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How to Build Good Habits

 

Explanations > Behaviors > Habit > How to Build Good Habits

Describe action | Physical action | Understand rewards | Identify triggers | Compulsory practiceSo what?

 

We often think that habits are annoying and unhelpful, yet we can create good habits that help us do the things we want without much effort. Typical good habits include:

  • Making sure the house is secure before you retire to bed.
  • Regularly eating healthy food.
  • Ensuring you complete the detail of assignments and projects at work.
  • Regularly buying supplies you will need.

Habits do not feel like chores. You just do them. Creating habits are hence useful for anything that you find something of a pain to get up and do.

Habituation is the process of creating habits and involves repeated practice in responding to triggers with habitual action, followed with appreciation of reward.

Describe action

The action of the habit is what you want to do. For the habit to be useful, it must also have the right result, so it can be a good idea to include checking this within the action.

Physical action

Many habits include physical action of some kind, whether it is opening the door to let the cat out or tidying up the house before you leave.

Separate essential from optional actions by being clear about exactly what you want to do and what you do not need to do.

External interaction

When you are interacting with things around you, know what should happen (for example flicking a switch should perhaps turn a light on). You can include contingent actions in case risks occur, but beware of complexifying the habit by having too many alternative actions.

Habitual action may well interact in significant ways with other people. Be clear about how others should behave and include actions you should take if they do not act in the way you want. Again, keep these as simple as is reasonably possible.

Be aware that what you think are good habits may be unpleasant for others (for example one person's reminding is another person's nagging). You probably do not want to create habits that destroy relationships!

Aligned thought

Habitual actions may well include thoughts that go along with them, such as 'right, as I've done the kitchen, I'll now do the hall'.

Habits can also be entirely about thoughts, for example getting into a positive frame of mind before you face difficult people. In this case, any physical activity (such as checking clothes) has a primary function in supporting and reinforcing the thoughts. 

Timescales

If habits are too long in implementation, often because they try to do too much of things that are too complex, then they are less likely to become fixed as habits. The golden rule is to keep things simple and short.

If things get too long or too complex, you can break habits down into components and make each one habitual.

Understand rewards

Every habit has some kind of consequences that are rewarding to the person enacting the habit. To establish a habit, you hence need to know the reward and ensure it is always awarded appropriately.

Evidence of success

First find ways of knowing that the habitual action has been successful. You do not want to create habits where you take ineffective action.

Feeling good

The best reward is to feel good, for example a sense of satisfaction when some chore has been completed. You can help this with actions such as self-congratulation and physically smiling.

Any other form of reward is just fine, from having an ice-cream to taking a well-earned rest. The only caveat is that it must work in sustaining the habit.

Identify triggers

The last item to think about is the trigger that initiates the habit. This should be something that uniquely precedes the action being triggered, for example using the sight of the back of the front door as a trigger to check that you have you keys before you go out of the door.

Triggers can be simple, such as seeing or saying something. They can also be more complex, such as a combination of you seeing something, somebody else saying something and then you feeling something again. For example the trigger for avoiding procrastination could be work to do plus a feeling of guilt about not doing it.

The bottom line for the trigger to choose is the simplest possible unique indicator that the action is needed.

Compulsory practice

The final step is not as easy as the first three. You have to practice. And practice. And practice.

The practice should take account of all decided above. The trigger should happen as identified, the action should be as decided and the reward should feel good.

Early on during practice you will quickly find out whether there are any problems with all this. Do feel free to change it and it can even be a good idea to do experiments. However, in order to embed the habit at some time you must settle on a pattern and practice it until it becomes second nature.

Lally et al (2010) found that early repetition was one of the most important factors in fixing a habit into place. It still takes persistence, though: They found that the average time to reach peak automaticity was 66 days.

So what?

Find things that you need to do but have difficulty doing. Perhaps you keep putting them off. Perhaps you just forget. Anyway, just get determined for long enough to create the habit.

See also

Decisions, Conditioning, How to Stop Bad Habits, Changing Habits With Small Wins

 

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 6, 998–1009

 

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