Make good habits stick

Few things impact the quality of your life more than daily habits. Good habits help you become the person you want to be, whereas bad habits lead to pain, suffering, and self-loathing. Your behavior has a huge impact on the quality of your life. Therefore, it’s worth your time to build good habits and remove the bad ones.

We see overwhelming evidence for the power of habits all around us because we all know people who choose to create habits for exercising, eating healthy, reading, writing, and getting enough sleep. They usually perform better, live better quality lives, and enjoy more success. We also know people who choose to drink too much, smoke, eat junk food, and skip exercise, and we know they typically encounter more pain and health problems and are often not successful.

So if the evidence is overwhelming and the roadmap is clear, why don’t we all choose to build good habits and break bad ones?

For most people, it’s not because they lack good intentions or refuse to set goals. Instead, most simply lack the structure to consistently support good behavior and discourage bad behavior.

“We don’t rise to the level of our goals. We fall to the level of our systems.”

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits

Habits are actions we repeat routinely until they become automatic.

Life would be unproductive and unnecessarily stressful without habits. According to Duke University researchers, habits account for 40% of our decisions.

Do you remember the first few times you drove a car? How much attention did you pay to every detail to ensure you didn’t crash? Yet after years of driving, many of us text, listen to the radio, eat, and talk on the phone without thinking much about the actions it takes to actually drive the car. I’m not recommending distracted driving, by the way, but lots of people successfully do lots of things while they are driving every day. The steps needed to drive become habits, freeing up energy and attention to focus on additional actions.

Habits reduce cognitive load.

We create habits to think less. Habits and routines reduce stress and provide the structure we need to function in everyday life. Crest and Colgate make dozens of different varieties of toothpaste. Do you really want to spend several minutes deciding which toothpaste to buy every time you pick up a new tube? No, you don’t. Therefore, you make it a habit to buy the same type of toothpaste so you don’t waste time and expend energy.

Habits are deeply rooted in 20,000-plus years of evolutionary biology.

Our bodies evolved to be lazy and conserve energy. No wonder we love to lie on the couch and binge-watch Netflix. In the last few hundred years, most humans have had consistent access to food, but for thousands of years before that, food was scarce, and therefore our bodies evolved to conserve energy. This reality of evolution also explains why we love sweet and salty foods that are loaded with calories. Our brain tells us to eat as many high-calorie foods as possible at every opportunity.

This deep, unconscious instinct doesn’t realize that modern food scientists have engineered food to trigger this impulse or that there is a grocery store a short distance away where we have access to almost any food imaginable. But our impulse to eat kettle corn while lying on the couch watching movies makes perfect sense from an evolutionary perspective.

Habits are explained by behavioral psychology.

For over 100 years, scientists have been studying behavior in animals and humans. Unsurprisingly, they have discovered that we tend to repeat behaviors that result in good outcomes and avoid behaviors that lead to unpleasant outcomes. Most habits start through trial and error. When we try something new it takes a lot of mental energy to analyze the situation until we stumble upon something that works. Our brains release a chemical called dopamine when we finally find what works for the first time. Once we know what works, our brains create a new rule to help us repeat the action more easily in the future. This is the same chemical release that occurs in the brain when a person gets praise from the boss, receives “likes” on a social media post, or snorts cocaine.

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear states that all habits proceed through the following four stages.

Habit Loop

1. Cue: triggers your brain to initiate a behavior based on information that predicts a reward (e.g., money, status, food, sex, praise, approval, sense of satisfaction)

2. Craving: links to a desire to change your internal state

3. Response: transforms your action into a habit

4. Reward: satisfies your craving and desire, which is the ultimate goal of the habit

When you understand how the habit loop operates, you have a better chance to design good habits. 

Habits are influenced by our physical environment.

Our physical environment has a major impact on our behavior. Lee Robins’ studies of heroin use by Vietnam veterans offer a great example: “Robins’ studies found high rates of heroin use (34%) and symptoms of heroin dependence (20%) among U.S. soldiers while serving in Vietnam. In the first year after returning to the U.S., only 1% became re-addicted to heroin, although 10% tried the drug after their return.” Key factors such as price, availability, and social norms influenced the soldiers’ drug use, but being in a stressful war zone had an outsized impact on behavior. You don’t need a scientific study to understand this idea. How would your behavior be different if you were sitting with friends at happy hour rather than in the gym?

Habits are shaped by people around us.

Humans are social animals. We evolved in groups to survive, and we want and need to be accepted by other people. The social norms of our group shape our behavior. Every social group has its own culture and norms, which is why bikers, bankers, hippies, startup founders, hipsters, and rappers dress and act like their peers. If the behavior of the people around you does not align with the person you want to become, then you need to find a new group because the social pressure in your old group will be too difficult to overcome. Watch this video of people in an elevator facing the wrong direction to see how social pressure changes lifelong behavior and social norms in just a few minutes. The video is a simple, innocent example, but social pressure also played a role in the horrific atrocities of the Holocaust. Don’t underestimate the power of the people around you to influence your behavior.

Habits compound to help or hurt you.

In finance, interest compounds when added to a principal amount and then the sum of interest plus principal earns interest, and so on. We can get a similar exponential return on learning, exercising, eating healthy, sleeping, and meditating by investing a small amount of time into the chosen activity every day. But beware: bad habits also compound. Drinking, smoking, eating junk food, and failing to exercise can have cascading effects on your health and productivity.

Habits are designed.

Experimentation and iteration are useful when designing habits and routines. Design good habits by removing friction for a desired behavior. Break bad habits by adding friction to a negative behavior. For example, if you want to lose weight, buy healthy food and make sure it is conveniently available before you get hungry. Don’t keep junk food at home, which will make it necessary to expend effort to get it.

Step 1: Make a new habit part of your identity.

The most important step in creating a new habit is to embrace the identity of who you want to become. Identity is shaped by our beliefs, behavior, and worldview. Creating a better life requires continually learning and upgrading your identity.

I never thought of myself as a writer. I started writing to synthesize and focus my thinking about ideas I’m interested in. When I first started writing, I viewed it as an activity I wanted to do, but it was not part of my identity. In the beginning, I found writing difficult and not always enjoyable. I noticed a big shift in my mental state and motivation when I embraced writing as a part of my identity. It’s still challenging, but writing no longer feels like a forced activity. Instead, it feels more like I’m building a useful skill and also shaping the way I think and act in the world.

Step 2: Use “inversion” to identify and remove obstacles.

Inversion is a thinking tool that allows you to flip a problem around and think backward. For example, if you want to lose 25 pounds, you might normally think about the actions you need to take to accomplish that goal—eating healthier, exercising, etc. Inversion looks at the problem in reverse and involves identifying all the things to avoid—going to happy hour, walking by your favorite bakery, etc. Inversion doesn’t always solve the problem, but it helps you think more clearly about removing unnecessary obstacles.

Step 3: Start with baby steps.

The best way to start a new habit is to make it easy. Motivation and willpower are useful for getting started, but they are unreliable. Don’t make the mistake of setting goals and expectations too high. You want to build habits from the ground up and not impose big challenges. You are building new neural pathways in your brain, and you want to eliminate all friction and resistance. Repetition and consistency are more important than pushing yourself to do more. If you want to read more, then start by reading one page every day. If you want to start meditating, then start by meditating one minute every day. For writing, start with one sentence a day. This may seem too easy, but resist the temptation to do more in the beginning.

Step 4: Make very small improvements every day.

Start small but make tiny improvements each day. For example, let’s say you want to get stronger. Maybe you start with one pushup on your first day. On your second day, you do two pushups. On the third day you do three pushups. Continue this habit and in a month you will be up to 30 pushups a day. But make sure that you’re not pushing yourself too hard too quickly. As you increase the number of pushups, you’ll need to break them up so you can accomplish your goal without failure.

Motivation has been studied often in psychology. Follow the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which says that maximum motivation occurs when we face a challenge that is not too difficult to manage but not so easy that it bores us. The point is not to see how many pushups you can do, but rather whether you can build a habit of doing pushups daily for the rest of your life.

Step 5: Be consistent.

The key to creating a new habit is doing it every day. Repetition and consistency are critical. The amount of time you invest is less important than repeated, deliberate, daily practice. Never miss two days in a row. Missing one day every once in a while will not have a big impact, but missing two days in a row will have a negative effect. This principle applies to any new habit, including learning a language, exercising, playing a new instrument, or meditating.

Step 6: Focus on long-term benefits

Focus on small, incremental improvements over time. When I consider incorporating a new habit into my life, I ask myself the following question: Can I do this every day for the next 3-plus years? Unless your new habit becomes part of your identity and lifestyle, it will not stick. This is why most people fail at dieting. They may lose weight in the short term, but they will most likely regain it because they cannot sustain the diet across time.

Habits that will improve your life

The following habits will make your life better. No matter what your goals or interests, these habits will improve your work performance, make you a better parent, improve your art, and help you lose weight, gain strength, learn, improve your relationships, and think more clearly.

  • Exercise: increase energy, lose weight, gain strength, and feel better
  • Meditate: train for less emotional reactivity
  • Read: inject new ideas into your head and accelerate learning
  • Write: synthesize and focus your ideas and internalize learning
  • Eat healthy: get more energy and reduce health risks
  • Sleep: get seven hours per night to improve productivity and cognitive ability

Good habits help you become the person you want to be. Bad habits lead to pain, suffering, and self-loathing. Habits and routines reduce stress and provide the structure you need to function better in everyday life. Your habits are shaped by your physical environment and the people around you. Design habits by removing friction for behavior you want and adding friction for behavior you want to avoid.


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