3 tips on building good habits:

Introduction

We all want to learn a new language, hone a skill or read more often, right? Yet, for many people, this thought keeps lingering and never turns into action. Building good habits simply isn’t that easy for everyone. However, with some helpful tips, you’ll soon start developing those strong habits.

There are a couple of habit-building tips you’ve probably heard of already: repetition and rewards. Those work. Sometimes. But what we’ll tell you here is a bit more nuanced. 

But first, let’s talk about habits.

What are habits exactly and how are they formed? 

Habits are regularly repeated actions, mostly triggered by a cue. Usually, this is a certain event or time. James Clear, who has become a somewhat of a habit guru, says that habits exist in four phases. First, an external trigger causes a craving. This craving motivates you to carry out a certain action which provides a reward. This reward generally satisfies your craving. And TA-DA! Your brain starts associating this trigger with a reward. Your habit is formed. Brain happy. Everybody happy. Yet, if one of these phases fails, the habit won’t be formed.

Unfortunately, it’s not always as simple as that. Reward and repetition often aren’t enough to start reaping the benefits of habits. Habit formation varies from one person to another. And from one habit to another. Here’s some advanced insight so you can become successful at developing good habits.

Tip 1: Start Small

As we’ve learned, rewards are key in order to create habits. So how do you start and maintain good habits? By providing easy rewards. And how can we make rewards easy to reach? By starting small.

If you set goals that are very easy to achieve, habit formation will seem effortless. Moreover, it has been scientifically proven that setting goals that are within reach, boosts motivation and habit formation. [1]

Here’s some practical advice from Richard Turner, a famous magician. He practices card tricks up to 14 hours per day. While this habit is by no means small, even he suggests starting small. Really small. In The Tim Ferriss Show episode 411, he says ‘Don’t run a marathon. Right now, I want you to just walk down the distance of two houses and walk back. Make it so easy, you can’t talk yourself out of it. The next day, walk the distance of three houses. Come back. Then the next day, jog down the distance and come back. Then eventually, your body starts adapting to the habit and those endorphins start getting released.’

Starting small is easy. And if things are easy, you’ll find it hard not to turn them into habits. Once you’re hooked, you’ll be able to demand more of yourself and build meaningful habits. As Richard Turners says: ‘Discipline breeds discipline’.

So how can you apply this in practice?

Use the two-minute rule. Start with an action that literally takes less than two minutes. Some ideas:

  • Do one push-up
  • Drink one glass of water
  • Sit down in silence for one minute
  • Eat one piece of fruit

Alternatively, use this format. After I do X, I will do Y. Some examples:

  • After I eat candy, I will eat a piece of fruit
  • After breakfast, I will read one page of a book.
  • After I wake up, I will drink one glass of water
  • After lunch, I will sit in silence for one minute.  

Start small to make habits stick.

Tip 2: Make habits part of your identity

The second tip is simple. Make the habit part of who you are. If you want to start running, tell yourself you are a runner. If you want to get in better shape, make sure eating junk food isn’t part of your identity anymore. 

‘What makes a good plumber? The essential step is a leap of identity. “I am a good plumber.” A plumber who has made this leap, doing anything but a good job would be inconsistent with his sense of identity.’

Akerlof

Habit expert Nir Eyal agrees. He argues that we need to define carrying out a habit as part of who we are. Making something part of your identity avoids daily struggles. Go ahead and try it. It’s powerful. 

Making habits part of your identity makes you accountable for your actions. Some days, I don’t feel like doing exercise, but I need to do it. If I didn’t do it, I’d be a hypocrite because doing daily exercise is part of who I am. Know what? I’m going to do my daily routine right now. I didn’t feel like it today, but as I’m writing this, I’m reminded that it’s part of me. If I don’t do exercise today, I’m a liar. A hypocrite.

Building good habits starts with making them part of who you are.

Tip 3: Focus on intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation leads to stronger habit formation than external rewards.[2] Yes, finding the intrinsic motivation to develop a habit even works better than financial incentives! 

You’ll remember that certain cues trigger a craving for a reward. Make that reward something personal. Something that will help you be proud of the person you are a year from now. Crave progress towards your goal. That’s intrinsic motivation!

So how do you create intrinsic motivation to develop good habits?

There are many options. Monitoring your performance and progress is one. Get on the scale. Count your maximum reps. Analyse your average running speed. Compare your present self to your past self. Never compare with others. Everyone has different goals and circumstances.

Mind that it does help to connect with others. While habits aren’t a competition, it won’t harm to get friends involved. Some social pressure will give you that extra push to keep your motivation levels up. 

While you should have a clear goal in mind, don’t focus on the outcome too much. If your focus is solely on the final result, your actions will be goal-directed and they won’t become habits. 

Find intrinsic motivation to generate craving and develop that habit.

Bonus: Use a habit tracker

Habit trackers strengthen your sense of accountability to yourself. They serve as a reminder, and boost your motivation and satisfaction levels.

Tracking habit completion keeps you motivated. If you simply put an X or ‘check’ in your tracker after completing your habit, you’re building a chain. As you gradually go from one day, to one week, to one month, the chain gets longer and longer. Try breaking a 49-day streak. You won’t be able to live with yourself. 

Tick your habits off right after completion. Turn this simple action into your reward to reinforce your habit formation.

Conclusion about building good habits

Habits are difficult to build when you don’t know how it works. However, if you start small, make them part of your identity and focus on intrinsic motivation, it’ll be a lot easier.

And remember:

‘If you don’t do it consistently, it’s not a habit, it’s a hobby.’

James Clear

Good luck! And please let us know if you have any more questions about how to create good habits!

Want to try some of these techniques? Find inspiration for powerful habits here: 

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Written by Kjell

Original photo by Frederik Löwer on Unsplash

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Sources and further reading/watching about building good habits

  1. Beckmann, Jürgen & Heckhausen, Heinz. Springer — https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/978-3-319-65094-4.pdf
  2. Judah, Gaby et al. BMC Psychology — https://bmcpsychology.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40359-018-0270-z