How to Break Habits Down Into Chunks


Practice_MethodI realize that many of my posts are riddled with analogies, but recently it has become very clear to me that my training as a musician has helped me greatly with creating new habits.

“Take it a bit at a time” is an instruction from parents and teachers that we have heard ever since we were little.


Because it works.

Whether it was learning to read or executing a dance move, we learned better when we broke steps down into chunks.  This certainly is how the greatest musicians practice even to this day; small chunks which are later connected to form larger phrases.  So we must take this approach when learning anything new, and we also must recognize (and celebrate) our successes along the way, no matter how small they are.

When I am teaching my son to read, we break words into chunks (sounds of letters), then we group letters, then try the words.  Then the words become the “chunk” of the sentence; sentences become paragraphs, and on and on…

Take the habit you may be focusing on now as an example.  Are you trying to create the perfect spending plan?  Learning to swim?  Playing an instrument?

Once you have focused on something, here’s what you do:

Engrave the skill in your brain.

If you are learning to swim, watch videos of swimmers for 15 minutes each day.  Learning an instrument?  Do the same…YouTube is a beautiful thing!  Watch videos of great motivational speakers like Dave Ramsey or other financial gurus to engrave the perfect financial habits in your brain.

Do this daily, right before you venture into doing the skill yourself.

Break it down

Ask yourself:  What is the smallest actionable step toward executing this skill that you can take right now?

Is it simply laying flat in the pool with a kick board to get your breathing down pat?  How about a segment of a scale or half of one measure of music?  If you master just the “grocery” line of your budget for the week by menu planning, is that not progress?

Make the connection

Figure out what the next chunk to that skill is.  For swimming it may be taking one stroke after laying flat.  Another line of the budget would be the next step after groceries.  You get the idea.

Connect one chunk to the other, but only after you have mastered each one.  And keep going…

Just like putting sounds to words, then to sentences, right?

No matter what the skill is, the same rules apply:

Visualize where you want to be; break it down into very simple chunks; then connect them.

Then Repeat.

Be happy perfecting small steps, as opposed to completing a whole task in mediocre fashion.

Good luck!



  1. Ha! Very resonant post. I chuckled to myself last night because as each student put their score on the music stand before me, phrases were color-coded to mark the limits of their practicing for that particular moment or that week. What’s surprising is how resistant to this method most people are. I suppose it is counter-intuitive to think that by getting so microscopic that we actually save time.

    Divide and conquer, like you say, is a critical skill for learning. Period.
    cj recently posted…The Joy of Upscale JunkMy Profile

    • The young ones are reticent to practice that way for sure, CJ. I just tell them “you are becoming living proof as to why only a few become great”. That bugs them…

  2. You have touched upon our two fortes – reading instruction and playing an instrument. It is no wonder we both gobbled this one up!

    After 15 years of marriage to a classical guitarist, I realize it is about the Squeak and the Ping Ping. CJ sits his butt in the practice chair every day (Squeak) and then tunes his guitar (Ping Ping). When you make it happen day after day after day, great things happen.

    I love your thorough explanation of this seemingly simple concept – which is not so simple at all or I may be playing bango like Bela Fleck by now instead of just watching YouTube videos!

  3. Good post Tony! Taking those small steps you can help you as you strive towards reaching success. Sure, it would be easy to accomplish everything with one swing at it, but you’ll likely fail at doing it.
    John S @ Frugal Rules recently posted…Even More Blogging Tips From a Beginner, Part IIMy Profile

  4. ‘The whole’ as they say Tony, becomes ‘greater than the sum of its parts.’ That’s what I’m telling myself as I chunk my way towards the finishing line of writing my weekend post. :-)

    Succinct and helpful Tony. Great post!

  5. Great points as usual Tony! Most people underestimate the insights that can be gained by breaking down and deconstructing simple things. “engraving into your brain” is a great phrase, I’ll definitely use some of these ideas in my writing too.
    greenminimalism recently posted…3 Ways You Can Break A Bad Habit Or Addiction FastMy Profile


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  2. […] the master of prolific output at We Only Do This Once for his recent article ‘How to Break Habits Down Into Chunks’ which fired off enough synapses in my tiny mind for me to remember to include the section on […]

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