Stop and think about some goals you haven’t gotten started on yet. Perhaps you want to exercise more, shop less, put more money into your emergency fund, lose weight, or be more productive at work. The problem for many of us isn’t that we don’t have meaningful goals; the problem is that it can be tough to change our behavior so we can accomplish what we want to in life. It’s not easy to break a bad habit and replace it with a good one.
But why is that? Why is it so hard for us to do the things we know we should, like exercising or meditating, and stop doing the things we know we shouldn’t, like maxing out our credit cards or smoking?
Understanding how we form habits is the key to knowing how to change them. And this understanding can change your life. Knowing how to break your bad habits, and how to build good ones, can help you achieve your goals, earn more money, and accomplish more than you ever thought possible.
Here’s what you can do to build more good habits in your life.
How Habits Work
Merriam-Webster defines a “habit” as “an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary.” In other words, a habit is something we’ve done repeatedly for so long that we don’t even really think about it anymore.
Humans are creatures of habit. We have good habits, as well as plenty of bad ones. These bad habits might include overspending, watching too much TV, smoking, overeating, drinking too much alcohol, or flying off the handle when we’re stressed.
Charles Duhigg, author of the bestselling book “The Power of Habit,” is a behavioral psychologist and considered an expert on the science of habit. In an interview with NPR, Duhigg explains that our habits are made up of a three-part process, or loop. Every habit is formed and repeatedly strengthened using this process.
- The Cue. Something in your environment cues or triggers you to initiate the behavior. For example, your colleague comes into your office and asks if you want to take a smoke break, or you get home from work tired and stressed and immediately flip on the television.
- The Behavior. This is the action, the habit itself, such as lighting a cigarette or sitting down to watch the TV.
- The Reward. This is the pleasure your brain experiences from the behavior, which further strengthens the habit loop for next time. For example, you get a “high” from the nicotine and the social interaction with your colleague while smoking, or you relax and forget about work while watching TV.
According to Duhigg, the reason why so many of us fail at forming good habits is that we don’t understand the power of this three-part process. We focus almost solely on changing the behavior but do little, if anything, to adjust or change the cue and the reward.
Another challenge is that habitual behaviors originate from a part of the brain called the basal ganglia, which is also associated with emotion, memories, and patterns. Decision-making behaviors come from an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. As soon as a behavior starts to become a habit, the basal ganglia takes over and the prefrontal cortex is less active. That means our habits are driven more by emotion than by logic and rational decision-making, which makes them that much harder to change.
The good news is that while changing a habit isn’t easy, it is possible.
The Power of Making Just One Change
Duhigg’s book opens with the compelling story of Lisa Allen, a 34-year-old who had been smoking and drinking since she was 16. She had been obese, bounced from job to job, was in constant financial trouble, and had gone through a divorce when her husband left her for another woman.
The Lisa Allen that scientists were studying was nothing like the woman she used to be. She was lean and energetic, had lost 60 pounds, and had already run her first marathon. She’d stopped smoking, started a master’s degree program, turned her finances around, landed a great job, bought a house, and gotten engaged. Her life, in short, was completely different than it used to be, and scientists were studying her to find out how she’d done it.
After extensive interviews with Allen, researchers discovered that all of the dramatic changes in her life started with just one. After her divorce, in a terrible depression, Allen had decided to go to Cairo. While in the desert, hitting rock bottom with the realization that she had nothing to go home to, Allen had vowed to come back a year later and trek across the desert. She would give herself a year to prepare, and to survive such a trek, she knew she would have to quit smoking.
That one change ended up altering her entire life. She replaced smoking with running. Running affected other areas in her life in positive ways, including what she ate, how she worked, how much she slept, and how she thought.
When scientists looked at images of Allen’s brain, they saw that the old neurological patterns – her old habits – had been entirely overwritten by new patterns. The old patterns were still there, but the new habits had formed new pathways on top of them. As Allen’s habits had changed, so had her brain.
What’s so fascinating about Allen’s story is how her brain continued to change over time. Every time she came into the research lab, the scientists took a new scan of her brain. And every time, when they showed Allen pictures of food, the areas of the brain associated with cravings and hunger would still light up in response. However, the regions of the brain associated with behavioral inhibition and self-discipline would also light up. And, most interestingly, this activity became more prevalent each time she came in.
Allen’s story illustrates the power of focusing on just one behavioral change at a time. She was able to transform her life because she started with one bad habit – what scientists call a “keystone habit.” The bad habit of smoking acted as a foundation that supported other unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking and overeating. Once Allen stopped smoking and began running, she naturally began to change other areas of her life in positive ways.
That means that if you begin with one bad habit and focus on changing that one habit completely, it can have dramatic effects on your entire life. And the longer you do it, the more your brain will override the pathways associated with that behavior and replace them with new pathways that help you continue the good habit.
How to Build Good Habits
Changing our habits isn’t easy. If it were, we’d all be eating plenty of salads and reading Pulitzer Prize winners instead of snacking on chips while we watch old reruns. We’ve already shown why changing a habit can be so hard; you have to rewire your brain to succeed long-term. But it’s worth your time to develop good habits and dispense with the bad ones.
According to Duke University researchers, habit drives 45% of human behavior. That’s an enormous chunk of what we do every day. If this 45% is made up of positive, productive behaviors, we’ll succeed more and live a healthier, well-balanced life. If that 45% is negative – well, you can imagine the results.
Here are some tricks and strategies you can use to build good habits in your life and, more importantly, make them stick.
1. Pick One Habit
If you’re like most people, then you have a laundry list of behaviors you’d like to change. But tackling several at once is a recipe for failure for a couple of reasons. The main reason is willpower fatigue, also known as decision fatigue.
In one of the most famous studies on decision fatigue, cited by Wired, researchers studied over 1,000 parole decisions of eight judges in Israel for 10 months. They found that prisoners were 65% more likely to be granted parole if the judges heard their case at the beginning of the day or immediately after a break.
Why? Because judges, like every other human being, get mentally exhausted when they have to make a lot of decisions. As their mental exhaustion increased, the judges began to simplify their decision-making subconsciously. Saying no was easier than saying yes and required less paperwork, so that’s what they did the more tired they became. However, after a break and some food, their “yes” rate rebounded to 65%. A paper published by the American Psychological Association came to the same conclusion: Willpower is a limited resource. The more you use it, the less you have.
Decision fatigue affects everyone, which is why it’s a good idea to change just one habit at a time. If you decide to quit smoking, quit drinking, and stop eating sweets all at once, you’ll quickly become exhausted from saying no to all these things every day. Your resistance will crumble, and you’ll find yourself lighting up a smoke while downing a Negroni and eating a piece of chocolate cake. So pick one habit you want to change and focus on that.
2. Identify a Keystone Habit
It’s also wise to take a page out of Duhigg’s book and identify a keystone habit you want to develop. Remember, a keystone habit is one that acts as a foundation or launching board for other positive habits in your life. According to Duhigg, “Keystone habits influence how we work, eat, play, live, spend, and communicate.” If you can develop a good keystone habit, you’ll likely experience a chain reaction of positive effects in other areas of your life.
For example, regular exercise is commonly considered a positive keystone habit. Imagine you start exercising every morning before work. This one change, over time, can lead to a number of other positive changes: you have more energy during the day, so you get more done; you’re more aware of what you eat, so you eat healthier meals; you sleep better; and your increased productivity helps you leave work earlier to spend more time with your kids.
Other positive keystone habits include:
- Making time for family dinner
- Tracking what you eat by food journaling
- Planning your day
- Setting active, actionable goals
- Practicing gratitude daily
- Accomplishing your most important task at the very beginning of the day
Keystone habits can help start a chain reaction. Think about a habit you’d like to develop that can lead to other positive changes in your life and start there.
3. Follow the Habit Loop
Remember, according to Duhigg’s research, our habits are based on a three-step loop:
- The cue or trigger
- The behavior
- The reward
If you want to develop a good habit, you must implement a plan that includes all three of these steps. For example, let’s say you want to start exercising more. In order to succeed, you need to develop a plan that incorporates each step.
- The Cue or Trigger: An alarm on your phone goes off at 7pm. No matter what you’re doing, this is your cue to start exercising.
- The Behavior: You follow an exercise routine you can do at home. It’s high-energy and fun, and it only takes 20 minutes.
- The Reward: After you’re done working out, you reward yourself with a piece of dark chocolate and a glass of wine.
It’s a simple enough framework, and it’s not foolproof. However, your chances of making a habit stick increase if you make a plan for each of these three elements.
4. Identify & Overcome Barriers
There will always be barriers that might prevent you from following through on your goals. If you want to succeed, then you need to identify and overcome each of these barriers.
Let’s stick with your goal to exercise every day. Some barriers to this goal might include:
- You can’t exercise before work because you don’t want to be sweaty all day.
- You’re too tired to exercise after work.
- You find exercise boring.
- You don’t want exercise to cut into time with your kids.
- You don’t feel like you have the time to exercise.
What can you do to overcome these perceived barriers? Well, you could set your alarm an hour early and exercise then. You could do yoga at home so you don’t have to commute to the gym. You could exercise with your kids and make it a family activity. You could exercise instead of watching TV in the evening. Or, if you’re bored, you could exercise while you’re watching TV.
Sit down and come up with a list of possible barriers to your goal, and then come up with a solution for each one. Try to think of ways to make it as easy as possible to accomplish your goal and build this positive habit.
5. Start Small
When it comes to forming good habits, consistent small steps often triumph over inconsistent giant leaps. That’s because small steps are easy – sometimes ridiculously so. And the easier something is, the more likely you are to succeed at it. For instance:
- If you want to exercise consistently, start with five minutes a day. Anyone can find five minutes. Just make sure you do it every day.
- If you want to get up earlier, start by getting up five minutes earlier.
- If you want to eat fewer sweets, give up one cookie or candy bar per day.
- If you want to feel more gratitude, write down one thing you’re grateful for every day.
Build your good habits with steps that are so small it’s nearly impossible to fail. When you take these steps consistently every day, they build up into a habit.
It can help to set small, achievable goals you can meet throughout the day instead of all at once. For instance, if you’re trying to build the habit of walking at least 2 miles per day, get a pedometer and find ways to fit in small bursts of walking throughout the day instead of resolving to walk 2 full miles after work. The same goes for saving. If you want to start saving $200 a month, download the Acorns app and see how much you’ll save without even knowing it.
6. Celebrate Progress
Celebrating your progress is an enormous part of creating habits that stick. Progress, no matter how small, is still progress and deserves to be rewarded.
The reward shouldn’t be something that sets you back, such as eating cake when you’re trying to form a healthy eating habit. Instead, it should be something that makes you feel good and inspires you to keep going. Even something as simple as calling a friend to talk about what you’re doing can put you in a celebratory mood and help you see how far you’ve come.
7. Start While You’re on Vacation
Your routine changes when you go on vacation. You probably sleep in later, for one. You put your toothbrush in a different spot, eat something different for breakfast, and take new routes to new destinations you want to see, instead of just driving mindlessly to work.
That’s why, according to Duhigg, you might have more success if you change a habit while you’re on vacation. All your cues and rewards are upended when you’re in a new place, which makes it more likely that a new behavior will stick. If you can, plan a vacation to coincide with the start of a habit you want to change.
Of course, you’ll eventually have to return home and face the predictable cues or triggers that started your bad behavior in the first place. However, starting new behaviors while on vacation can give you just enough time to build a routine that empowers you to keep going once you’re back.
It’s never too late to change your habits. And you’re more likely to succeed once you understand how habits form.
There will always be days when things don’t go as planned, but don’t get discouraged by this. Some experts say it takes 21 days to form a new habit, while others say it’s more like 66 days. Whatever it is, it won’t happen overnight. When you have a setback, shrug it off and start over the next day. Remember, you’re rewiring your brain with these new behaviors, so the best way to succeed is to stick with it.
What tips and tricks have you used to develop a good habit? What bad habits would you like to change?