The things that we do are influenced by our habits - the way that we react to certain cues and situations. We can empower ourselves to achieve any goal by embracing habit science and designing for our desired action.
You are a creature… of habit
Habits are your autopilot responses
Every day, hundreds of actions you take are driven by habit.
If you haven’t purposefully cultivated your habits, there’s a good chance you’ve developed a number of bad habits keeping you from achieving your goals.
In this article we’re going to teach you how to develop good habits, but let’s take a step back.
Why do we even have habits? Do we need them?
Psychologists have shown that we only have the willpower to consciously make a set number of decisions each day. Our willpower is finite. (1)
It’s like a tank of gas. Every time we make a decision, we use up a little gas. If we spend all day making little decisions, our tank will empty out. And when the tank is empty, we make poor decisions. This is a big deal when the decisions we have to make are important (dealing with arguments, making business decisions, trying to get our butts to the gym).
To make sure we have the gas in our tank to make important decisions, we evolved to have habits. Habits are automatic processes that don’t use up any gas.
Our mornings - often cited by experts as the key forming ground of your are filled with habits. We wake up, we shower, we brush our teeth, we have breakfast. We get to the office and check our email. We have lunch at noon. Etc. etc. etc. We don’t think about any of these things, and thus we conserve our brainpower for the important things.
Could you imagine if you had to decide whether or not you were going to shower or brush your teeth every morning? If that’s your life, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of your day.
How to become a habit expert
The power of good habits
It turns out that tiny habits that drive daily decisions have a huge impact on our lives. Good habits help us be just a little bit better every day. If we have bad habits, that means we’re getting just a little bit worse.
Let’s look at an example.
If we’re in the habit of eating eggs, or fresh fruit or steel cut oats for breakfast, then we’re giving our body some solid fuel to start the day. If we’re in the habit of grabbing a pastry on the go, our body is getting a quick burst of fuel that spikes insulin, and then leaves us hungry and tired shortly thereafter. Over time this daily breakfast decision will have a significant impact on our lives (the quality of our work over time, our body weight over time, our attitude over time, etc).
There are plenty of other habits: how often we check Facebook, how we react when people upset us, what we do when we first wake up, how often we hit the gym, and more.
What is important for us as people who want to make our lives better, and not worse (or staying the same… boooo for doing nothing), is becoming conscious of our habits. When we become aware of the automatic processes that drive our lives, we can then begin another process of actively deciding which ones we want, which ones we need to chuck, and which ones we need to build.
As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
The good news is if you have a bad habit that you want to replace with a good one, the process is actually quite simple (though not easy).
How to build a new habit
When building habits, the approach you take is crucial.
Even the most motivated person will fail to break an old habit or build a new one if they don’t have a structure approach.
We all have habits we’ve tried to get rid of, and new ones we’ve tried to build. When we feel a surge of motivation we tell ourselves that, “this time is it. I’m never doing [biting my nails, smoking, playing video games] again!” And we are serious, we are ready to do the damn thing.
Typically it goes well for a week or two. We feel like we’re crushing it. It’s in the bag. We’re on cruise control...
Until week three. Without fail, a few days go by without doing the habit, but we don’t even notice. We’ve been biting our nails / hitting snooze / skipping the gym / eating more carbs etc. on autopilot just like before.
The mistake here was relying on willpower. It’s not enough to rely on that voice in your head that tells you “Hey! Stop doing these things that are bad for you! We need to start doing this good thing! It’s good!” We need to build a system.
A model to design our behavior
There's a lot more to life than willpower
Although we commonly are taught that our decisions are driven by willpower alone, the reality is that the things we do are influenced by our habits, our willpower, and the environment - or system - we are in.
You see, our habits exist as part of a system. They are the way that we are programmed to react to certain situations. We eat unhealthy food when we are hungry or stressed and see something tasty nearby. We go to the gym when we want to feel better about our bodies and we are encouraged to go by our friends.
This line of thinking - studying the systems that lead us to do various behaviors - is called behavior science. It is a hot field right now, especially as people are taking more of a keen interest in becoming healthier and happier, and focusing in on their behavior (instead of just taking a pill for any issue that arises).
The father of modern behavior science is a professor and PhD at Stanford University named BJ Fogg. He has developed a model which is incredibly useful for helping improve our behavior so that it becomes easier for us to do the things we actually want ourselves to do.
Dr. Fogg breaks down human behavior into three things that are needed to explain any behavior system or to develop a new habit: motivation, ability, and a trigger.
Step 1: Be motivated
We need to be motivated to change. If, at our core, we don’t want it to happen, then it won’t happen. So the first step is listening to that see if there is that voice telling us to “do good things!”.
There are three major motivational factors in our lives, according to Fogg:
Seeking pleasure / avoiding pain
Anticipation of hope / fear
Achieving belonging to a group / avoiding rejection
Step 2: Have the ability to make the changes happen
What this means is that we need to make the changes easy for us to do. If we want to start a meditation practice, deciding to meditate 20 minutes a day is beyond our ability. So we maybe start with one or two minutes a day, which is something we can all commit to, and over time get to 20 minutes.
Step 3: Set a trigger
And finally, so that we don’t get to week three and realize that we are forgetting that we’re supposed to building a habit, we need a trigger. Some type of reminder that tells us “Hey, you’re supposed to be improving your life right now. Get to it!”
When we combine these three elements, we are well on our way to building the healthy habits that we desire.
How to build a habit with the Fogg model?
Let’s walk through an example of building a new habit using the framework of motivation, ability, trigger.
Let’s say you want learn to meditate.
Motivation: Why do you want to meditate? When things get tough and you don’t want to meditate, what’s the motivation that’s going to make you stick to it. It might be that you have a lot of stress in your life, and you hope that meditation will help reduce that.
Ability: Are you making it easy for yourself to meditate? Do you have a comfortable place sit while you meditate? Are you starting off with a manageable amount of meditation (e.g., 3 minutes instead of 20 minutes)? Make it simple and your more able to make it.
Trigger: What reminds you to meditate? Maybe you do it first thing in the morning, or right after you shower. Of maybe I set a reminder in my phone to tell me to meditate every day at 9am. Whatever it is, you need something that your brain associates with the act of meditation.
And that’s it! Every day that you complete the habit, your one day closer to making it automatic.
Armed with this knowledge, you are well on your way to making every day one where you get just a little bit better.
If you’d some great tools to help you build new habits or break old ones, check out this list of curated resources:
BJ Fogg Tiny Habits Course [Free!]: BJ Fogg is one of the fathers of modern habit science. His behavior model shows us how human action and inaction are explained by our level of motivation, our level of has influenced companies.
Pavlok [$179.99]: One way to get rid of bad habits is to create negative associations between your brain and the action of doing the bad habit (most bad habits currently have positive associations, like stress reduction from biting nails or overeating). Pavlok creates this negative assocation by delivering a shock to your wrist when you do the bad habit. Serious, but lot’s of people have had success with this. The Pavlok System includes wearable device, and app and video courses that have helped many people curb unhealthy habits such as smoking, nail biting, overeating, online shopping and spending time on other distracting websites, and more applications.
Strides App [$3.99]: Strides helps you track all of your goals and habits in one flexible app. Strides features reminders to hold you accountable and charts to keep you motivated.The app just received an Apple Design Award for its outstanding user experience and is available for $3.99 through the App Store.
Zenhabits Sea Change Program [$29 / month, 1 week free trial]: Leo Babauta is one of the premier writers and coaches on the Internet helping people to improve their lives through habits and minimalism. His Sea Change program is designed to help overcome habit obstacles, create simple steps for change, and get you moving in the right direction by focusing on one habit at a time.
Coach.me [Free for habit tracking, $15+ for live coaching]: Coach.me is like a habit coach in your pocket. The Coach.me app (formerly known as LIFT), offers free unlimited usage of the Habit Tracker, which can be a useful tool to form new habits with its daily reminders, tracking and community support. Coach.me also provides access to hundreds of real coaches to provide live chat support, starting at $15/week.
1 Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252–1265.
2 Baumeister, Roy F (2003), “The Psychology of Irrationality”, in Brocas, Isabelle; Carrillo, Juan D, The Psychology of Economic Decisions: Rationality and well-being, pp. 1–15