How to Create Good Habits for Life

Everyone has routines. It’s human nature to have routines. A good example of a routine is what you do every morning when you get out of bed. Do you immediately jump in the shower? Grab a cup of coffee and eat your breakfast first? Those are routines. But then, after doing the same thing over and over again, these routines become automatic behavior, also known as habits.

You spend over 40 percent of your day in habit mode…yes, 40 percent! At least that’s what a Duke University study has discovered. Now, some of the habits are rather complex, like driving a car, meal prep, and work-related tasks. They’re not all related to what you do to get ready every morning, and they’re not necessarily all unhealthy habits, like leading a sedentary lifestyle, waking up late, or eating junk food on a regular basis (think emotional eating, for one). It’s when they become unhealthy habits that we always look to change them.

How Habits Are Formed

As anyone knows, changing habits is not as easy as flipping a switch. Think about it…you spent a long time developing these unhealthy habits, so it’s going to take some time and effort to change them for the better. In order to change bad habits for the better, it’s good to have some sort of understanding of how habits are formed. It’s a 3-step process:

1.       Cue: It’s a subconscious trigger that starts the process, similar to pushing the play button on your DVD player. For instance, if you have a habit of mindless eating while watching TV after you get home from work, turning on your TV is the cue.

2.       Routine: This is the habit in action. Once you’ve turned on your TV, you start eating your snack or meal. But, it’s mindless behavior, so you don’t really recall how much you ate.

3.       Reward: This is what solidifies your repeated behavior, and what turns something that was once a routine into a habit. You associate your enjoyment of eating with your enjoyment of your favorite TV show. Your brain gets a shot of dopamine, which embeds the pattern even more.

How to Create Good Habits

So how do you break the pattern? One easy way is to keep the cue and the reward, but substitute a healthier, portioned snack rather than whatever appeals to you at the moment. But, this is a rather easy fix for a simple habit. How about bigger habits, like working out every day or quitting smoking? Those are much more complex and harder habits to break. That’s why in order to create new, better habits, complex habits need to be broken down into smaller habits, or mini-habits.

First, choose a cue to remind you of your goal and start the new behavior. It must be a simple cue, or it won’t work. For example, your end goal is to go for a run 5 days a week. Rather than going through all of the steps that you would normally undertake to do this, try making a cue that is very simple and totally unavoidable. Here’s an example:

  1. Try setting out your running shoes where you can always see them. Better yet, put out all of your gear in full view in each room so that you’re constantly reminded of this cue.
  2. The next step is to make a simple routine that builds upon that cue. In this case, put on your running shoes, but do not go on your run…yet. Do this for a week to make the routine stick. If you miss a day, you’ll need to set up some sort of negative reinforcement with accountability, like asking a friend to check in with you each day to see if you put on your running shoes. If not,  you owe them a monetary penalty, something that will hurt but not so much that it will ruin your budget. After forking over money one or two times, your brain will get the message.
  3.  As the week progresses, and you meet your goal of putting your shoes on for a week, you’ll start to feel accomplished, and all sorts of happiness triggers get set off in your brain. It will start to seem silly that you’re putting on your very expensive running shoes without going for a run. You start to work out more, and it doesn’t seem like much of an effort anymore. Now all that we need to do is create a reward to solidify this mini-habit. It can be as simple as treating yourself to a movie, a massage, a trip to the salon…anything that you find pleasurable…after accomplishing your mini-habit for a week.

Just keep doing this for any big changes you need to make in your life, and you will find it much easier to make good habits each and every day!