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Habits are behaviors we perform on a daily or otherwise regular basis. They’re not just any behaviors, though. A behavior is a habit if some component of it is at least somewhat “automatic.”
Some studies estimate that habits make up over 40% of our everyday behavior.1 Since we spend almost half our lives on autopilot, learning how to shape and leverage habits to our benefit can have a huge impact.
In this guide, I’m going to tell you exactly how habits work, dispel the 21-day habit-formation myth, show you how to stick to healthy habits and break bad ones, and point you towards habits that will change your life.
Let’s do this.
Table of Contents
How Habits Work
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg summarizes a lot of research on how habits are formed and maintained and how they can be broken. In a nutshell, habits comprise three main parts:
- An environmental cue
- A behavioral response
- A reward (or the removal of an unpleasant stimulus)
With a habit, there’s some cue that triggers a behavior. For example, if you eat at the same time every day, time is the trigger, eating is the behavior—that’s a habit.
Habits are reinforced by rewards. Sometimes the rewards are easy to spot. Take our eating example: the pleasure of eating food is the reward.
Sometimes the reward is not so easy to spot. If you’re in the habit of checking your phone every time you’re bored, the reward is a bit more subtle—and there’s a good chance it’s relief from the anxiety of your own thoughts. But let’s not go down that rabbit hole here.
So, from above, we can say that a habit is formed when three things come together:
CUE > BEHAVIOR > REWARD
The more often the cue, behavior, and reward occur in close time and proximity to one another, the stronger a habit becomes.
This is true whether we’re aware of it or not. Hence, bad habits can often easily form if we’re not careful.
For example, if you’re a smoker, your cravings are typically triggered by a cue that you associate with smoking: finishing a big meal, drinking a beer, or seeing someone smoking a cigarette on TV.
This cue then triggers your desire to perform the habituated behavior. Then you smoke, and your brain rewards you—you feel more relaxed, calmer (and of course, the nicotine helps as well).
Conversely, to create a new, healthy habit—or even to break a bad habit—you’ll want to be as intentional as possible with all three parts. You can manipulate your environment to introduce cues that you can then intentionally start to associate with a desired behavior and reinforce it all with a reward. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
What Habits Are Holding You Back in Life?
How Long Does It Take to Form a New Habit?
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no magical number of days to form a new habit.2
Furthermore, research shows that our brains don’t simply sum up the repetitive behavior we engage in and then, all of a sudden, treat it as an automatic habit once we’ve achieved some minimum number of repetitions. Instead, habits come about gradually over time and in a non-linear fashion.3
At first, consciously repeating a behavior in the same context on a regular basis causes a relatively quick increase in how automatic the behavior is; i.e., how habitual it is.
This makes sense, since at first, the behavior is not at all automatic, so it stands to reason that any amount of practice will have the biggest gains towards automating the behavior at this point. After repeated practice, however, the behavior is refined and your brain gradually switches over to full habit mode.
Studies have also found that after something becomes a habit, our behavior isn’t actually guided by our internal goals and motivations anymore.4 Again, habits are just automatic responses to the cues in our environment.
But—and this is the important part—with our goals in mind, we can consciously use our willpower to manipulate our environments and develop desired habitual responses to the cues of our choosing. In this way, we can leverage our environments on a daily basis to develop automatic, habitual behaviors that will help us reach our goals.
How to Create and Stick to Healthy Habits
Many people start out with good intentions and a strong desire to develop healthy habits only to slip back into their old, bad-habit ways. Studies have identified several factors that contribute to forming and keeping a lifestyle with healthy habits. Let’s take each in turn.
Focus on the Cue
Habit researchers have found time and again that in order to create new habits, we should NOT focus on the behavior but rather focus on the cue.5
We spend so much time and effort on creating or eliminating the behavior itself, when instead we should really be dedicating our willpower to consciously creating and/or reorganizing the cues in our environment that trigger those habits.
Let’s say you want to start working out on a regular basis. Instead of just focusing on developing the habit of “working out,” focus on developing a routine around initiating a workout. This may seem like a subtle difference, but it’s actually huge.
An easy way to do this is to choose a cue that already occurs regularly in your daily life, such as getting home from work. Then, during the early stages of developing your workout habit, focus your effort on going straight to your room after you get home and changing into your workout clothes. Then go fill up your water bottle and head straight to the gym or hit the running trail or whatever.
You want to develop the habit of putting yourself in the position to work out regularly, which makes it more likely that you’ll work out regularly.
After a while, you’ll start to notice that when you get home from work (environmental cue/trigger), it takes little to no effort to go to your room, throw on your workout clothes, and head to the gym (habitual response).
You’ll even start to look forward to it, and maybe even feel like something in your life is off when you don’t work out. And that’s the power of habit.
To reinforce the habit, use the “reward” component of the habit equation. With our exercise example, you might get done working out and treat yourself to a (healthy) snack or maybe schedule a post-workout rest session by watching an episode of your favorite TV show.
Some people derive enough reward from the exercise itself (e.g., “runner’s high”), which acts as a powerful reinforcement for their habit. Whatever you do, be sure to incorporate a healthy reward into your habit routine.
Know the Basics
The next factor is relatively straightforward: just knowing the basics about how habits are formed and how they work can significantly increase your chances of forming and keeping healthy habits (and maybe even get rid of a few bad ones).6
So, educating yourself by reading something like this gives you a leg up on establishing healthy habits in your life. You’re already on your way.
Another big factor is how you perceive the habit you want to build. If the habit seems impossible, then it will feel harder. If it seems easier, then it will be easier. That sounds stupid, but it has serious consequences.
For example, if you want to lose weight and you decide that you want to do it by working out for 90 minutes per day, six days per week, that is going to feel like a gigantic and daunting task. Because it feels gigantic and daunting, you’re far more likely to give up.
Whereas if you decide to lose weight by walking for 20 minutes after dinner each night (note: the dinner is your cue), then it feels very easy to accomplish, and therefore it is.
The beautiful thing is that once you’ve adopted the “easy mode” version of your desired habit, you can always ramp it up afterward. For example, if you walk for 20 minutes after dinner each night for a month, then it won’t sound so bad when you decide, “Hey, I’ll walk for 45 minutes now.” Then you can try out a little bit of running. Then you can add calisthenics and plyometrics, and before you know it, you’re working out for 90 minutes per day, six days per week.
Leo Babauta has a saying when starting a new habit: “Start so easy you can’t say no.”
Want to go on a jog 5 times a week? Start with putting on your shorts and lacing up your shoes the first day. That’s it. You can’t say no to that! Then maybe go outside after you gear up the next day. Can’t say no to that either. Then maybe walk one block the next day. C’mon, you can walk for a block!
Pretty soon, you’ll realize you’ve done everything you need to start a jogging habit and it won’t seem like much work at all to just… jog.
Want to floss every day? Start with flossing one tooth. Seriously. A couple of days later, add a second tooth. Then add a third, fourth, fifth… before too long, it will start to seem incredibly dumb that you’re not just flossing all of your teeth, and so you’ll “just do it.”
The key is to start small. Set the bar low. If you suffer from chronic low self-efficacy and low self-esteem, you have to start where you are. Don’t expect the quantum leap, at least not at first.
I know someone who lost a lot of weight (almost 80 lbs) over a 2-year period. He was running marathons by the time he was in shape, but you know how he started out? Four minutes a day on the exercise bike. That’s all he could do at first, but he did it every single day and increased his workout as he lost more weight and gained more confidence.
Once he knew he could do a few minutes on the bike, he figured he could do a few more, then he figured he could go for a run, then he believed he could run competitively, then he set a goal to run a marathon and did it.
He didn’t say, “OK, I’m ridiculously overweight so I should run a marathon.” He instead started where he was, which was in his basement on an exercise bike for four minutes a day. This kept him engaged and he didn’t feel too overwhelmed while he was working to create a healthier lifestyle.
Create the Habit First, Then Optimize Later
At first, your aim in creating any new habit should simply be to create a new habit. I know that sounds stupid and circular and like I’m talking to you like a child, but it’s incredibly important: Focus your energy on just showing up.
If you want to go to the gym regularly, focus on going to the gym regularly and that’s it. You just have to go, you don’t have to worry about what exercise you do while you’re there. Hell, you don’t have to worry about doing anything at all other than just going to the gym! Just show up and walk around.
The thing is, if you focus on just getting to the gym, once you’re there, you’re much more likely to say to yourself, “Well, I’m here, may as well do something…” And that takes very little extra effort once you’re there. But getting to the gym takes the most effort at first. So focus on that.
What you’re doing is focusing on the behaviors that enable your desired habit. If you put yourself in situations where you’re more likely to succeed—you guessed it—you’ll be more likely to succeed.
Plan for Things to Go Wrong
Another strategy that increases the chances of making a habit stick is having a plan for when things go wrong—and they will go wrong at some point.7
For example, let’s say you’ve decided your diet really sucks and want to eat healthier. Good for you. Now, if you’re like most people (including me), you know it’s hard to eat a healthy diet consistently. When your willpower is drained, you cave to temptation pretty easily.
So you know ahead of time that you will be faced with temptations and that it’s highly likely you’ll give in to said temptations from time to time. Simply making a plan ahead of time to head off these temptations will greatly increase the likelihood that you do just that. In this case, I’d recommend allowing yourself a “cheat day” for one or two meals a week where you get to pig out on some not-so-healthy food.
On your non-cheat days, when you’re tempted with unhealthy food, make a conscious effort to remind yourself that you’ll get to indulge soon enough and think about how proud you’ll be of yourself for practicing a little self-discipline.
This strategy has a one-two punch: you get to regularly replenish your willpower while building your healthy eating habit (by having a cheat day) and you can more easily deal with temptation along the way (by having a plan ahead of time).
You might need to change your strategies as you learn more about the way you react to various hurdles and temptations that arise. But the point is to anticipate the problems you’re likely to run into and have a plan to deal with them ahead of time.
You know yourself better than anyone else, so be honest, set realistic expectations, and find a way that works for you.
The Process Is the Goal, Not Perfection
While consistency is key, research has shown that missing one or a handful of opportunities to practice a desired habit will not ruin your chances at establishing that habit in the long run.8
The goal isn’t to be perfect. Those who develop solid habits do so not because they are 100% perfect in their execution, it’s because they’re able to consistently correct their course when they get off track.
It’s okay if you missed a workout. Try not to miss two in a row. It’s alright if you ate that sleeve of Oreos yesterday. Focus on not eating that jar of Nutella today.
But even if you missed two or three or nine workouts in a row or you ate six pints of Ben and Jerry’s in an hour—that’s not an excuse to give up. You’re not broken, you’re not stupid, you’re not weak. You’re just early in the process.
And that’s the point: it’s a process.
Acknowledge your missteps as just part of the process and get back to your routine as soon as you can.
Everyone Is Different
People don’t develop and acquire habits at the same rate—everyone is different.
There are a lot of products and advice out there that promise a goal within a definitive time frame: 60 Days to Rock-Hard Abs; Read 7 Times Faster in 2 Weeks; Retire 6 Months From Today… it’s all bullshit.
Set goals for yourself and know your limitations and weaknesses, then work to eliminate them at your own pace.
More Articles on Self-Discipline and Sticking to Habits
- If Self-Discipline Feels Difficult, Then You’re Doing It Wrong
- How to 80/20 Your Life
- The “Do Something” Principle
- How to Stop Procrastinating
- Your Goals Are Overrated
- 10 Reasons Why You Fail
- The Responsibility/Fault Fallacy
- How to Make Your Own Luck
- 3 Important Life Skills Nobody Ever Taught You
- Analysis Paralysis
- How to Become a Better Learner
- How I Quit Smoking For Good
- Winning the Mental Battle of Weight Loss: How One Man Lost 266 Pounds
- How to Be Patient in an Impatient World
How to Break Bad Habits
Bad habits work in exactly the same way as good habits. Those factors that help you create and stick to good habits? Yeah, you can use them to get rid of your bad habits too.
Let’s take the quintessential bad habit that many of us are all too familiar with: unhealthy eating.
As with building any good habit, the trick is to focus on the cue and go from there. It took me a long time to learn my cues for snacking. The two biggest ones: anxiety and boredom.
The first cue is hard to deal with—dealing with my own anxiety. What the fuck? But by learning that I’m an anxious eater, I’m better able to manage how I channel my anxiety when I feel it.
The second cue, boredom, is much easier to deal with. Mainly, I just removed all the snacks from my house. Now, when I’m bored, munching on something isn’t even an option.
Find what cues trigger your bad habits. If the video game console is constantly calling out to you, tempting you to indulge in days-long compulsive gaming, then hide that console somewhere you can’t see. If you over-buy when you go clothes-shopping, then limit your trips to once a month or simply bring a certain amount of cash and leave your credit cards at home.
Also, start small. Just like my friend who wanted to lose weight didn’t start out running a marathon, you probably won’t do yourself any favors if you start out quitting unhealthy snacking or compulsive gaming by going cold turkey.
Some people can do it. But it’s much more effective, and probably less painful, to take it one small step at a time. Go through a whole sleeve of Oreos every few days? Try to make it last a whole week, then two, then three. Start where you are and progress at a pace that’s right for you.
Play that video game five hours a day? Try four and a half hours, then four, then three… you get the idea. Stopping completely is much easier when you’re down to half an hour a day than when you’re at five hours.
And just like when building good habits, think of the endeavor as a process and accept that you will stumble from time to time.
In a moment of weakness, you bought that tube of Pringles and it didn’t last a day in your cupboard. You had a particularly stressful day at work and ended up gaming for three hours when you’re supposed to allow yourself only two, then spent thousands of dollars on a shopping spree the next day because you felt horrible about yourself.
If you’re thinking it won’t happen to you, let me tell you right now: it will. And that’s perfectly OK. You won’t spontaneously combust (I promise.) You’ll simply accept it as a misstep and move on. Until eventually those bad habits are no longer automatic, and you can consciously choose if and when to snack or play that video game or splurge on a pair of shoes.
Healthy Habits to Start Right Now
All habits are not created equal. And I don’t mean there are “bad” and “good” habits (though that is true as we’ve seen). I mean some habits can help us improve in a single area of our lives while others can have a multiplication effect across several or even all areas of our lives. I call these “compounding habits” because their effects compound across our lives.
For example, exercise helps you maintain a healthy body weight, but it can also give you more energy and focus throughout your day, it improves your mood, helps you sleep, and so on. All of these benefits have their own ripple effects across your life: you’re more productive at work/school, you’re more pleasant to be around when you’re with friends, family, and significant others, you look and feel healthier.
Then there are meta habits. Like compounding habits, meta habits can have a ripple effect across multiple areas of your life, but they also compound on themselves.
For example, learning how to learn better. Or the mother of all meta-habits: creating a habit of forming new habits.
If you’re trying to figure out where to even start, I recommend focusing on one single compounding and/or meta habit. After you nail that down, forming additional habits becomes easier and easier.
Here are three major compounding habits you can, and should, start right now:
If you don’t know the benefits of regular exercise by now, you must be living under a very large and very old rock.
Aside from making you look super sexy and preventing obesity, exercise greatly reduces the risk of a bunch of things that can kill you: heart disease, stroke, and a smattering of various types of cancer.9 It also improves your mood, gives you more energy, improves the quality of your sleep, your sex life, and some evidence indicates it even improves concentration and learning.10
The crazy thing about exercise is that just about everyone overestimates the amount of effort required to get results. They assume that you have to join a fancy gym, spend a ton of money on a fancy-pants personal trainer, and do a bunch of fancy exercises with odd-looking rubber balls and mats.
But according to the science, exercise is an 80/20 deal—i.e., 80% of the benefits result from 20% of the effort. Something as simple as brisk walking 30 minutes per day has been shown to give vast health improvements and trigger weight loss.11 Therefore, if you’re starting an exercise habit from scratch (and if you’re really out of shape), start simple. Worry about the reverse pile-driver crunches with your ripped personal trainer named Vlad later.
The fact is, most people don’t eat well. Or at least, they develop some terrible food habits because they’re not capable of controlling what and when they eat. They have such little time or knowledge that they just settle for whatever is quick and easy, usually junk food.
Eating well, much like exercise, sweeps the board in terms of health and lifestyle benefits: lower risk of obesity, diabetes, various cancers, heart disease and other bad things that kill you,12 more energy, more focus, better moods (goodbye sugar highs and crashes), better sleep and sex life.13 The benefits are even more pronounced in kids.14
You can get the same general life gains from eating well as you would from exercising, and there’s nothing stopping you from doing both. Stop going to fast food restaurants. Stock up on healthy food at home. Learn how to cook so you control exactly what goes into your meals and how much.
Plus, once you become a bitching cook, you can save a lot of dough from not eating out all the time and wow all your friends when you invite them over.
Here’s a quick summary of all the best research on sleep: If you don’t sleep enough, you will lose your mind and die far sooner. Got it?
Some of the consequences of poor sleep include fatigue, irritation, anxiety, depressed mood, body aches, difficulty concentrating,15 and just finding it tough as fuck to go about your daily life. Those who have it worse and actually suffer from insomnia are at higher risk of serious illnesses like heart disease and diabetes.16
Not to mention sleep helps us consolidate information into memory and regulates a lot of other brain processes.17 So yeah, without sleep you will literally lose your mind.
The guideline varies as to how much sleep we actually need, but seven to nine hours a night is probably what you should aim for. To get you those sweet hours, create an evening routine (remember those cues?) where you stay away from screens (no phone in the bedroom is best), and stop answering those work emails at least an hour before bedtime.
Experiment and find what activities are best for you to wind down with. Some meditate, some journal, others read. Snuggle up with your loved one on the couch. Drink a warm cup of chamomile tea. Give yourself plenty of time to wind down and get your body and mind ready for sleep.
Exercise, eat well, and sleep. These are your three magic keys to unlocking a healthier life, your healthy trinity.
Other compounding habits worth mentioning include: meditation, journaling, reading, and socializing. I’ve written about why they’re great for you and how to adopt them in my article on goals. Go check it out.
Read: Your Goals Are Overrated
Habits vs Goals
A lot of noise is made about setting and achieving goals in our society. We set professional goals, revenue goals, fitness goals, and so on.
And while I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with setting goals, I think they are way overrated.
For one, a lot of people seem to think that if they hit some goal they’ve set for themselves, then they’ll be happy. They want to lose 20 pounds, earn a million dollars, fight a bear on Mount Everest—or whatever. That’s just not how it works.
Goals are simply the destinations at which we wish to arrive. And while it’s obviously important to know where you’re going, it’s useless unless you have a way to get you there. And in the game of life, habits are the monster truck 4×4 that gets you to where you want to go.
Think of it another way: let’s say you set a goal to save $5,000. Well, I mean, good for you, but then what? Without a system of saving towards that goal, you’re bound to be as broke as you were yesterday, just as you’re not going to make it to a destination without a mode of transportation.
So instead, you might figure that you want to save $5,000 in one year. That’s $416.66 per month. But you get paid twice a month, so you decide after each paycheck, you’ll save $213.33 per paycheck. You then go and set up automatic withdrawals from your checking account to a savings account.
There, you now have a habit in place that regularly moves you to your goals.
But having a plan and system in place is only the start of it, of course. We all have good intentions with our habits and we all fall short at times.
A lot of this is due to the way in which we approach trying to adopt new habits. We think in terms of goals and destinations and results instead of focusing on the admittedly more boring day-to-day system of habits which is truly what moves us towards the lives we want to live.
So stop obsessing over goals and instead decide what habits you want in life. Exercise, healthy eating, and sleep are a good place to start, though there are many other habits that will vastly improve your life.
In this guide, I’ve given you all the tips you need to build healthy habits and break bad ones. Now it’s your turn to start the process and build a better life, one habit at a time.
Try it, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.
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- Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits—A Repeat Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198–202.↵
- This study finds that it could take anywhere between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit.↵
- Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.↵
- Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843.↵
- Verplanken, B., & Melkevik, O. (2008). Predicting habit: The case of physical exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9(1), 15–26.↵
- Lally, P., Chipperfield, A., & Wardle, J. (2008). Healthy habits: efficacy of simple advice on weight control based on a habit-formation model. International Journal of Obesity, 32(4), 700–707.↵
- Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54(7), 493.↵
- Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C. H. M. van, Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009.↵
- Warburton, D. E. R., Nicol, C. W., & Bredin, S. S. D. (2006). Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 174(6), 801–809.↵
- Guiney, H., & Machado, L. (2013). Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(1), 73–86.↵
- Rosenkilde, M., Auerbach, P., Reichkendler, M. H., Ploug, T., Stallknecht, B. M., & Sjödin, A. (2012). Body fat loss and compensatory mechanisms in response to different doses of aerobic exercise—A randomized controlled trial in overweight sedentary males. American Journal of Physiology. Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 303(6), R571-579.↵
- Amine, E., Baba, N., Belhadj, M., Deurenbery-Yap, M., Djazayery, A., Forrester, T., et al. (2002). Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases: report of a Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation. World Health Organization.↵
- Rogers, P. J. (2001). A healthy body, a healthy mind: long-term impact of diet on mood and cognitive function. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 60(01), 135–143.↵
- Bellisle, F. (2004). Effects of diet on behaviour and cognition in children. British Journal of Nutrition, 92(S2), S227–S232.↵
- Carney, C., Carney, C. E., & Manber, R. (2009). Quiet your mind & get to sleep: solutions to insomnia for those with depression, anxiety, or chronic pain. New Harbinger Publications.↵
- Rosekind, M. R., & Gregory, K. B. (2010). Insomnia risks and costs: health, safety, and quality of life. The American journal of managed care, 16(8), 617-626.↵
- Walker, M. P. (2010). Sleep, memory and emotion. Progress in brain research, 185, 49-68.↵