Habits - How to Form Good Habits and Break Bad Habits

Habits dictate your success. Each habit, like waking up early in the morning, determines the outcome of your day. And the result of your week, month, year, and life. It's also the entry point for every self-improvement topic. Want to be more productive? Improve your habits. Want to be more fit? Improve your habits. This deeply-rooted mechanism in your brain controls a significant portion of your life. As a result, it warrants an equal amount of attention and understanding.

You can think of habits as a system in your brain that can recall a sequence of actions. The more you repeat the same sequence of actions, the better the brain can remember them. After numerous repetitions, the sequence becomes automatic - you no longer have to think consciously about performing each action. At that point, you've formed a habit: a recording of a routine by the brain. For example, do you remember the first time you tied your shoes? When you started out, it was not easy. You had to learn it step-by-step. Today, after countless repetitions, as you begin tying your shoes, you can think about others things, or talk to people, and in an instant, your shoes are tied! Your brain automatically replays your shoe-tying routine, and you barely have to think about it. That’s the power of habits: you can program yourself to do anything unconsciously.


Why do habits get ingrained in our brain?

Life would be slow and tiring if the brain could not recall routines. You would have to devote all your conscious effort to each task you perform. Simple things you repeat each day, like tying shoes or putting on clothes, would become a chore. It would almost feel like you have to relearn everything you do. As a solution, the brain evolved habits. A habit is a mechanism that allows you to focus on other things by unconsciously performing the routines you've done before. It works by encoding a series of actions into an automatic behavior. To continue with the shoe example, after countless repetitions, you no longer think about tying shoes as a series of steps: 1. Take the left shoe-string, 2. Take the right shoe-string, 3. Form a loop, etc. Instead, you think of it as a single behavior. The brain unconsciously takes care of performing the steps as soon as you begin the tying, which enables you to be more productive.

“Without habit loops, our brains would shut down, overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily life.” — Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

The Habit Loop

Each habit follows a pattern:

  1. Cue 
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

Cue is a trigger that initiates a habit. It acts as a reminder for you to perform a routine. Any of your senses can serve as a cue: it could be something you see, hear, think, etc. For example, a Facebook notification on your phone is a cue.

A routine is a series of actions you perform - automatically and unconsciously. The routine can be physical, or mental. For example, scrolling through your Facebook social feed, as a result of the notification, is a routine.

The reward is a benefit you get for completing the routine. The brain uses the reward as a signal to remember this habit loop in the future. For example, the social feed provides you instant social connection, which can temporarily relieve any loneliness you may be feeling.

If you’ve watched someone teach a dog new tricks, this should feel familiar because it’s a primal mechanism:

  1. The dog hears a cue to perform a routine: “Sit!"
  2. The dog performs the routine: she sits down.
  3. The dog gets a reward: a treat. 

Changing Habits

Changing a habit is a slow and difficult process. It requires you to modify the wiring of the brain by repeating the desired behavior over a long stretch of time. Depending on the complexity of the habit, this process can take from two weeks to a few months. You also can’t eliminate a habit. You can only change it. For the same cue, you must replace the routine, and receive a similar reward. As a result, it’s crucial to avoid repeating old, undesirable behaviors. It’s much easier to return to an old habit the second time around.

One of the most important, but often neglected, parts of habit change is belief. You must believe that change is possible and you need to internalize why learning the new habit is imperative to your well-being. For example, imagine you want to eat healthier. If you do not have a clear-cut reason for eating healthy, then forcing yourself to do it will lead you to a dead end. However, if you embody the identity of a healthy person, you will begin to make decisions that align with a healthy lifestyle. You will have to believe that eating healthier is a no-brainer: that it makes you feel better, look better and live longer. Slowly but surely, when it comes to choosing between the salad or chips at the grocery store, the choice will become clear. It will not always be easy, but your change of identity will drive you to make the correct decision.

“Your habits come from your daily activities compounded over time. And your activities are the result of the choices you make in the moment. Your choices come from your habits of thought, which are the product of your thinking, which comes from the view you have of the world and your place in it—your philosophy.” — Jeff Olson, The Slight Edge

The Formula

An easy, but effective formula for changing habits is to start with a small, manageable task, and to repeat it consistently over time.

Keep It Small

The task should require minimal effort to perform because you will naturally resist doing it. Being productive is always more difficult than just doing nothing. The more demanding the task, the harder it is to do it. Avoid making it so overwhelming that you create an excuse not to do it.

Repeat It Consistently

The brain learns a habit through repetition. Each repetition acts as a nudge to your brain: “Hello again Brain! Please remember this.” 

It Will Take Time

You can’t make significant changes to the brain quickly. As mentioned above, it can take several months. As frustrating as this may be, remember that you are changing neural patterns in your brain. Picture a habit as a muscle that you are building one rep at a time.

For example, if you want to start exercising, do 5 minutes of sit-ups three times a week. Repeat every week. As soon as you feel that the routine has become a natural part of your life, begin to expand it. The 5 minutes won’t do much in the short term, but it will build the base for longer workouts in the future. Once you have achieved consistency with your small routine, you are already ahead of the game: 5 minutes is more than 0. Every January numerous people attempt to begin their fitness journey as part of their New Years resolution goals. However, many give up. Adapting to a sudden change in lifestyle is tough. Do not repeat that mistake. Keep it small and show up every time.

The Magic of Consistency

Consistency takes advantage of the power of habits: as you do something repeatedly, your brain begins to do it automatically for you. The brain is there to help you. Each repetition will become more natural over time. It will never be as easy as doing nothing, but you will exert much less effort than when you first began. So if you want to be more productive - to eat healthier or to go to the gym - it all starts with small, consistent steps. Each time you get used to the current effort you are exerting, you can begin to increase it. Eventually, doing five crunches by the bed will turn into an hour workout at the gym.

The Choice

While many goals may seem out of reach at first, understand that you can program yourself, little by little, and steer your life in the direction you want it to go. Remember that every choice you make matters. If you repeat that choice enough times, it will be hard to stop. That's why habits are very powerful. You may be the driver, but they are right there to take over when you are not paying attention. They can be utterly destructive, like a heavy drinking habit. Or they can help you grow. The choice is yours.

Action Steps

  • As you go through the day, take note of common habits you have. Awareness is the first step to change.
    • What are some things you repeatedly do?
    • What habits would you like to change?
    • What habits would you like to add?
    • For a habit you want to repeat more, what steps could you remove to make it easier for you to complete the routine?
      • For example, if you want to exercise, maybe don’t go to the gym, do it at home.
    • For a habit you want to repeat less, what steps could you add to make it harder for you to begin the routine?
      • For example, if you want to look at less social media, either delete the app on your phone or tuck it away, so it’s harder to reach.
    • Develop a schedule and stick to it. 
      • The more routine your day, the easier it will be to follow it because you will form habits.

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