Forming Habits Without Much Ado
Consider what a typical day looks like for you.
Is your morning routine predictable?
What about as you go about your day? Do you take the same route to school and work? Do you eat lunch in the same place every day? Sit by the same people? Check social media around the same time(s) every day?
Do you have the same bedtime routine each night?
Without these habits, our brains would be in overdrive, analyzing and making decisions constantly. Habits help our brains save energy and run more efficiently.
Nearly half (45%) of our daily actions are habits (Neal et. al., 2006). Think about that.
I don’t know about you, but I have a few bad habits and some good ones too! Stephen R. Covey describes a habit as being “the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).” Likewise, Charles Duhigg, author and business reporter adds, “A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows.”
While it may not be the season for New Year's resolutions, anytime is a good time to reflect on our lifestyle and make any necessary adjustments. It could be helpful to write down a list of your daily habits to better understand which habits are positive and which can be improved (or replaced) as well as to notice any gaps or areas for improvement. One question I have often asked myself when reviewing my routine is, “Are these habits helping me to achieve my goals?” This analysis helps me to recognize the good, the bad, and the ugly. When trying to change, we truly do start with good intentions.
Why is it, then, that these good intentions don’t always stick? Perhaps you are taking on too much change too fast so that you’re feeling overwhelmed. Or could it be that this new habit you’re wanting is too difficult? In that case, you can try something a little simpler as a stepping stone. Often, it is better to start small and work our way up to our ultimate goal.
While researching habits, I noticed dozens of methods for developing a new habit. There are a lot of options because everyone and the circumstances they’re in are unique. What works for one person may not work for another. However, I will be emphasizing only a small handful of ideas from which you can pick and choose what you’d like to try next.
Developing a New Habit:
“If you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you develop the habit in little matters. Excellence is not an exception, it is a prevailing attitude.” Colin Powell
Changing habits is often easier said than done. The key is to replace the old habit with a new one. With the beginning of a new semester upon us, this is a great time to consider where your habits are taking you. Many become discouraged along the way, but understanding how habits work can make the process of establishing a new habit more doable.
I tend to be overly ambitious. I like to be productive and am always seeking to better myself. It can be easy to expect improvement right away. However, becoming better always takes time. As you’re forming ideas of what your new habit could look like, be realistic and don’t expect big results right away. I do this by naming my ultimate goal and then finding a small habit to start on first. Then, as I make that new behavior routine, I continue to improve by adding additional manageable habits. This process does take time, but it also yields the most effective results.
We begin our journey by being aware of our current habits and deciding which habit to change or initiate. Identify what it is that you’re wanting to change. Now that I have graduated, I’d really like to make it a habit to read one book a week. That is my ultimate goal. That’s not very feasible right away, so I’ll break it up into something more manageable like reading for 30 minutes each day.
The “Habit Loop”
“In a nutshell, your health, wealth, happiness, fitness, and success depend on your habits.” - Joanna Jast
Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” describes a pattern or “habit loop” involving 3 elements; cue → routine → reward. Every behavior is a loop that follows those three elements. The more this loop is used, the more solidified that particular habit becomes. He teaches that…” habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward, and then cultivating a craving that drives the loop” (Duhigg, 2012).
“The trigger, driven by internal or external cues, informs the user of what to do next; however, if the user does not take action, the trigger is useless…..To initiate action, doing must be easier than thinking.” - Nir Eyal
A cue is a trigger. The 5 most common cues are location, time of day, emotional status, thought, belief, and other people (Duhigg, 2012). Cues vary between situations and individuals. Examples of some clues could be hunger; anticipation; feeling bored, anxious, or overwhelmed; or even noticing someone else’s behavior. When these cues happen, they trigger a certain routine to take place.
Something I have noticed in others is that as soon as they start their car, they then charge their phone and connect to Bluetooth. Their cue is turning the car on and charging their phones immediately after has become a habit. Another example could be setting out tennis shoes as a cue to prepare for an early morning run.
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” - John C. Maxwell
Once we notice that cue, the routine takes place. If you are adjusting an existing habit, the routine you choose is key (Duhigg, 2012). This routine is not limited to a physical routine but could refer to a mental or emotional routine as well. For example, let’s say that you have a half-hour break between two classes. Every time your first class ends, you have a habit of sitting in a comfy chair and scrolling through social media for 20 minutes between. If you have a desire to change that routine to instead use that time to study, you could start by making a small adjustment to the existing habit. Here, the cue is the class being dismissed. You could change up your routine by choosing a different location to help you focus on studying (like at a table or quiet area) or you could change your routine by carrying the materials you want to study in your arms rather than packing them away in your backpack.. As you are walking out of class, you will be holding onto that reminder to use your in-between class time to review.
In the past, I have done a lot of studying while my kids have “quiet time” (aka naptime or quiet reading time). My cue for booting up my computer and readying my materials was hearing their dishes land in the sink after finishing lunch. Once I got them all settled in their room, I would begin my study time. I can use this same cue going forward while forming my new habit of reading for 30 min each day. All that is really changing is my routine. Rather than getting my study space ready to go, I can grab my book and prepare my favorite reading spot.
“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. Unless you deliberately fight a habit- unless you find new routines- the pattern will unfold automatically.” - Charles Duhigg.
Having a reward is essential in establishing a new habit. The brain learns to expect that reward each time you follow through with the cue and routine. If a reward is perceived, the brain will remember that reward for the next time (Duhigg, 2012). Rewards do not have to be tangible. For instance, feeling healthier or having pride in your work can be effective rewards. For me, having that 30 minutes of solitude to read each day is rewarding because I’m doing something I enjoy and feeling like I am accomplishing something worthwhile.
“Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier.” - Charles Duhigg
How are rewards and cravings connected? Duhigg explains, “Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings. But we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors.” In other words, these cravings occur when our brain anticipates a certain behavior, knowing the reward will follow. We crave the reward, which then reinforces the behavior (Duhigg, 2012). It may help to visualize cravings as being in the center of the habit loop.
I have noticed that when I do not have “me time” regularly, I get frustrated more easily. However, life does not always go according to plan. Sometimes it seems that everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. It is during these times that other responsibilities replace that quiet time and I start to crave that “me time” once more.
To understand where our cravings are coming from, we can test alternative rewards to see if they fulfill that craving (Duhigg, 2012). Before change can occur, we should understand the cue first and test alternative rewards. You could try using a common cue mentioned previously, (location, time of day, emotional state, people) to narrow down the reason for the craving. It’s like experimenting with various cravings (Duhigg, 2012). For example, when I realized that I was consistently snacking just before dinner I paused to ask myself if I was munching because I was hungry, stressed, in the kitchen (thus around food), or because my husband often snacks during that time as well. In my attempt to understand where my craving was coming from, I tried a few different rewards…
(Location) Am I snacking because I’m in the kitchen? → Use the crockpot or grill, so I’m not cooped up inside while waiting for dinner
(Time of Day) Am I hungry? → Having healthier snacking options available, or have dinner ready earlier
(Emotional State) Am I stressed? → Make time to do something relaxing while waiting for dinner to cook (call a family member, listen to an audiobook or podcast, doodle or color, read a chapter from my book).
(People) Am I a social snacker? → Drink water rather than snack while my husband is upstairs.
It is important to note that these cravings are not always food-related. For some, they crave using games and apps on their phone to decompress after a long day. In that case, what other activities can meet that craving to relax and reduce stress? For some, meditation, exercise, and/or talking about it briefly with a support person can be effective ways to fulfill that desire to decompress.
Once you recognize your own patterns, you can then use that knowledge to have a better plan in place as you move forward. You are ready to be proactive by choosing a better behavior to replace the old habit while still receiving the reward that is craved. I love how Duhigg said it: “Once you diagnose the cue, the routine, and the reward- you gain power over it.”
Making a Plan
“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.” Brian Tracy
When you are ready to make a change, start with a plan and commit to it. Developing a new habit is often really hard. It requires a ton of effort and motivation to keep going. To encourage this motivation, I like to remind myself often why I’m making the change and how it will help me. To help with this reminder, I have written my why on a post-it note, then placed it somewhere I see often (front door, fridge, car dashboard, etc). I also like customizing my background image on my phone by adding a short phrase or keyword to remind me why that new habit is important to me. Then, every time I glance at the time on my phone or see a notification pop up, I am simultaneously reminded of how I’ll reach that improvement.
Consistency for the Win
“In essence, if we want to direct our lives, we must take control of our consistent actions. It's not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives, but what we do consistently.” Tony Robbins
Focus on being consistent. When initiating a new habit, consider if it’s doable on a regular basis. Keep in mind that it takes around 21 days to form a new habit and about 3 months to turn that habit into a long term lifestyle change. Other sources say that behavior should be repeated at least 66 times (for some even longer) in order for it to become habitual (Lally et al., 2009). The goal is consistency, not instant results.
If the new habit is not something you can perform consistently, it likely won't take root, so you may want to adjust it to something a bit less demanding. It can be beneficial to follow a “better than nothing” method so that the routine does not require a ton of motivation, energy, or time (Carter, 2020). On the days you’re running low on energy, time, and motivation, you will still be capable of following your cue with the planned routine. On the days you’re able to accomplish even more, great!
As you instill these new habits, remember that creating new habits is hard, but you can do hard things! Focus on those small stepping stones, accept slow but progressive change, and remain patient with yourself. Don’t get caught up in everything you want to fix. Just know that improvement will come. It takes practice and mindfulness to change habits, and you can do it!
As you go on your way, we are here for you. What are the best habits you have developed as a student? Are there any habits that you’d like to build? Let us know! Our purpose is to help you be successful in college and beyond. Visit our webpage to learn more about who we are and what we do. You can meet with us by making an appointment through the webpage. You can also connect with us on Instagram or reach out through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a helpful visual to help you along the process of changing a habit, try this flowchart by Charles Duhigg. (Hint: You can even download the image to your computer to have it handy!) To get even more details about Duhigg’s technique for forming habits, visit his website.
Carter, C. (2020, September). The 1-minute secret to forming a new habit [Video]. TED. https://www.ted.com/talks/christine_carter_the_1_minute_secret_to_forming_a_new_habit?referrer=playlist-talks_to_form_better_habits
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. USA: Random House.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M.,Potts, H. W.W. & Wardle, J. (2009, July 16). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.674
Neal, D. T., Wood, W. & Quinn, J. M., (2006) Habits- A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science 15(4), 199-202. https://dornsife.usc.edu/assets/sites/208/docs/Neal.Wood.Quinn.2006.pdf
About The Author
Rachel is a senior pursuing her degree in communication here at Weber State University.
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