Our lives are built around habits. Maybe every morning you get out of bed and walk straight to the coffee maker; that’s a habit. And surely your habits don’t end there. From morning until night, your days may be a series of habitual practices, some more useful than others.
Although some habits just fall into place, it’s helpful to learn how to build habits effectively. Through intentional habits, you can develop into the person you desire to be. To do it, establishing practices in your life helps to build useful habits.
How to Think About Habits
Let’s have a little conversation before we dive into the nitty-gritty of habits. What is it that attracted you to the idea of picking up a habit? Take a second to think about it.
There’s probably one of two reasons:
- There’s something that you want to cultivate in your life — a habit you want to begin.
- There’s something that you’re already in the habit of, and you don’t want to do it anymore. You’re hoping to replace it with a new habit that’s more useful for you.
A New Version of Yourself
When we say that we want to get into a new habit, I think that what we actually mean, deep down, is that we want to see ourselves as a new person. That’s really what we’re looking for.
We want to believe that we’re the kind of person who can practice that habit regularly. We want to be someone who’s invested in that particular thing. That’s what we’re really working on.
Granted, we probably do want to create certain things in our lives as well. We think that a new habit is a way to accomplish that. And, well, we’ve got a point.
You may be familiar with this quote from Mahatma Gandhi:
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.
In some ways, I think that really is the way that it works. What we do shapes us.
And so, when you’re trying to create a habit, you’re trying to create a new version of yourself. It could be a self that does certain things regularly or a self that doesn’t do those things.
The Practice of Developing Habits
When I’m trying to build habits effectively, I like to remember that developing as a person is my real goal. That way, I don’t get so hung up on whether I did or didn’t do the habit itself.
Self-judgment can stand in your way when you’re trying to cultivate a habit. You might judge yourself for not showing up or for not having your own back.
You can develop a relationship with habit-building in which it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. It may be useful to think of it as practicing.
The more times you practice a habit, the more likely you are to be the person who practices that habit. You’re building the odds for yourself and developing your luck. You’re cultivating what it takes to do something in the world.
That’s what building a habit is. I think it’s useful to view it this way. This understanding frees us up to do the actual play and the practice that will get us to the point where we do have that habit.
How to Pick a Habit
Have you read James Clear’s book Atomic Habits? The subtitle is “An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.” And I’d say that’s pretty accurate. This book is incredibly practical. It’s all about how to think about habits in atomic ways.
He calls them atomic for two reasons:
- They have a lot of power in them, just as atoms do.
- They’re the fundamental building blocks that make up other behaviors.
That’s kind of a cool way to think about it. Like, we’re making the smallest possible versions of these things and just getting into the practice of doing them. I really like that way of looking at it.
Think about what’s happening with a habit. It changes you because it changes your neural pathways. You’re building neural networks around the new habit. Those neural pathways make connections in our brains and allow us to cultivate a new sense of being.
To build those pathways, you practice the habit over and over and over again. You get those reps in, and that connects the neurons together. Think of it like a game of practice.
You’re figuring out ahead of time what your default will be when you show up in a new situation. The practice is forming your go-to response. You want to get those reps in as easily as possible so that your hoped-for outcome will become your default response.
With the Atomic Habits way of looking at this, you’re taking really small neural pathways and building off of those until you experience a massive change in your life. Don’t dismiss small changes. Over time, there’s a compounding effect, and those small changes add up to huge changes.
So how do you pick a habit? You identify small changes that help you build toward the person you want to be.
Once you’ve identified the habit that you want to begin, it’s time to put it into practice.
James Clear offers rules for habit formation. They’re based on behavioral psychology and the way the brain works. He calls them the Four Laws of Behavior Change.
- Cue — Make it obvious: Figure out ways for your habits to be noticeable in your reality. Think of a big, flashing sign that says, “Hey, now’s the time!” (Not a literal one, of course, but you get the idea.)
- Craving — Make it attractive: Choose activities that you’ll be motivated to follow through on because they’ll fulfill some sort of desire in your life.
- Response — Make it easy: Avoid barriers that could stand in your way. Clear yourself a path so that the desired behavior will come easily to you.
- Reward — Make it satisfying: Ideally, following through on your new habit will be satisfying. It will bring you pleasure.
As Clear says, “It would be irresponsible for me to claim that these four laws are an exhaustive framework for changing any human behavior, but I think they’re close.”
How to Build Habits Effectively
I get that, more than anything, you’re probably looking for practical tips about how to start a new habit. You’d like concrete examples of how to make a habit stick.
I’ve got that for you. Let’s go through some real-world examples of Clear’s four rules at work.
Make It Obvious: Environmental Cues
Environmental cues are useful for making something obvious. Setting them up can provide a nudge to do whatever it is that you’re wanting to do. Here are some examples:
- Put a rubber band on your wrist.
- Stick a rubber band around the doorknob so that you notice its texture when you go to open the door.
- Put something in the way of your ordinary routine.
Let’s talk more about that last one. I call that a functional obstruction. Essentially, you’ll want to put something in your way so that it triggers your attention.
For me, this often means sticking a chair in front of my office door so that it’s blocking my way out.
Here’s another idea: If you normally wash your hands after using the bathroom, put something in the way of that. (This works best if you’re consistent about using the same bathroom each time. And if you’re at home. Your office mates might not appreciate it a whole lot.)
Put the soap in the sink instead of next to the sink. It’ll be in the way of running the water. That will interrupt your pattern.
Interrupting your pattern is exactly what you’re trying to do. Breaking out of old patterns and creating new ones allows you to make new neural pathways.
The out-of-place soap is your reminder to engage in that new habit — saying your affirmations, perhaps. You can then repeat those phrases as you wash your hands. The soap is an environmental cue that reminds you to do what you want to do.
Remembering is really important because that’s how you’ll accomplish your goal.
Make It Obvious: Habit Stacking
James Clear talks about habit stacking. You take a habit that you already do and attach a new routine to that habit.
Since I’ve already mentioned the bathroom and handwashing once, we might as well stick with that topic.
Let’s say you go to the bathroom and pee several times a day. That’s a habit that you’ve already built in your life. You could stack it with saying an affirmation or taking 10 deep breaths. You’ll link those practices up with peeing.
(Actually, since we’re friends and all, I’ll just tell you. This is exactly what I do. I find my bathroom deep breathing really useful. It calms my nervous system and helps me access my creativity and my sense of peace. Remember to go with the flow, I say!)
Make It Attractive: Pattern Interaction
If you want to enjoy the habit that you’re building, then why not pair it with an activity that you already enjoy?
The best way for me to explain this is with examples from my own life. My favorite things may not be yours, but maybe they’ll at least get your wheels turning.
My mom used to have this big-screen television and an exercise bike. I’d pull the bike in front of the TV and cue up the game Morrow. I’d be pedaling away on the bike while also running around in the game world.
In other words, distract yourself with something. Make it pleasurable and fun.
These days, I’ve graduated to a new form of making exercise fun. Two words: trampoline dodgeball. Yes, trampoline dodgeball. If you’ve never played, just trust me on this. It’s almost more fun than I know what to do with. It’s also the most meaningful thing I’ve ever experienced in my life. It’s like the perfect embodiment of my essence.
All that, and I’m building an exercise habit as I play. Good juices flow through my body from all the endorphins. My cardiovascular system gets healthier, and I become more limber. Plus, I become a calmer and more engaged person in the world.
Make It Attractive: Future Pacing
Visualization is a great technique you can use when building a new habit. I also call it future pacing.
The idea is to imagine the kind of person that you’ll be when this is already handled in your reality. In seeing little vignettes of that version of you, you’ll start to build a relationship with that version of yourself.
You can try it right now. Spend some time just daydreaming about the version of yourself that you’re wanting to become — the version where this habit is in service. Just imagining that you’re there already. Sit with it for a bit. Try it on like a pair of shoes. Walk around in it and see what it’s like to hang out over there.
This might sound silly or a bit like daydreaming. But I encourage you to try it.
When you practice future pacing, you start to imagine yourself in the future. You take yourself forward to the time when you’re the kind of person who has this habit. You start to realize it in a very direct way.
(Quick recap: Future pacing is going inside your head and rehearsing future situations in which you can take an other-than-default action to get different results.
Your new habit will become more and more attractive as you learn to see yourself in the reality that you want to create.
Make It Easy: A Useful Environment
I love thinking of ways to make a new habit easy.
For example, if healthier eating is the habit you want to take on, then stock your fridge and pantry accordingly. Keep food in the house that is in alignment with your vision for yourself. To have a more connected relationship with food, be intentional about building an environment that supports your goal.
You know, willpower is pretty overrated. We have a limited store of willpower.
White-knuckling our way through things isn’t always the most productive approach. Even if it works, there tends to be some resentment in our relationship with whatever the task is. It’s really challenging to avoid at least a touch of resentment that comes from not making things easy enough.
Instead, make your environment useful so that your habit becomes the easy choice.
Make It Easy: Various Environments
Your environment takes many forms. One of them is your physical environment. We’ve already talked about ways you can arrange your physical surroundings to support your habits — things like putting a chair in front of your door or sticking the soap bottle in the sink or revamping the contents of your kitchen cabinets.
There’s also your time environment. Your calendar can be a huge help in this area. I depend on my calendar to know what activities are going on in my day. When things, including habits, are on my calendar, I do them. So if you’re already someone who uses a planner throughout the day, then add your habit activities to it.
Don’t forget about your social environment. Maybe you’re a person who never misses an appointment with someone else; you don’t want to leave another person waiting. So to help you develop a habit, involve someone else. For instance, if you want to commit to exercise, then invite a friend to go with you. Set a date for it and put it on your calendar. Then show up and get your workouts in together.
Make It Satisfying: Relishing in Gratitude
I’d encourage you to use acknowledgment and appreciation of yourself as a reward.
As you notice yourself engaging in the habit the first time, you’re gonna be like, “Wow, that’s awesome. Look at me becoming this kind of person.”
As you keep going, tell yourself, “Way to go — nice! Look at me go!”
Praise yourself. Be on your own side.
Just a quick aside: Some people might suggest buying yourself a gift, but at least for me, that won’t do the trick. Candy and coffee don’t provide the reward experience that I’m looking for.
I’m pretty averse to depriving myself. Why would I deprive myself of anything that’s in service of building a life that I love? I do the things that I love in the life that I love!
So instead of holding out until I’ve formed new habits, I reward myself in different ways. Acknowledging my efforts — “Way to go, Benji!” — is so much more satisfying for me.
When you’re thinking about discipline, I’d encourage you to refer to it as self-command. You’re commanding yourself to do things and then doing them.
If you could use help building your abilities in this area, an idea from Shirzad Chamine might help. His big thing is Positive Intelligence. He talks about what he calls PQ, your Positive Intelligence Quotient.
Chamine recommends doing PQ reps. His website explains, “PQ Reps boost your Self-Command muscle the same way that dumbbell reps would boost your physical body.”
During a PQ Rep, you focus on one sense to the exclusion of all others. It only takes 15 to 30 seconds, but during that time, you just really focus on that one thing. As you’re doing it, you really keep in mind whatever the task at hand is. The rep is just a few breaths long.
PQ Reps gives you a way to practice something consistently and regularly. You can do them anytime or anywhere. In doing so, you’ll get better at the skill of telling yourself to do something and then doing it.
How to Break Habits
Now, not all habits are useful. If you have a habit that isn’t serving you well, then you may be looking to break it.
Inverting the Four Laws of Behavior Change
James Clear’s rules for establishing habits can be flipped around for breaking habits too. With each rule, you’re going to do the exact opposite.
That means making the behavior less obvious. You’ll want to hide the cues so that you don’t even think about doing it. Clear describes this as making the habit invisible.
You’ll want to reduce your cravings too. You can do that by making the behavior unpleasant or unattractive.
When you want to build a habit, you try to clear a path so that the behavior will be easy. For breaking habits, you’ll want to make things harder.
Finally, take away your rewards so that it will be less satisfying to engage in the behavior that you’re hoping to stop.
Understanding Brain Science
While the above tips can help you break habits, I’d encourage you to spend most of your time invested in the habits that you want to have.
Your brain works in positive ways. Its goal is to create neural pathways. It’s less effective at breaking down the pathways that already exist.
(Sure, there are structures in your brain that go through and remove old connections. They essentially clean up neural pathways. That usually happens only after a long time of disuse, though.)
When you realize this, you might see that it’s more useful to focus not on breaking habits but on creating them. Think about who you do want to be, not who you don’t want to be.
We’re in a positive universe, not a negative one. You’ll have much faster results if you think about creating things rather than removing them.
So what’s involved in building effective habits? 1) Understand that the goal is to become who you want to be. 2) Set up your life in such a way that putting your new habit into practice simply works.
Before you get started on a new habit, I’d encourage you to hop over to our article “How to Reinvent Yourself?” It’ll help you identify the person you’d like to become through your habits.