How To Establish Good Habits & Break Bad Ones – A Comprehensive Guide

How can I finally get started and stick with good habits?

What are the top strategies to make it nearly effortless?

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Taking Charge of Our Behavior

“The ultimate purpose of habits is to solve the problems of life with as little energy and effort as possible.” — James Clear, in “Atomic Habits”

Habits are a great invention of our brain to save mental energy. Imagine if you had to mentally go through all the necessary steps each time you tie your shoes or take a shower.

Most of our behavior is habitual, but not all of it is serving us.

So it is about changing our habits to make them work in our favor.

But whenever we want to change something, we first need to know what it is that we want to change.

Effective change always starts with awareness.

This holds true for any kind of personal transformation and also for our habits.

If you want to change your behavior, you need to be aware of the habits that your behavior consists of before you can change it.

Becoming aware of our habits is actually not that difficult.

Once we take inventory on how we spend our days, we will inevitably find the little things that together make up for a large chunk of our time.

We might find some bad habits like mindlessly scrolling through social media, snacking in the afternoon, gossiping with colleagues or even biting our fingernails…

We know that these things won’t get us anywhere so we plan to implement some good habits like meditating, reading, exercising, eating veggies or working in a “deep work” focused environment.

That sounds all great, but how do we actually make sure that we spend less time on social media?

How do we find the time to read more and don’t get distracted when we are working on an important task?

So far these habits are a rather vague description of an activity, but not really a game plan which we can follow to actually make them happen.

The key is to dissect these habits into their components and work with each of them to make it easier to avoid bad habits and build good ones.

The Habit Loop

Behavioral Psychology has identified four components that every habit consists of.

Charles Duhigg presented these components in his book “The Power of Habit” and coined them “The Habit Loop”.

The four components of this feedback loop are:

  1. Cue
  2. Craving
  3. Response
  4. Reward

To get an idea, let’s use the example of a bad habit like snacking in the afternoon.

You walk into the kitchen and suddenly see a cookie jar (cue). Your mouth starts watering and you think of the delicious taste of the cookies (craving).

You stop whatever you were about to do and before you notice it, you have taken a big bite (response). The taste of the cookie gives you an instant feeling of dopamine and satisfaction (reward), even though it might not last very long.

This basic model can be applied to all habits, both good and bad ones.

Having identified the components of a habit, it is much easier to work with them and change the habit.

Therefore, let’s look at each of the components in more detail.

1. Cue

“Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior “ — James Clear

Most of our behavior is determined by our environment and its cues. These cues signal our brain what to do and thus start every habit.

This can work to our demise but also in our favor.

Both the delicious cookie but also the book, laying on your pillow ready to be read are serving as cues.

Since we are more likely to notice cues that stand out, the first step is to make the cues of good habits obvious and to hide the cues of bad habits.

If you put your gym bag somewhere where you can see it, it is much more likely that you will get triggered to pack it and go to the gym. If you hide that cookie jar in some drawer, it will be less likely that you get triggered to eat one.

This is the basic idea of “environmental design.”

Design your environment in such a way that it is working for you, not against you.

Ask yourself the simple question:

How can I design my surroundings in such a way that it is easy to do what’s right and difficult to do what’s wrong?

As James Clear says, the key is to:

"Redesign your life so the actions that matter most are also the actions that are easiest to do."

If you find yourself checking your smartphone too much, put it in another room.

If you want to start journaling, put your journal and a pen somewhere where you immediately see it once you wake up.

And if you are trying to get work done in your living room but constantly get distracted, then change your environment.

Sometimes it is better to change the environment, for example, going to some co-working space, because we are not getting triggered by old cues.

Over time, it will not be a single cue like your to-do list that triggers your deep-work session, but rather the entire surrounding.

You will enter your office and know it’s time for focus.
You will wake up and know it’s time for your morning routine.
You will go to the gym and know it’s time to crush it.

So now we know that our environment determines the start of our habits.

But how can we consciously plan these habits and not get triggered to do them at random?

Implementation Intention

The biggest problem when it comes to changing your habits is that we don’t really define clearly what we are going to do.

We kind of know what we want to do like exercising more, spending less time on social media and more time building our business.

These are vague goals, but no clear habits. We don’t really know how we are going to achieve it and what exactly we are going to do.

We need to clearly define our habits and create a game plan.

Instead of wanting to meditate more, you say:

“Every morning at 7 am after I’ve used the bathroom, I sit down on my pillow to meditate for 10 minutes.”

Now, how does that sound?

This is what is called an “Implementation Intention”.

Studies have shown that if you create such a statement, you are much more likely to actually follow through.

The basic formula looks like this:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION] (or also [DURATION])”

To make it even easier, you can use what is called habit stacking.

This is where you use existing habits as an “anchor”, as some kind of foundation, and build new habits on top.

Anchor habits“ are already well established in your routine, like taking a shower, brushing your teeth, getting a cup of coffee or sitting down at your desk after lunch.

Since you do them anyway, they serve as good cues for your new habits.

So the plan would look like this:

“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION] (or also [DURATION])”

For example:

Every evening at 10 pm after I put on my clothes for bed I will sit down on my bed and write in my journal for 5 minutes.

What about more general habits like switching your diet to a certain type?

It’s the same idea. Keep the following questions in mind:

What exactly will you do? How often? For how many days? How strictly? Why? What benefit will you get out of it? What’s the goal above the goal? How? How will you achieve this?

Example:

"I will eat Vegetarian for every meal of every day, meaning vegetables, fruits, dairy, eggs and grains, making exceptions only for family holidays. I’m doing this in order to cut out my worst eating habits and to focus more on healthy, sustainable foods that help me maintain my weight and feel energetic. I’ll do this by pre-planning food orders through (enter supermarket), by ordering lunches from (delivery service), and by ordering vegetarian burritos when I eat Mexican."

This seems like a lot of hassle.

But writing all these points down, including the reason why you want to do it when you are going to do it and with what exceptions, makes it so much more likely that you will actually stick to it.

You craft that plan only once in the beginning and commit to it. This is already a big step towards changing your habits.

To sum up, make your desired habits clear and obvious.

2. Craving

After we are exposed to the cue, it is the craving who makes us actually do the habit.

What exactly happens when we see the cue?

Our brain anticipates some reward. This reward is usually a dopamine spike.

We see the cookie, remember the pleasant feeling we got when we ate one last time and predict that we get this feeling again.

This anticipation of a great feeling results in the motivation to eat that cookie.

Once you do it, you get your predicted great feeling, which will only strengthen the craving next time.

What can you do to reduce that craving?

The key is to change your mental associations.

You want to focus on the benefits of avoiding a bad habit to make it less attractive and thus crave it less.

If you see a cookie and immediately think of the long-term regret and dissatisfaction you get from that snacking habit, you will not anticipate a great feeling, but a negative feeling.

This will reduce the craving.

What can you do to increase the craving for good habits?

Here again, you can think about the benefits of that habit and associate positive feelings with it.

Think about how much more present, focused and calm you will feel after meditating.

If it is difficult for you to associate positive feelings with your habit, then you can use what is called “temptation bundling”.

This idea is to combine a difficult habit with something that you enjoy and associate positive feelings with.

This can work both ways, putting the thing you enjoy before or after your difficult habit.

If you find it difficult to start a daily writing habit for your blog, because you associate feeling overwhelmed with it, then you could try a little motivation ritual.
This could be putting in your headphones and starting your favorite playlist of relaxing piano music.

You will then associate the positive feelings of the music with writing. So when you get triggered by your to-do list to do your writing, you will start to crave these positive feelings and it will be easier for you to get started.

You can also put a thing you enjoy after your difficult habit.

This could be taking a hot relaxing shower only after you did ten pushups or only getting your cup of coffee after you meditate.

Here again, you will start to associate positive feelings with your difficult habit and start to crave doing it.

To sum up, associate positive emotions with your desired habits and make them more attractive.

3. Response

After craving a habit, the response is the act of doing the habit.

So the best way to make sure we actually do our desired habits is to make doing it as easy as possible.

This is where we use the “Two-Minute Rule”.

The idea is to make the actual habit so small that it can be done in two minutes or less.

For meditation, this means to start meditating for really only 60 seconds and increase it every day by 10 seconds.

Especially in the beginning, this approach is very helpful to build up a little streak by focusing on consistency instead of doing it perfectly.

This is called the “momentum method” and helps you to get started with any kind of habit. Don’t underestimate the power of momentum.

For habits that require more time to actually amount to something like working on your business or going to the gym, you can still use the “Two-Minute Rule”.

Now just focus on the first step that is needed to start the habit, and scale it down so it can be completed in less than two minutes.

For your business, this would mean to only focus on sitting down at your desk and starting with the first step of the top item on your to-do list.
For working out this would mean to just focus on grabbing the gym bag and start putting your clothes inside.

For bad habits, you want to do the opposite. You want to put in friction and make it difficult to do the habit.

For the snacking habit it would be to put the cookie jar somewhere difficult to reach and in a jar that takes a lot of effort to open.

As you can see, with some preparation of your environment, you can master the decisive moments that will determine whether you actually do your desired habits and avoid the bad ones.

So just as you want to prepare your environment to make the cue obvious, prepare it also to make the habit itself easy.

For journaling, don’t only put the journal visible on your desk, but also have a pen nearby and have a writing prompt like “What was good about today?” prepared. This will make it obvious AND easy.
For a healthy eating habit, don’t only buy vegetables and have them visible in your fridge, but make it easy to actually prepare and eat them. One idea is to use frozen vegetables, put them in a mixer and make a green smoothie out of them.

To sum up, make the habit both easy to start and do.

4. Reward

The final component of the habit loop is the reward.

This component is usually a feeling which our brain memorizes and thus influences our cravings to start the whole loop again.

So while the first three components are responsible for make the habit happen this time, the reward is responsible for making it happen next time.

This leads to what James Clear calls “The Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change”:

“What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided.”

For good habits, the key is to feel get an immediate sense of accomplishment after doing the habit, no matter how small.

Drink a cup of tea after meditating.
Take a break and watch a short funny clip after a “deep-work” session.
Drink a delicious protein shake after your workout.

Also, take a moment and focus on the positive feeling of accomplishment. Dwell in that feeling and remember it. This will help you to change your mental associations towards that feeling and influence your craving for next time.

To sum up, reward yourself after you do your desired habit.

The Four Laws of Behavior Change

These four ways of dealing with each component of the habit loop are what James Clear calls “The Four Laws of Behavior Change“.

To get an overview, let’s have a look at them for both good as well as bad habits:

Building Good Habits

In order to establish a good habit the four laws are the following:

  1. Cue: Make it Obvious.
  2. Craving: Make it Attractive.
  3. Response: Make it Easy.
  4. Reward: Make it Satisfying.

Let’s take the example of going to the gym regularly:

  1. Make it Obvious: Put your gym bag where you see it all the time. Put a picture of your desired physique on the wall or the fridge to get reminded of why you want to do this.
  2. Make it Attractive: Remind yourself of the great feeling you get after having finished your workout. Think of the benefits of being in great shape and having much more energy long-term. Think about the nice meal you are going to have after the gym.
  3. Make it Easy: Have your gym clothes and equipment in one place and make it easy and quick to pack your bag. Prepare it the night before, so you just have to grab the bag. Choose a gym that’s easy and quick to get to.
  4. Make it Satisfying: Treat yourself with a nice meal or a protein shake and really focus on the great feeling of accomplishment after finishing your workout.

Breaking Bad Habits

In order to break a bad habit you have to apply the inverse steps:

  1. Hide the cue: Make it Invisible.
  2. Reduce the craving: Make it Unattractive.
  3. Put in obstacles: Make it Difficult.
  4. Reduce wanting to do it again: Make it Unsatisfying.

Let’s take the example of mindlessly checking your smartphone and getting distracted from your tasks:

  1. Make it invisible: Either put your smartphone in your closet where you cannot see it or just disable all notifications and sounds. Don’t trust your willpower. The same with junk food or other temptations. Remove them from your sight or throw away.
  2. Make it unattractive: Remind yourself of the bad feeling you get when you procrastinate and don’t progress on your tasks. Associate mindless smartphone usage with pain, e.g. of not progressing, of missing a deadline, of being stuck in an unfulfilling life situation. Highlight the benefits of avoiding the bad habit.
  3. Make it difficult: “Increase friction”, increase the number of steps to do your bad habit. Use tools that restrict the usage of certain apps or simply put these apps into some folder at the back of page three of your phone where it is difficult to reach them.
  4. Make it Unsatisfying: Remind yourself of the time you have just wasted. Connect pleasure toward what you want to do instead. E.g. reward yourself whenever you have finished a large chunk of work in a deeply focused session without using your phone. Could be your favorite treat, a nice meal etc.

If you keep these steps in mind, it will be easy for you to establish good habits and break bad ones.

Which habit are you going to start with?

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