Have you ever considered the basic process of building good habits?
What is a habit? Oftentimes, we do things without thinking. This ‘autopilot’ action is a habit.
And, unfortunately, not all habits are good. If you have habits that you’re hoping to break, we can help.
Habit Building 101
Breaking Down Habits: How Are They Formed?
Habit-forming is an endless feedback loop called the ‘habit loop’. Repetition is the key to forming life-long habits.
There are unintentional habits like those we develop during childhood. Washing our hands after using the bathroom is an automatic action. We don’t even pause to think about it: we just do it.
Intentional habits are those we consciously developed. This can be deciding to go to bed or get up at a certain time. This applies to wearing a seat belt too – after a while, we do it automatically each time we get into the car.
So what is the habit loop and how does it work?
The Habit Loop
The habit loop is a pattern of behavior that results in an automatic action. It doesn’t happen occasionally and it’s psychological.
There are 4 stages in the habit loop:
Triggers or cues are the beginning of every habitual behavior. Our brain analyzes our environment and searches for hints of a reward.
Once a trigger happens, a craving forms.
The craving is the motivational force of every habit. Without the right motivation, we won’t have any reason to act.
It’s important to understand that we don’t crave the habit itself. We crave the reward we get from performing the habit.
This usually comes from a desire to change our internal state. Most habits are intrinsic. We want to feel good about ourselves. This can be emotionally, physically, or mentally.
The Response or Action
This is when you form the habit and it can be an action or a thought.
As we said in the previous point: you need a motivational force for your habit. Your response to the craving will depend on how motivated you are.
And linked to motivation, is how challenging the habit is to perform. If it takes too much effort to act, then you likely won’t bother.
The reward is the end goal of every habit. This is the sole reason for developing the habit.
Without a definitive reward, the habit would be pointless.
Why do you have a glass of wine before bed every night? Why do you have coffee each morning before work? The reward they give you is the reason you formed the habit.
Habits vs Routines
Habits run on autopilot but routines are intentional. The difference is the awareness of the action taking place.
Routines need conscious practice or they will eventually fade away. Habits happen without much thought at all.
A good example of this is starting an exercise routine. It’s not something you’ll do on autopilot. It takes conscious effort to change into gym clothes and begin your exercise.
But, have you ever had coffee while working at your desk? You’ll raise your cup and suddenly find it empty without realizing that you’ve finished it.
Certain routines do become habits. When you begin following a routine with little to no thought, it becomes a habit.
Let’s consider another example:
- A new parent will find the nightly routine of changing diapers tiresome.
- Eventually, they’ll do it without conscious thought. They’ll automatically check the baby’s diaper before feeding them.
Not all routines will become a habit. This again depends on the motivation.
“Good” vs “Bad” Habits
“Bad” habits produce negative consequences while “good” habits produce positive ones. These consequences are either emotional, physical, or mental.
Bad habits offer instant gratification while good habits have longer-term effects. This, unfortunately, means that bad habits come naturally.
This can be something as simple as procrastination vs proactiveness. With procrastination, you have the immediate reward of relaxing.
With proactiveness, you’ll need to complete your task first, and then you can relax. It takes longer to reach your reward.
This is why good habits are more difficult to form. Bad habits are often seen as laziness or a lack of self-discipline. The simple truth is that humans are wired to seek out instant rewards.
Key Principles Behind Building Habits
Set Clear Objectives & Goals
Make your intentions, objectives, and goals clear. A habit should not be used as a “Goal”.
“Habits” should be seen as a path to achieve “Goals”.
Let’s use an example:
- Losing weight is a goal.
- A possible habit to break is eating right before bed.
You need to decide exactly when, where, and how. Using vague notions won’t cut it. It will only lead to excuses and a lack of motivation.
Pre-Commit to Your Habit
If you pre-commit to it, you’re less likely to avoid it. We’ll continue using the weight loss example above.
If you planned to go to the gym, your mind will develop reasons not to. The best way to ensure you follow through is if not going will be more difficult.
If your friend agreed to meet you there at a specific time, you’re more likely to go. You won’t want to disappoint or inconvenience someone else because of your hangups.
This applies to all habits. Set a goal, make your intentions clear (to yourself or others), and write it down.
Do you want to finish that painting you keep putting off? Set aside a specific time each day to work on it. Create a schedule and implement it until it becomes an unconscious action.
“Baby steps”, right? Isn’t that how the saying goes?
You need to build your stamina in all areas of your life. You can’t expect to run a marathon if you can’t even jog around the block.
Establish the new habit first. Once the action becomes natural, increase your effort. Here are a few examples:
- Walk for 10 minutes instead of jogging.
- Add one healthy food to your day.
- Have 3 cups of coffee instead of 4.
Your actions don’t need to be big, they only need to be consistent.
Another good saying is: “don’t bite off more than you can chew”. Seriously, don’t.
Creating too many goals for yourself will only overwhelm and intimidate you. In the end, you won’t do any of them.
If your goals are health and fitness, pick the easiest. Subtly changing your diet is easier than starting a workout program.
Once eating healthy becomes the norm, it’ll be almost natural to start exercising. A healthy diet will lead to more energy, and that will make exercising less of a chore.
Accountability plays a huge role in building good habits. If you don’t hold yourself accountable, the habit will never stick.
Having a partner helps too. This doesn’t have to be a romantic partner. A friend or family member can provide a powerful positive influence too.
They don’t even need to focus on developing the same habit. All you need to do is support and hold each other accountable.
Report your progress to each other every day. If you didn’t practice your habit, explain why not. And remember that constructive criticism is better than putting each other (or yourself) down.
Several people have even used social media as an accountability partner. Yoga apps have a community forum. They also have weekly or monthly challenges you can participate in and share with others on the app.
Use A Support System
Surrounding yourself with a supportive community is everything. They don’t need to be an accountability partner, but they should match your energy.
They should be excited with you and for you. It's good to have people who are considerate of your efforts.
If you’re trying to eat healthily, they don’t need to join you. But they should be considerate enough not to eat cake in front of you.
Shape Your Environment
You need a certain amount of energy to form a new habit. Let’s continue with the healthy eating example.
If it’s easier to grab a chocolate bar than an apple, then you’ll eat the chocolate. But, if you have a bowl of fruit on the counter and no chocolate in the house?
The same principle applies to everything else. The more convenient the action, the easier it is to follow through.
If you want to read more instead of going on social media, find a convenient solution. You likely have social apps on the Home screen of your phone. Replace those with a reading app like Kindle, instead.
Each time you unlock your phone, you’ll see Kindle instead of Facebook or Twitter.
Change Your Mindset
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right,”
This quote from Henry Ford is spot-on. If you believe you’ll fail, then you’ve already lost. Half the battle is believing in yourself.
A good way to avoid negative self-criticism is to be objective about your progress. You are both the observer and the subject of the experiment.
Use your setbacks to improve your efforts.
And focus on the present moment. Don’t think about next month, next week, or even tomorrow. Focus on what you can do today.
Practice your habit today. Then get up tomorrow and do it again. Build your stamina, and focus on your routine. You’ll soon find that the habit developed without you realizing it.
Eliminating Bad Habits
Become Aware of Bad Habits
Awareness is the first step to eliminating a bad habit.
Habits are actions we perform without conscious thought. To overcome bad habits, we first need to be aware of them.
Switch off your autopilot and take control of the habit. Add a bit of effort to it, such as setting a daily limit.
If you’re a smoker, give yourself a set number of cigarettes a day. Choose the times you can smoke.
Self-control is the best way to break a bad habit.
Find Your Triggers
Remember what we said about triggers?
What is the environmental trigger that causes the bad habit? Is there a specific place, action, or person that prompts it?
Or maybe it’s an emotion? Do you practice the habit when you’re feeling a certain way? Stress is a common trigger for bad habits.
Find the trigger, and then change your response to it.
Replace Bad with Good
It’s much easier to replace an existing habit than to develop a new one.
One way to do this is by using an “If-Then” plan. Here’s an example:
- If I’m tempted to smoke, then I will have gum instead.
It’s a simple but effective method. The process is not easy or perfect, and it won’t happen overnight. Be kind to yourself.
Here are a few other examples of how to use this method:
- Do you want to relax? Have a bath instead of a glass of wine.
- Do you need a distraction? Read a book instead of turning on the TV.
- Feeling emotional? Have some warm milk instead of another chocolate bar.
It’s all about perception. There are healthier ways to please your trigger and your craving.
Make the habit an inconvenience. The more difficult it is to perform, the less likely you’ll do it.
Here’s how you can do that:
- Hide the TV remote.
- Don’t stock multiple bottles of wine.
- Buy fewer cigarettes.
- Don’t keep junk food in the house.
Final Thoughts on Building Good Habits
When it comes to building good habits, intrinsic motivation is important.
You have the choice between a chocolate bar and a glass of milk. The freedom of that choice is yours alone.
Most negative habits are formed by stress. Find better coping mechanisms for your negative emotions. Find healthier tools and seek medical assistance if you need it.
Most importantly, celebrate your wins, no matter how small they are. Track your progress, write it down, and share it with others. Get hyped up about it.
That is the best positive motivator you can give yourself.