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Patrik Edblad

Forming Good Habits: A Science-Based Guide to Self-Mastery

in Habits

Good habitsHave you ever decided to make a serious effort and start exercising, drink more water, read, meditate, floss and/or be asleep by midnight?

Maybe you’ve put a plan of execution together and made it through the first couple of days.

But then, as the days pass by all your good intentions mysteriously start fizzling out, your habit changing efforts stops and you’re left disappointed wondering what (the hell) went wrong.

After going through this pattern a couple of times it’s easy to get discouraged. But the thing is habits can be conquered. If you’re willing to learn the mechanics behind them and put in some work.

What Are Habits?

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
– Jim Rohn

A habit is a certain routine behavior that is repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously.
And they play an important role in our lives. It’s because of habits we can drive a car while planning our meeting at work or reflecting on a conversation we had last night.

The behavioral patterns we repeat most often are actually physically imprinted in our neural pathways and that’s the reason old habits are so hard to break and new ones hard to form.

When you decide to try to adopt a new habit your initial efforts have to come from willpower. The problem is that willpower has been shown to work like a muscle and if that muscle gets depleted before your habit is automated, you’ll give up.

The Ripple Effect of Good Habits

In his book The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg describes the concept of ”keystone habits” as ”small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.”

These keystone habits have a ripple effect into other parts of your life and benefits you in unintentional ways.

One of these keystone habits is exercise (excerpt from Duhigg’s book):

“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly.

Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family.

They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why…‘Exercise spills over,’ said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher.

There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

While mastering our habits is no easy task, it is completely doable and it can have a tremendous effect on all areas of our lives.

Lasting Change Takes Time

Now, before we get into the details of how to change your habits a word of caution is in place. A lot has been said about how long it takes to form a habit and time spans such as 21 or 30 days are pretty much common practice.

However, a new study has shown that the automation of a habit can vary greatly depending on what you’re trying to put into practice.

On average, the study showed that a habit takes 66 days to form, but depending on what the habit was the amount of days ranged from 18 all the way up to 254.

This means that it’s pretty likely that you’ll have to put in some effort as you start making changes in your life. In the words of Robin Sharma: Change is hard at first, messy in the middle and gorgeous at the end.

How to Form Habits

First off, pick one habit at a time and start ridiculously small. Why? In this first phase it’s not the change itself that is important – it’s to form the actual habit. Our focus is simply not to quit and that’s why we need to avoid getting overwhelmed at any cost.

A habit is made up of three parts:

1. The Cue (A trigger that initiates the behavior)
When you’re starting a new habit, always make sure to have a stimulus of some sort that gets you going. This could, for example, be your alarm clock going off, finishing your lunch, closing your e-mail inbox etc. The key is to not trust your memory. If possible, perform your routine at the same time and under the same circumstances every day.

2. The Routine (The actual behavior)
Ensure you remove as many obstacles as you can that require activation energy to get started. This would be all the things that stand in the way of getting started (even the tiny ones). If you’re going to the gym in the morning, put your gym clothes next to your bed and make sure you plan out exactly what your work out is going to look like.

The last thing you want to do is fumble around drowsy looking for your gym shoes and trying to decide whether to run or go to the gym. This would be a perfect example of how to deplete your willpower before even getting out the door.

Then think about how you can increase the difficulty for undesired behavior. If you know that TV is getting in the way of your reading habit, put the remote control in another room and place your book within easy reaching distance right next to your couch.

Make the habit as enjoyable as you possibly can.Turn it into a ritual (perhaps brew some tea before reading?). Even the most boring tasks can be made more enticing with some creativity. Turn doing the dishes into your personal time by listening to an awesome audiobook or your favorite podcast.

3. The Reward (Which makes the brain want to continue with the behavior)
You may or may not recognize the term ”operant conditioning”. This is a term used in psychology to describe how a behavior is modified by its consequences. To strengthen a behavior it needs to be reinforced.

A great example of this is what’s called ”token economy” which is a system of behavior modification based on systematic reinforcement of a behavior. The reinforcers are symbols or tokens that can be exchanged for other reinforcers.

A sweet tool for this is the free habit app ”Lift” that lets you check off a task when you’ve completed it for the day. Other likeminded people can then support you, giving you some well needed accountability.

If you want, you can add further reinforcers that can be exchanged for checks in Lift or your calendar. For example 10 checks can be exchanged for a nice dinner out. Whatever system you decide to use, make sure it makes sense to you and that the rewards are appealing.

And that’s it! Plan out how you’ll be tackling each part of the habit and get to work! 🙂

As you move forward in this process, know that some missed opportunities won’t derail the process. You can take weekends off but missing a full week’s worth of working on your habit hinders the automation.

Habit Challenge

Now, I got two things for you to do:
1. Before you do anything else today, commit to forming a new habit and let us know in the comments what your plan looks like.
2. Think of two friends that could use this information to improve their lives and email this article to them.

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., Wardle, J. (2010) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. Vol. 40, Issue 6, p998-1009.