Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits in the past.
The quality of your health, work, and relationships all depend on the habits you’ve had until now.
So, when you learn how to build good habits, you can build a good life.
You’ll find every behavior change strategy you need in this article.
But first, we’ll explore the basic anatomy of habits.
How Habits Work
Researchers at MIT have discovered a simple neurological loop that underlies every habit. This “habit loop” has three parts1:
- The cue is the trigger that starts your habit.
- The routine is the actual habit itself.
- The reward is the benefit you gain from doing the habit.
If you enjoy the reward, you’ll want to repeat the routine again the next time the same cue shows up. When this loop gets repeated enough times, it will become automatic, and a habit will be formed.
Here’s a relatable example: Your phone gives off a notification sound (cue), you pick it up and open the relevant app (routine), and get to know what the notification is about (reward).
With time, this loop is so automatic that you don’t even think about it anymore - you just do it.
Knowing that all your habits work this way is very useful because it allows you to deliberately design your own habit loops.
By creating your own cues, shaping your routines, and adding compelling rewards, you can build unshakable habits.
Keep on reading, and I’ll show you how.
1. Create the Cues
1.1: Use If-Then Planning
An if-then plan2 is essentially an algorithm that you program your mind with.
It’s a super-simple yet highly effective behavior change strategy. Hundreds of scientific studies show that if-then planners are about 300 percent more likely to achieve their goals4.
So, how does it work? All you have to do is fill out this simple formula:
If [situation] - Then I will [habit].
The beauty of this little algorithm is that it forces you to turn vague intentions into specific objectives.
“I want to be more present with my kids,” becomes “If I’m coming home from work, then I will put my phone in flight mode.”
When the situation arises, there’s no hesitation or deliberation. You simply execute the algorithm.
So, think of yourself like a robot and the if-then plans as the code you program yourself with. It sounds silly, I know, but it works.
1.2: Build Habit Stacks
A habit stack4 is basically a series of if-then plans following each other. The formula looks like this:
After [Habit 1], I will [Habit 2] → After [Habit 2], I will [Habit 3], etc.
This strategy allows you to turn individual tasks into one single action where each habit acts as a trigger for the next one.
Habit stacking is useful when you have several small behaviors you want to do every day. Let’s say, for instance, that you want to create a solid morning routine. Your habit stack might look something like this:
X minutes of yoga → X minutes of reading → X minutes of meditation → Take a shower.
If you just do your first yoga exercise, that will initiate the rest of the morning routine. And the more times you complete your habit stack, the more automatic the sequence will become.
If you’re like most people, you assume that you do what you do because of who you are. But in reality, a lot of what you do is simply the result of where you are.
The triggers in your environment have a considerable effect on your behavior. For instance:
- If you have cookies on your kitchen counter, you’re likely to eat them.
- If you have credit cards in your wallet, you’re likely to spend money.
- If you have games on your phone, you’re likely to play them.
In many ways, you shape your environment, and then your environment shapes you. So, make sure that your surroundings support the behaviors you want.
Make your desired habits as easy as possible to do and undesired behaviors as hard as possible to do.
2. Shape the Routines
2.1: Get Into Flow
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s defines flow as5:
A state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.
Research shows that people tend to be happiest and most productive when they’re in the flow state.
So, it’s a good practice to optimize all your habits for this state. And the way to do that is to aim for the “flow channel:”
If your habit is too hard, you’ll feel anxious. If your habit is too easy, you’ll get bored. But if it’s right in the sweet spot where your skills match the challenge, you’ll find it enjoyable.
Recalibrate your habit until you’re in the flow channel, and you’ll be drawn to it naturally.
A commitment device6 is a way of proactively locking yourself into a desired course of action. It’s something you put in place now to prevent slip-ups later. Here are some examples:
- Cutting up your credit cards to avoid mindless spending.
- Getting a long-term gym membership instead of one-day passes.
- Buying junk food or candy in small packages rather than large ones.
- Installing an extension like News Feed Eradicator for Facebook to avoid wasting time online.
- Using an app like Moment to set daily usage limits on your phone.
A carefully selected commitment device can change your behavior overnight. So, take some time to think about how you can bind yourself to your desired habit.
Much like your physical environment shapes your behavior, so does your social context. And probably much more so than you think. For instance, fascinating research shows that:
- If you share rooms with a student who has good grades, your GPA will increase, too7.
- If your colleagues are often late for work, you’ll be much more inclined to come in late8.
- If you’re a woman and your coworker recently had a baby, you’re more likely to get pregnant9.
- If your friends, siblings, or coworkers get a divorce, you’re more likely to get divorced as well10.
- If you have a friend who becomes obese, your risk of also becoming obese increases dramatically11.
The takeaway? Surround yourself with people you want to be like. If you do, your behavior will naturally conform to theirs.
3. Add the Rewards
3.1: Celebrate Small Wins
In a perfect world, the reward for a good habit would be the habit itself. But, as you may have noticed, that’s not how it works. In the beginning, there’s usually nothing inherently rewarding about it.
The first couple of times you go to the gym, there won’t be any noticeable difference in your physique. It will probably take months before you start seeing results. And it’s usually not until then that it gets easier to exercise for its own sake.
So, before you reach that point, you need to create your own immediate rewards. And the simplest and most effective way to do that is through behavior expert BJ Fogg’s “celebration” technique12.
Each time you’ve completed your habit, do a quick celebration! For example:
- Do a fist pump.
- Tell yourself, “That’s like me!”
- Put on a big smile.
By deliberately self-generating positive emotions, your brain will pay attention. It will come to associate your habit with feeling good. And that will make you more likely to do the routine the next time the trigger shows up.
Every behavior you do involves several brain regions and neurochemicals. But the neurotransmitter dopamine plays an especially important role13.
Unlike what many people think, dopamine is not released during a reward, but in anticipation of a reward:
When you know that a reward is coming, dopamine makes you crave it. And interestingly, if there’s uncertainty about that same reward, your dopamine levels will shoot through the roof:
The more uncertain the reward, the more dopamine will come pouring into the brain. That’s why casino games are so incredibly addictive. You know you might get a reward, but you don’t know when.
And you can use the same psychological mechanism to your advantage by creating what I like to call a habit reward lottery. Let’s say, for example, that you want to become a good runner. Your prizes could look something like this:
- Water bottle
- Heart rate monitor
- Running shoes
- Entry to a marathon (Jackpot!)
Write your prizes down on winning tickets and mix them with a bunch of blank tickets. Then, each time you’ve completed your habit, you reward yourself with a ticket.
Whether or not you win, you can be sure that your dopamine levels will spike and make your habit loop much stronger.
3.3: Track Your Progress
One of the easiest and most effective ways to change your behavior is to measure it. Research shows that merely asking people to track what they do immediately and significantly improves their performance in that area.
For instance, studies show that people who use pedometers will increase their physical activity by 27%, resulting in them walking at least one extra mile per day on average14.
What gets measured gets improved. So, anytime you want to create a new habit, you might want to track your progress in a habit calendar (click to download):
Write the habits you want to track in the top row and put the calendar on a wall where you’ll see it often. Then check off each habit after you’ve completed it.
That way, you’ll create a visual representation of your progress that can work as a powerful motivator. And more importantly, you’ll collect valuable data that you can use to analyze your results, adjust your approach, and build increasingly stronger habit loops.
How to Build Good Habits, In Summary
1. Create the Cues
1.1: Use if-then planning. If [situation] - Then I will [habit].
1.2: Build habit stacks. After [Habit 1], I will [Habit 2], etc.
1.3: Design your environment. Make good habits easy and bad ones hard.
2. Shape the Routines
2.1: Get into flow. Make sure your habit is neither too easy nor too hard.
2.2: Use commitment devices. Proactively bind yourself to your good habits.
2.3: Leverage social influence. Surround yourself with people you want to be like.
3. Add the Rewards
3.1: Celebrate small wins. Each time you’ve completed your habit, do a quick celebration.
3.2: Get yourself addicted. Add uncertain rewards with a habit reward lottery.
3.3: Track your progress. Use a habit calendar to measure your efforts.
- How Habits Work
- Implementation Intentions and Effective Goal Pursuit
- Get Your Team to Do What It Says It’s Going to Do
- Habit Stacking by S.J. Scott
- Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Commitment device
- The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
- Employee Lateness Behavior
- Businesses, Buddies and Babies
- Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Unless Everyone Else is Doing it Too
- The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years
- Rewire Your Brain
- Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure
- Pedometers Help People Count Steps to Get Healthy
Eric Barker, James Clear, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Stephen J. Dubner, Charles Duhigg, BJ Fogg, Heidi Grant, Peter Gollwitzer, Steven Levitt, Robert Sapolsky, and Steve Scott for influencing my understanding of habits.
If you enjoyed this article, I highly recommend you check out their work.