balance forgiveness-discipline, exploration-exploitation, planning-doing, organization-spontaneity, flexibility-rigidness.

Be prepared for this.

However, right now, go do your habit. Reviewing a working habit is way more fun.