How to Create Good Habits that Actually Stick
“To change a habit, make a conscious decision, then act out the new behavior.” – Maxwell Maltz
Habits form the foundation of everything you do. Without realizing it your brain has created thousands of habits to help you make it through your day.
Along the way, you have created some bad habits. Habits that you wish you could kick or replace.
For some, it’s unhealthy snacking or smoking. For others, it could be an addiction to alcohol or biting your nails.
It’s important to understand first, how you created those habits, and why your brain actually needs these habits to survive, before you try to change your habits.
The human brain creates habits because it has to. Scientists have realized that the limbic part of our brain, the earliest formed part of our brain, is responsible for simple fight or flight responses. Decisions made here are often referred to as “gut instincts”.
Think about all the conscious and unconscious decisions your brain makes each and every day. Oftentimes, you aren’t actively thinking about these decisions. You are on autopilot.
How is it you are able to drive a car at a high rate of speed without really thinking about it? You can back out of your driveway without consciously thinking of the actions to maneuver the car.
It’s because your brain has created a habit. Your brain is constantly looking for the safest and quickest way to get something done so it can move on to the next task.
But what happens when your brain creates a habit that you don’t like?
You must reprogram your brain and teach it how to “replace” the old habit (more on that later).
The 3 Steps of Habit Formation
One of the best books I have read on the topic of habits comes from Charles Duhigg and “The Power of Habit”.
A lot of what I have learned about my habits came from reading this book. In the book, Duhigg suggests that all habits come down to 3 things
1. The cue
2. A routine
3. The reward
All habits are triggered by a cue. The cue could be something as simple as feeling tired at work.
The routine could then be that you get up from your desk and go into the kitchen to find a drink. You reach for something with caffeine and sugar to jumpstart your tired feeling.
The reward is you don’t feel tired anymore and have a delicious treat.
If you start looking at all of your habits (good or bad) in this way, you can see where some of your bad habits are being formed. Oftentimes we create bad habits without realizing it until it is too late.
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How do you reprogram your brain to fight these bad habits? I would guess, that deep down, you know the answer to this already.
You must consciously change one step in the habit formation loop. Here is an example.
Cue: you feel tired
Routine: instead of walking to the kitchen, you leave the office and walk around the block. You call someone and catch up.
Reward: you are no longer tired and feel more purpose in your walks.
By replacing the routine, you can replace the bad habit with a good habit.
This is incredibly important
Charles Duhigg suggests that you can never truly get rid of a bad habit. The brain is aware of it and will always remember it. That is why quitting smoking is so difficult.
Instead, you can only REPLACE a habit.
Practical Tips & Strategies for Creating Habits that Stick
By now you might be thinking, “great I get that I need to change my habits but HOW do I do that”?
Here are some practical ways to create amazing habits that will stick.
Certain habits can have a domino effect – get one habit right, and many other good habits will naturally follow. These keystone habits allow for exponential growth.
A 2009 study on weight loss tried to get obese people to follow a simple habit – write down everything they ate, at least one day a week. While difficult at first, it became a habit for many.
Unexpectedly, this small habit improved their diet. When forced to study what they ate, the participants couldn’t help noticing when they ate unhealthy foods. They proactively started to plan future meals so that when they wanted a snack, they reached for an apple instead of a candy bar.
The study participants who did not fill out their journal saw no results and continue with their unhealthy habits.
Keystone habits are all about small wins that act like a snowball rolling downhill. Take some time today and think of a small change you can make that would lead to bigger changes.
Correctly Use Your Willpower
Willpower is the motivation to exercise will. Don’t you just hate those definitions that use the word to describe itself?
Willpower is your ability to say “yes” and “no” to things you know are right and wrong.
One of the most famous scientific studies around willpower is the “Marshmallow Test”. A group of researchers gave children a marshmallow and told them if they could wait 15 minutes, they could have another.
As expected, some kids ate the marshmallow right away while others waited.
The study followed some of these kids on in life and found those with more willpower were more successful in life.
Knowing that willpower differs in all of us, you can see that some habits will be harder for you to shake than others. For many of us, we have a finite amount of willpower each day.
Hypothetically, let’s say you have the ability to say “no” to bad choices 23 times per day.
You must exercise willpower at the right times so you don’t waste it on unimportant decisions only to suffer to a lack of willpower later in the day.
Personally, I think best in the morning. It’s when I am most productive and effective. Therefore, I should strive to frontload all of my good habits at the beginning of the day when my willpower is the highest.
I should read, go to the gym, eat a healthy breakfast (and prepare healthy snacks for the day).
I need to do this because I know around 6 PM my willpower is at its lowest point.
Design Your Habit
Going back to what we said earlier, about your brain creating habits without you realizing it, it’s important to shift your thinking about this. Instead, you should consciously think about “designing” all of your habits.
Have a clear reward in mind. Question yourself about why you do the things you do.
If you are struggling with eating too much junk food at night, figure out what about that unhealthy food is creating a reward in your brain.
After you have clarity on your purpose or reason for the habit, set yourself up for success by “designing” your environment.
Psychically remove anything that is a cue for your bad habit. If you eat junk food at night, go into your pantry and throw it in the trash. You are one step closer to setting yourself up for success.
Now “design” a new routine. Instead of walking to the pantry for a snack, maybe you go to the fridge where you have a prepared healthy snack waiting.
One of the best things you can do when creating new habits is finding others on the same journey or path as you.
One of the reasons why AA is so impactful for alcoholics is the accountability and support you gain from going through a struggle with others.
You can leverage their tips and techniques and apply them to your life.
You will become inspired when you see them changing their habits and it will make you want to follow suit.
If you can tie your success to someone else, you create more meaning and purpose around accomplishing the new habit.
All habits are created by your brain in order to save time and help you complete all the tasks in your day.
Along the way, you have picked up some bad habits.
You can only replace these bad habits with good habits.
In order to do that you must consciously change 1 of the 3 parts of the habit loop. But in order to make the newly formed habit stick, you need to make sure it’s…
- It is a keystone habit (small win)
- Your willpower isn’t used up for the day
- You are designing your habit to be successful
- You have support to help you make the change
You will fail multiple times trying to change habits. That is 100% okay. Just find out where you got off track, pinpoint the next step and course correct.
You got this.
About the Author
Alex Zerbach loves helping high achievers optimize their personal growth and gain more clarity on the meaning of their lives. Check out Alex’s Character Diamond exercise here. Alex loves learning and reading in his spare time. You can follow his personal growth journey at growthandpurpose.com