How to build new habits?

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Do you want to change your life? Change your habits

Why is it habits that can help you? A research by Duke University found that in more than 40% of our daily actions there is no decision making. We carry them out almost automatically without thinking about them, meaning they are habits. There is no determination involved, we don’t go through their steps and we even tend to think about something else while we perform them. Examples for this can be driving for an experienced driver, tying your shoelaces, doing your favorite sport or even getting home and sinking into the couch. As you see not only big, spectacular and good things can be habits. We do habitually, without thinking many small and not necessarily good things.
On the one hand this is alarming that we spend a huge part of our life on auto-pilot but it also opens a lot of opportunities.
What if instead of your willpower that operates and exhausts like a muscle you would rely on your good habits to reach your goals? This means you wouldn’t have to convince yourself every day to be active, you wouldn’t find it hard to eat healthy or take steps towards your goals? Because habits work like this, almost automatically.

How to build good habits?

Wendy Woods, professor at the University of Southern California spent 30 years researching habits and defined 3 characteristics that can help form new habits and get rid of bad habits.

  1. Reward

The first element of building habits are rewards. Your brain encounters a positive experience and memorizes the path towards it. Such positive experience can be the endorphin rush after sport or the diminishing boredom when we pick up our phone (again) during a meeting. Anything can be a reward that makes you feel good or takes you closer to your goals. Unfortunately our brain memorizes as a reward the small happiness spikes caused by addictions although we know these are bad for us on the long run.

So if you want to build a new habit figure out a reward for yourself. After training you reward yourself with your favourite food? You collect all the things you had done instead of just browsing and thank yourself for it? Whatever the reward is it should feel like you are rewarding yourself.
It’s very important the reward be prompt. It should follow the new habit instantly to allow your brain to connect it with the new habit.

  1. Routine

Routine is the sequence of our actions which is mostly unchanged and leads us to the reward. Wow, it’s been a while since someone explained such a simple thing in such a complicated way hasn’t it? 🙂 Your existing routines are opportunities for you to add new habits in your life.

How? I for instance made meditation a habit this way. I have a nice little morning routine which my brain grew to like because it has a bit of sport, a tasty coffee, progress. All are things which make me feel good. I took meditation and included it in this routine, smack in the middle of it. This way I didn’t have to plan meditating, it became part of an existing routine and today is one of my favourite habits.

Use your existing routines to build new habits, you don’t have to start from scratch.

  1. Context

Context is everything around you that is not you. Yes, you guessed it, today is the day of strange concepts but it is important we understand them the same way 🙂

This means context can be a place, the people surrounding you or the clothes you are wearing. Have you noticed you do some of your habits only with certain people? Or that you gave up your afternoon snack after changing work and not being around that tempting office café? You can use these to your advantage if you try to utilize the context in favour of your new habit. Create an environment which makes it easy to act on your new habit.
Choose a gym that is close to your home. Fill up your drawer with healthy snacks. You can make it easier to form a new habit, there will be less friction that makes it more difficult to stick.

And if you want to lose a habit? Make it cumbersome! Leave your phone in another room if you use it too much. Switch of wifi if you want to focus on your work. Context matters and you have a lot of opportunities to change it.

How long does it take to form a new habit?

It depends. There is this little bit annoying urban legend of 21 days. This originated from a plastic surgeon from the 60s who commented that it usually takes 21 days after surgery to get accustomed to our new look. Do I have to tell you this is not true?

The timeframe depends largely on how difficult it is to keep up with the habit, how novel it is for you, how well you can adjust to reward, context and routine. Recent research puts forming a not very complex new habit and making it automatic to 2-3 months.

If you start today you’re already 1 day in. I’m with you.


How to build new habits?