When it comes to health, most people know what to do: eat a balanced, nutritious diet; exercise three to five times a week; get seven to nine hours of sleep every night; maintain a healthy weight; limit alcohol consumption; and keep up with annual physical exams.
Simple enough, right?
Maybe. But we all know it’s much easier said than done. That’s why so many people give up on their New Year’s resolutions by mid-February. The truth is, goals aren’t your problem — your habits are. Our understanding of habits and their development have come a long way, and in this article, we’ll discuss how you can develop good habits to create a healthy lifestyle.
What are Habits?
For better or worse, humans are creatures of habit. Most people follow the same routine every day. From the route you take to work to the snacks you grab at the cafeteria checkout register, it’s unlikely that you have to think much about them — your body just seems to know what to do. In fact, habits account for approximately 40 percent of your daily activities.1
Think about it this way: Since your brain is continuously analyzing your situation and is learning the most effective course of action, when you come across an unexpected reward, your brain makes a note of the events and actions that resulted in that reward. Then, when you face similar problems repeatedly, your brain simply follows the same scripts: if this, then that.
Habits, then, as author James Clear writes in his book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, are “mental shortcuts learned from experience. In a sense, a habit is just a memory of the steps you previously followed to solve a problem in the past.”
In other words, habits put your mind on autopilot.
It’s because we often think of change in the wrong way. Many people believe that great success, such as losing weight or building a business, requires massive action. It can be difficult to appreciate small improvements. But success can’t be achieved by motivation alone. While motivation alone might give you a temporary boost, it’s hardly sustainable long-term. On the other hand, once a new pattern of behavior becomes routine, your brain activity level decreases, freeing it up for more important things as you stop having to analyze every aspect of a situation.
Clear writes that habits should be thought of as “the compound interest of self-improvement.” Just as the way money invested today grows through compounding interest, the impact of your habits (good and bad) multiply as you repeat them. This means that while the effects of your bad habits may not be apparent now, they could have a tremendous impact in five to 10 years.
The Process of Building a Habit
The process of building a habit can be broken down into four fundamental steps: cue, craving, response, and reward. Let’s look into each step and how they work.
- The cue is something that triggers your brain to initiate a behavior. Because a cue is the first sign that we are close to a reward, it leads naturally to step two, craving.
- Cravings are the reason or motivational force behind the habit. Note that you are not craving the habit itself; instead, you’re craving the change in internal state that the habit delivers. Most cravings are hiding in plain sight — they’re just hard to see when we are under their influence.
- The response is the actual habit, which can be in the form of a thought or an action. This step can only occur if you are capable of doing it and if it is easy for you to do it. In other words, the less mental or physical energy an action or thought requires, the more likely you are to do it — as long as you are able to.
- The reward is the end goal of the habit. It satisfies our cravings and teaches our brains if a particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
A behavior lacking in any one of these four stages will not become a habit. The key here is to make the reward so desirable so that your brain connects the cue to the reward. If the sight of an empty dishwasher doesn’t provide you with enough satisfaction, consider a more desirable reward, like getting to watch your favorite show.
The Four Laws of Behavior Change
Clear identified a framework to transform the four steps into a framework you can use to build good habits and break bad ones. Think of each law as a lever. That is, when the lever is in the right place, good habits are easy to develop; when the lever is in the wrong place, it becomes much more difficult.
|Law||How to Create a Good Habit||How to Break a Bad Habit|
|1st law (cue)||Make it obvious.||Make it invisible.|
|2nd law (craving)||Make it attractive.||Make it unattractive.|
|3rd law (response)||Make it easy.||Make it difficult.|
|4th law (reward)||Make it satisfying.||Make it unsatisfying.|
The Four Laws of Behavior Change can be applied to nearly every field, no matter what challenge you’re facing.
How to Build a New Habit in Six Steps
1. Change Your Identity
Whenever you commit to starting a new habit, it’s important to set yourself up for success. This means that before you do anything, you need to commit to an identity. Research studies have found that people have difficulty adhering to a behavior if it’s not concordant with the self.4 As Clear writes in his book: “The first step is not what or how, but who. You need to know who you want to be…You have the power to change your beliefs about yourself. Your identity is not set in stone…Habits are…not about having something. They are about becoming someone.”
For example, if you want to quit smoking, it’s not enough to say, “I’m trying to quit.” Instead, someone who says, “I don’t smoke,” is a person who has embraced an identity as a non-smoker. And the more pride you have in an aspect of your identity, the more motivated you will be to maintain habits associated with it.
Once you’ve identified a desired identity, here are some additional tips for building good habits.
2. Be Clear About Your Intentions
Most people don’t give up on their New Year’s resolutions because they don’t have the motivation. What they lack is clarity. While committing to a new identity certainly appears to have an influence on behavior, research findings show that it’s often not enough to encourage adherence. People either forget to perform the behavior or may temporarily stop the behavior because another competing behavior gained priority.
To combat this issue, it’s important to have an implementation intention, a plan you write down beforehand about when, where, and/or how you will pursue your behavioral goals. Following Law #1, identify an obvious cue, extrinsic or intrinsic, that will trigger you to perform a behavior. Your implementation intention could be something like, “When situation X occurs, I will respond with Y.”
3. Stack Your Habits
No behavior is isolated. Just like how going to the bathroom is followed by washing your hands, which is then followed by drying your hands, one action can be a cue that triggers another behavior. You may be surprised at how many of your habits are bundled together so that they simply become an extension of one another.
This coupling of habits — widely known as “habit stacking” — can be used to your advantage by using an existing habit as a cue to trigger a new habit. This works best when the cue is extremely specific so that there’s no room for ambiguity. Here’s an example: “As soon as I get up in the morning, I will make my bed.”
4. Think Incredibly Small
We’re all taught to think big in order to achieve big success. But when it comes to building new habits, think small — so small and easy that it would be ridiculous for you to not do it. Clear suggests using the Two Minute Rule: when starting a new habit, force yourself to do it for only two minutes. This circumvents the “willpower” problem and is an incredibly powerful strategy.
For example: Rather than starting off with a vague goal of getting healthier, take probiotics right after you get up in the morning.
5. Make Small Increases in Your Habit
As stated earlier, habits behave like compounded interest. Although it’s highly unlikely that you’ll notice one percent improvements, they can add up surprisingly fast. When you do the math, a one percent daily gain means you’ll be about 37 times better at the end of the year. Conversely, if you get one percent worse at something every day, you’ll decline to nearly zero.
Over time, as you start noticing improvements, your motivation and willpower will increase, making it easier to stick to your habits.
6. Make Rewards Immediate
You won’t gain ten pounds after eating just one meal of fast food, but you’ll feel full and you’ll get to avoid cooking. And this is the problem with bad habits: while their effects are delayed, their rewards are immediate.
As the 4th law of behavior change states, to build good habits, you need to make your rewards satisfying. But you also need to make rewards immediate. Once a habit is firmly established, you can train yourself to delay gratification.
The Problem Isn’t You, It’s Your System
This discussion of habits certainly does not mean you shouldn’t set goals. Think of goals as the results you want to achieve. In order to achieve those results, you will need a good system (i.e., habits) that will help you make meaningful progress. This is an important distinction: successful and unsuccessful people have the same goals. The difference is in their commitment to the process. As Clear writes, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Now it’s time to hear from you. What are your good and bad habits? What have you tried doing to break your bad habits? What steps will you take to build good habits? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!