Understanding how to build new habits (and how your current habits work) is essential for making progress in your health, happiness, and life in general.
If you’ve ever tried to adopt a new positive behaviour, you know first-hand just how challenging it can be to make it stick, long-term. Though you may find traction at the start through sheer motivation and willpower, relying on these attributes isn’t a long-term solution. Without a better system in place – one that promotes the creation and automation of habits – it’s only a matter of time before the behaviour drops off completely.
So how do we set ourselves up for success?
Here are the essential steps that you need to know to build new habits and make them stick.
Habits occur in our brains as a predictable cycle called the “Habit Loop”.
Broken down into three parts, this system is designed to be successful when each of the following sections can reliably occur alongside the others.
Cues, routines and rewards
The first segment of the habit loop is the cue. This is the part of the cycle that acts as the trigger to start things off. When you encounter a cue, it signals to your brain to shift into automatic mode and which habit to play. Cues can be internal (like hunger) or external (like an alarm clock) and are typically things that occur regularly throughout your everyday life.
Next, there is the routine. Good or bad, this is the part where you actually take action and perform a specific behaviour. A routine can be physical, mental or emotional and often takes place with little conscious awareness.
Finally, there is the reward. This last section is where your brain receives a positive affirmation for taking the action above. The presence (or absence) of this part tells your brain whether this specific cycle is worth remembering for the future.
As the cycle is repeated, the loop becomes more and more automatic. It gradually moves away from the “decision-making” part of your brain and into the region that controls your instinctual behaviours (the “basal ganglia”).
Over time, the cue and reward can even become so intertwined that a powerful sense of anticipation may develop within this loop. This is where cravings appear.
Cravings arise when your brain begins to anticipate the reward earlier and earlier in the cycle. As habits become stronger, these expectations can move all the way up the line until simply encountering the cue can elicit a neurological desire that’s as equally intense as the reward itself.
Once a craving is developed, it becomes harder and harder to break the habit loop. With the brain already primed to satisfy its need for the reward, any act that causes you to not complete the loop can lead to feelings of desire, anger and frustration.
This is why habits can be so powerful. When you crave exercise for the endorphins it creates, or meditation for the feeling of calm it insights, motivation and drive no longer need to play a part in the behaviour – the habit can all unfold as second-nature.
Steps for building new habits
To effectively create a good habit, you have to break the Habit Loop down into its parts:
Step 1: Define the routine
What is it that you want to start doing?
Routines should be specific actions, thoughts or emotions that you can assign to yourself. For example, if your end goal is: “I want to exercise more” or “I want to be happier”, break those elements down into clear behaviours that you can complete. This could include: “I want to go for a 15 min walk every day” or “I want to react positively whenever I encounter a traffic jam”.
Routines can be complex or simple, but should always include elements of the “SMART” principle. Make them specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-sensitive.
Step 2: Design the reward
This is the area that often determines whether a habit will live or die. Most people fail to appropriately reward themselves for their positive habits and therefore never actually close the loop.
Some, often less-desirable, habits come with their own build-in rewards (like smoking, eating junk food and gambling), while others need to be designed. Rewards can range from things that cause physical sensations (like food or deep breathing), to ones that provide emotional payoffs (such as the feeling of pride that accompanies praise or self-congratulation).
Choose a reward that positively reinforces the behaviour you created in Step 1 and make it easy to pair each time you complete the task. Just make sure you reward yourself immediately after finishing the routine so your brain knows to connect the two.
Step 3: Designate the cue
Cues can be almost anything, from a visual trigger like an empty glass next to the sink, to a certain place or time of day. A cue can also be an emotion, a sequence of thoughts or the company of particular people.
Find a simple and obvious cue that you can tack onto the routine/reward grouping above. The best cues are things that happen on their own, at the same cadence at which you want to perform the routine. Some examples of cues that occur at different frequencies include brushing your teeth (multiple times a day), making breakfast (daily) or taking out the garbage (weekly).
Step 4: Put it together and experiment with what works for you
Now that you have all the pieces of the puzzle, put it all together and try it out:
“Right after I brush my teeth, I’ll perform 10 squats followed immediately by a positive affirmation in the mirror.”
If, after a few days, you find that you’re still not staying consistent, change one of the elements and test it out to see if it works better. It’s important to note that not all rewards or cues work for all people so experimenting with these pieces is the best way to find your groove.
Tips for creating good habits
1. Start with one small habit
Motivation ebbs and flows throughout the day, so it’s hard to rely on it when you’re trying to be consistent. The fix? Choose one simple habit that’s so easy to complete you just can’t say no, no matter how much or little drive you have when you encounter that cue.
2. Determine what you’ll be adding or subtracting to make room for it
If you want to build up a habit of going to the gym 3 times a week, that means you have to free up space in your week for that to occur. Think about what it is that you’re going to cut or change from your current routine to make that happen.
3. Build up slowly
Improving your habits by 1% each day adds up quickly. So do 1% declines.
Set yourself up for slow and steady success by starting small and gradually improving.
4. Get back on track quickly
Missing your habit once has no measurable impact on your long-term progress, but so many people use this as a reason to give up altogether. Rather than aim for perfection, abandon that mentality and plan for the things that are likely to get in your way and pull you off course.
If you can’t prevent the slips, plan for ways to get back on track immediately.
5. Be patient and consistent
It can be tempting to want to see results quickly, but this is so seldom the case. By being patient and maintaining consistency, that’s when the real change occurs.