We all know that we should eat healthily and exercise, but it's not always easy to take the time to prep meals and maintain a regular workout routine. Most of us have probably tried and failed at developing good habits at some point—like those new year's resolutions to lose weight or quit smoking.
Habits are an important part of our lives. Positive habits can help us become the best version of ourselves or can lead to negative behaviors that are difficult to break.
What are the mechanisms that drive our behavior? Why do we do the things we do? To answer these questions, we need to first look at what habits are and how they're formed.
Habit Formation: What Is A Habit?
A habit can be defined as a "learned behavior that is repetitively performed." It's something that is unconsciously done regularly. Some people seem to think that if they do something repeatedly for "x" amount of days, it becomes a habit—But that's not actually how a new behavior develops.
Habits are formed in the brain through new synaptic connections that are repetitively activated, making it easier to perform the same action again. The more often these neural pathways are activated, the stronger they become.
This is why habits can be so hard to break!
What's worse is that our brains have a tendency to focus on what we don't want to do but not what we need or should do instead.
In the book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Duhigg explains that all habits start in a psychological pattern called a "habit loop," which consists of three processes.
Trigger. A signal that prompts the automatic behavior (emotions, location, time, people)
Routine. The repeated behavior follows the trigger.
Reward. The action satisfies something in the brain to remember the habit loop.
Researchers have been looking into understanding habits and behavior for decades. We now know that decisions are controlled in the prefrontal cortex. Habits are different from decisions as they become automatic behaviors, which require very little conscious thought or effort.
Neuroscientists have zoned in on the basal ganglia as part of the brain where we build good habits and bad ones. The basal ganglia are also responsible for motor learning, control, and emotions .
How Do We Form A Bad Habit?
Of course, not all habits are bad, and there is no single answer to how we form bad habits. Human behavior is affected by their surroundings, personal experiences, and biological makeup. Bad habits hijack our reward centers of the brain with substances or behaviors that are momentarily satisfying but tend to work against our long-term desires.
Behavioral scientists found that the three-step habit loop works similarly for good habits for bad ones.
According to James Clear, "all behavior is driven by the desire to solve a problem."
If you find yourself often losing hours in the work day scrolling through social media, it's possible that the social media habit is triggered from boredom. The routine of opening Facebook offers a nice distraction. The reward is a serotonin boost when someone likes your post or when you're watching entertaining videos.
Breaking this time-sucking habit likely means that you'll need to develop a new way to distract yourself when you're bored or stuck on a challenging task.
How To Create Good Habits According To Science
There are three main factors that determine whether someone will form a new habit: motivation, ability, and triggers.
When it comes to forming new habits according to science, there is one key factor that matters most—having enough motivation. Without enough determination from within yourself, it becomes very difficult to make any lasting change happen in your life at all!
If we take a closer look at the habit loop, we may be able to hack the system to change habits and develop new ones for the better.
To consolidate this theory, here is James Clear's method outlined in his book, Atomic Habits for making progress in creating desirable habits and how to completely change bad ones for a more productive, healthier life.
According to Clear, the habit loop consists of 4 steps: Cue, Craving, Respond, Reward.
In Clear's version of the habit loop, the cue (trigger) gives rise to a craving that needs to be satisfied with a response, which is then reinforced with a reward.
Building good habits starts with recognizing the patterns and behaviors in our lives and adjusting daily routines that make it easier to succeed with productive habits.
1. Make It Obvious
Making the cue obvious is the first step in a fresh start or making small adjustments in your behavior.
Many people find it helpful to write down a Habit Score Card. The Habit Score Card has the list of all the habits you do on a regular basis without fail. This allows you to have better insight into your pattern and track the progress of the habits you want to build.
Use phrases such as “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]." The more specific, the better. Several studies have shown that we're more likely to keep a habit if we attach it to a time and location .
Another effective way in forming a new habit is by connecting the action to an existing one. This is what Clear calls habit stacking.“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
Clear suggests designing your environment conducive to your goals. If your goal is to read more books, create a space in your home to read and keep your books in sight.
2. Make It Attractive
Changing habits can be easier if you can pair an action you need to do with an action you enjoy immediately after. This can look like going to the gym after work and taking your time at the sauna as a reward.
Another way to break out of negative thoughts is to put yourself into a culture where the people around you are working hard on the same thing. For example, if you want to eliminate junk food, take a lunch break with friends. You'll find yourself enjoying the company of your friends and less time thinking about your cravings.
3. Make It Easy
Start small. To reduce the friction between adopting your new habit and where you are now, decrease the amount of steps it takes for you to do the task. Think, "how can I make it easy for myself to start..."
If you're prone to procrastination, you can downscale your habits until they can be done in under 2 minutes. This is called the "Two Minute Rule." It's a simple way to get tasks out of the way. If you decide that the task will take two minutes or less, you should do it without hesitation, which allows you to automate your habits.
If your plan is to eat more fresh fiber, breaking this habit into a smaller two-minute task can look like chopping veggies so that you have them on-hand in the fridge as an easy snack when you start to feel peckish.
4. Make It Satisfying
Reinforcement is a positive tool in helping habits stick.
Give yourself an immediate reward after you complete your habit. For example, you can have your morning coffee after you meditate for 15 minutes in the morning.
How To Break Bad Habits
Breaking bad habits can be difficult, but it's not impossible.
Habits are so ingrained in our lives that it can be difficult to identify them. It's not until we examine the reasons behind some of our habits, or try to change them, that we realize how deeply they have affected us.
To kick poor habits, you need to understand why you engage in the bad habit and what benefits you get from it. James Clear offers the following advice based on psychological-backed strategies, by disrupting the habit loop.
1. Make It Invisible
To break bad patterns, remove yourself from cues that trigger cravings.
One of the reasons why people feel so refreshed after vacations and feel ready to adopt a new habit is because they're removed from the environment that lead to cravings.
For example, you're prone to sugar cravings that's derailing you from your wellness goals, remove junk food from your grocery list to keep it out of sight at home. Better yet remove those items from the home altogether!
2. Make It Unattractive
This step involves some self-reflection on why you indulge in the habit in the first place. Consider the benefits you get from the habit, and weigh it against all the disadvantages the habit brings.
If cutting out sweet treats is tough for you, consider the energy crash you feel after indulging which makes it hard to concentrate on work and the breakouts it may cause.
3. Make It Difficult
This calls for increasing the friction for performing the bad habit. If you increase the number of steps it takes to do the habit, you're less likely to do it and can eventually abandon it altogether.
For example, if you delete all social media apps on your phone, it makes it much more difficult for you to procrastinate as you'll need to re-download the app.
4. Make It Unsatisfying
Take accountability for your actions.
It can help to have an accountability partner with a "habit contract" to help you stay on track of your progress. A habit that's made public is much more likely to stick as you feel obligated to someone to meet your goals.
How Long Does It Take To Form A New Habit?
Many articles will tell you that new habits take 21 days to establish. However, this is not entirely true.
To create a good habit in the right way depends on many factors that influence our way of life such as how complex is our personality and the difficulty of the task.
Rather than thinking about how long it will take to adopt a new daily routine, it's better to focus on your motivation for the behavior.
The Takeaway: How To Adopt A Good Habit
It can be hard to adopt a good habit. You might feel like you don't have the time or the energy, or like you're just not cut out for it—but once you understand the mechanisms that go into building habits, you can gain insight into the cues and motivations behind your behaviors to adopt small, practical, and impactful steps to creating better, lasting habits.
Start small—keep a journal about the habits you'd like to create, mark down how often you fulfill those habits, control your environment, and ask a friend for accountability to help keep you motivated and on track for success.
Adopting new habits and personal development takes time, patience, and perseverance. If you find yourself slipping up and falling into an old habit, be gentle with yourself and try again.
Lanciego, J. L., Luquin, N., & Obeso, J. A. (2012). Functional neuroanatomy of the basal ganglia. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 2(12), a009621.
Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’and general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 62(605), 664-666.