How to Form a Habit

Almost everything we do each day is a habit. Think about your morning routine. When you woke up, what was the first thing you did and what did you do after that? The morning routine, the things we say to our family and ourselves, going to work, where we get on the train, what we eat, what we do when we get home are all habits. Life is a mass combination of habits.

Most of the choices we make each day can feel like well-thought out decisions, but in reality they are habits. Although each habit seems minor on its own, when combined together, they have a major impact on our health, productivity, and happiness.

Habits are necessary because they liberate our brain to perform tasks that are not a part of our normal routine or require critical thinking. If we had to think deeply each time we walked to work or took a shower, we wouldn’t have the capacity to remember to call our mom for her birthday or text our friend about dinner plans.

It may be disconcerting to acknowledge that we don’t actually think about most of the decisions we make. However, it’s also empowering to know that once we make an act or a thought a habit, we can execute it with little effort.

Charles Duhigg describes the habit loop as the three-step process within our brains that allows habits to become automatic. First there is a cue, which triggers our brain to go into automatic mode and tells the brain which habit to employ. Then, there is the routine, a physical, mental, or emotional response to the cue. Last, there is a reward, which helps our brain determine if a certain habit loop is worth remembering for future use. The more times we perform a habit, the stronger the connection gets between the cue and the reward, until eventually a sense of anticipation and craving develops.

Brushing our teeth is a helpful example of how the habit loop works. When toothpaste was invented, many people knew about the benefits of brushing their teeth. However, far less people consistently brushed their teeth. Most people didn’t have a strong enough connection between a cue and a reward to make brushing their teeth a habit.

Eventually, a toothpaste maker decided to add a fresh flavor to their toothpaste, and the use of that particular brand of toothpaste soared. The cue was the dry taste people had in their mouth when they woke up, the routine was brushing their teeth, and the reward was the refreshing sparkly sensation that their mouth had after using the toothpaste. This cue and reward made teeth brushing a widespread habit.

The dry taste in our mouths is an effective cue for brushing our teeth because it happens everyday. Relying on our willpower and memory to form a habit usually doesn’t work. Instead, it’s best to use reminders that don’t rely on our motivation or memory.

How to Pick a Cue

The best reminders for starting a habit are behaviors that we already do each day. Setting up a system that links new behaviors with visual reminders and existing habits makes it easier to form a routine.

A few months ago, I decided to make a habit of listing five things each day I was grateful. I wrote the question “What are you grateful for?” on my whiteboard to offer a visual reminder. Since I already had the routine of meditating every morning, I decided to use that as my cue for my gratitude list. After meditating, I made a mental list of five things I was grateful for.

One way to determine your reminder is to make a list of things that you do everyday.

For example each day you…

  • Wake up

  • Shower

  • Brush your teeth

  • Eat lunch

  • Turn the lights on

  • Get into bed

Since these actions happen everyday, they can serve as great cues to form new healthy habits. For instance, after you drink your morning coffee, you can list one thing you’re grateful for.

Along with things you do everyday, making a list of things that happen to you everyday can also help you determine an effective cue.

For example each day…

  • You receive an email

  • The sun sets

  • A traffic light turns red

  • A commercial comes on

  • Someone smiles at you

Once you make your lists, you’ll have many potential cues to form habits. Mindful awareness of our environment helps us appreciate it’s beauty and appreciate things that support our existence. Therefore, if you want to be more mindful during your day, observe the red traffic light and appreciate your ability to see. In another way, observe the sunset and connect with its beauty.

Make It Easy

In addition to an effective cue, it’s also important to make the habit easy to start. We often feel like we need to make major changes in our lives. We want to change our diet over night or lose 20 pounds in a month. But striving for a huge transformation usually doesn’t lead to a habit that sticks. Small daily habits are what lead to a lasting change.

When I wanted to make meditation a habit, I had days when I only meditated for one minute. On days when one minute seemed like too much, I told myself that I only needed to take 10 conscious breaths.

At the start, you want to make the routine so easy. In this way, you can’t say no to the routine you are forming. As the cue and reward build a stronger link, you’ll start to crave the routine, and you’ll be able to build on it.

It’s also important to focus on one habit at a time. Attempting to make changes to every part of your day at once, will probably lead to everything staying the same.

Decide on one new habit and determine how you can make it too easy to say no.

Acknowledge Your Effort

It’s easy to consider a habit as an all or nothing routine, but really it’s a process. When you’re forming a new habit, quantity is more important than quality. For example, if you want a habit of positive self-talk, a journal of a positive letter to yourself each day works. However, you might not be up for it one day, and that’s okay. Instead of writing a whole letter, you can just write one word to yourself. That one word will strengthen your routine and eventually writing full letters will require minimal effort.

Whether you write a full-page letter or one word, it’s still important to acknowledge your effort and praise yourself for working towards your new habit. Enjoying the small successes makes the routine worthwhile.

What Habit Do You Want to Form?

We have the ability to make lasting changes to our health, productivity, and happiness by forming habits. That is powerful and incredible. Once you determine a habit, think about the cue you want to link it to and make it easy to start. Most of all, enjoy the process.

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