building habits

The Science Guide To Building Habits That Stick

At one point in time, Aristotle was called The Philosopher. Not A philosopher — THE philosopher.

His work had such an impact that he became synonymous with the subject he was teaching. Now, wouldn’t that be cool to have happen to yourself.

Anyway, the reason I’m bringing up Aristotle is that he once said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The idea is that you develop a talent for the things that you repeatedly practice. Aristotle clearly did a great job at the developing the habits of deep thinking, learning and teaching. He deliberately chose what he wanted to become good at and then executed relentlessly on it every day.

Unfortunately, the same is also true for habits that we don’t necessarily want in our lives. If you repeatedly smoke a cigarette on your lunch break, you’ll become very good at that, too.

Your Life is the Sum of Your Habits

Certainly, there are things outside of your control that affect these things as well, but for the most part it’s true that:

  • How in shape you are is a result of your habits.
  • How educated you are is a result of your habits.
  • How happy you are is a result of your habits.
  • How much money you have is a result of your habits.
  • How good your relationships are is a result of your habits.

I could keep going, but I’m sure you get the point. As the late, great Jim Rohn used to say: ”Success is nothing more than a few disciplines, practiced every day. Failure is a nothing more than a few errors, repeated every day.”

With that in mind, it makes sense to get really good at creating new, empowering habits and removing the ones that are unhelpful or even dangerous. In order to do that, a very helpful framework is…

The Habit Loop

According to research from Duke University, more than 40 percent of the actions people perform every day aren’t due to decision making, but habits.

This means that almost half the time that you’re awake, you’re doing something not because you consciously choose to do it, but because it has become automated to the point that you’re following a neurological loop in your brain. According to researchers at MIT, this loop consists of three components:

  1. A cue. This is the trigger that starts your habit. Example: You get an email notification.
  2. A routine. The habit that follows the cue. Example: You open the email.
  3. A reward. The benefit you gain from doing the habit. Example: You get to know what the email is about.

If you perceive the reward as positive, you’ll want to repeat the loop again the next time the cue shows up. Repeat this sequence enough times and it will become a habit.

One of the keys to creating habits that sticks is to manipulate these components to get them work for you. Luckily, there are tons of very smart researchers out there who have figured out exactly how to do that.

Let’s walk through each of the habit loop parts one by one and look at the best practices for getting them to work in your favor:

1. The Cue

The first part of the habit loop is the trigger that kicks the whole loop into action. One of the biggest mistakes people make when they’re trying to create a new habit is that they settle for a very vague intention.

’I should probably work out tomorrow after work’ won’t create and solidify big change in your life. In order to create a new habit, you need to decide on a specific que that reminds you to do it, over and over again.

Here are three very effective, research-based ways to create powerful ques:

1. Implementation Intentions

Professor of psychology Peter Gollwitzer focuses his research on how goals and plans affect cognition, emotion and behavior.

What he has found is that people who simply write down exactly when and where they intend to do a certain habit, they are much more likely to follow through.

This very powerful strategy is also very simple. What you do is reframe your goals as ’If → Then’ statements. The ’If’ represents a situational que and the ’Then’ is your planned response for that que. Here are some examples:

  • ’Journaling daily’ becomes:

If I’m in bed at night then I’ll write in my journal.

  • ”Be more patient” becomes:

If I start feeling stressed then I’ll focus on taking three deep breaths.

  • ”Read more” becomes:

If I sit down in the living room couch then I’ll pick up an awesome book.

If you want to use an implementation intention as your que, you can use either an internal que (such as a strong feeling) or an external que such a particular time, place, object or person.

2. Habit Stacking

This strategy is similar to implementation intentions, but here you link your new behavior to an already established habit. Here’s the sentence we’re looking to fill in:

After/Before [ESTABLISHED HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].

For example:

Before I take my morning shower, I will do 5 pushups.

Before I brush my teeth, I will floss my teeth.

After I set my alarm clock, I will meditate for 1 minute.

After I get into bed, I will read 2 pages in a book.

To use habit stacking, write down a list of habits that you have already successfully established in your life. Then go through that list and find the most suitable one to stack your new habit with.

3. Scheduling

This last technique for creating a habit que seems very obvious, yet very few people actually use it. If you want to make sure something gets done, you put it in your schedule.

The same goes for a new habit. If your new habit is truly important to you, it deserves a spot among the other important things in your calendar. Why?

  • It shows that you are serious about this change and that it has just the same priority in your life as your important business meetings. It’s a great way to tell yourself that you’re done dabbling with vague intentions and that you’re serious about making it happen.
  • We’re all susceptible to the ’planning fallacy’ — a mental bias that makes us underestimate how much time things actually take. Pre-committing this way forces you to take stock of how much time you actually have for your new habit and reduces the risk overoptimistic planning.
  • It eliminates future decisions. Research has shown that decisions, even trivial ones, decrease our mental energy. When you commit to a schedule, you free up a lot of mental energy that can be used for more important decisions than whether to go to the gym or not.

To use scheduling as your que, get out your calendar and specify exactly when and where your habit will take place.

2. The Routine

Now that we’ve covered the when and where, its time to get to the what — what exactly it is that you will be doing after the que.

One of the biggest mistakes (perhaps THE biggest) people make when creating a new habit is to start out at a level that isn’t sustainable.

When the inspiration is high, it’s easy to set the bar very high and expect to be able to maintain this level of effort even as the initial enthusiasm is starting to fizzle out.

Unfortunately, it turns out that we are very bad at making estimations about we’ll feel in the future and as the excitement for our new change starts to run out, our willpower muscle gets fatigued and as a result, we quit.

If you can relate to this, you are no alone — about 92% of people fail at achieving their New Years resolutions each year.

This is a huge waste of time, money and potential. So, how can we avoid this all too common trap?

By a simple shift in your mindset: Stop obsessing over the result and start obsessing over showing up.

You do this by:

  1. Making your habit so small that you can’t say no.
  2. Start tracking your progress. There are several habit tracking apps available out there , but you can also go old school and use a big wall calendar like Jerry Seinfeld.

If you start doing this, you’ll notice that the longer your successful streak gets, the more difficult you will find it to skip a day.

People don’t like loosing what they’ve invested, and your chain is an investment.

As you get some momentum keeps growing, you can add more difficulty to your daily habit but when you’re just starting out it’s very important that you start ridiculously small:

  • Want to start meditating? Sit down in silence for 1 minute every morning.
  • Want to start exercising? Start with a daily walk around the block.
  • Want to become a bookworm? Begin with 1 page when you get into bed every night.

If you feel like doing a little more on a given day, by all means go ahead, but do not raise your daily goal until you have established the behavior itself.

3. The Reward

A key ingredient in your habit formation is giving yourself regular rewards for your small successes.

A lot of my clients have problems with this because they feel like it’s silly to celebrate such tiny efforts.

What cause of celebration is reading 1 page in your book for 10 days straight? It only adds up to 10 pages, after all.

But the thing is you are not celebrating your results, remember? Stanford psychologist and behaviour expert BJ Fogg suggests you think f it this way:

”The fact that you’re learning to change your behaviour is a big deal. Think how rare a skill it is. Think how long behaviour change has eluded you. And now you are succeeding.”

Don’t celebrate that you’ve read 10 pages in a book. Instead, celebrate that you have taken another step forward to improve your life!

The reward you give yourself after following through on your habit is important not only because it makes you feel good, but because it acts as a reinforcer for the behavior. It gets your brain to associate the habit with positive emotions which helps you remember and solidify the behavior. Rewarding yourself gets you addicted to the habit.

And we’re not talking about big rewards like eating at a fancy restaurant, going to the movies or buying stuff. In fact, what you should be aiming to do is to reinforce the behavior immediately after you’ve done it by creating positive emotions. So, how do you do that?

Researchers have found that our body language, facial expressions and even tone of voice affects our emotions in a big way. Some fascinating studies has for example shown that:

  • By using powerful posture you increase the dominance hormone testosterone while at the same time decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
  • When you frown for a long time you’re more likely to experience aggressive feelings.
  • Speaking with a lower pitch makes you feel more powerful.

We all know that the way we feel affects our body language and actions. Studies like these show that this works the other way around, too — our body language and actions affect the way we feel. When establishing new habits, we can take advantage of this.

Here are some of BJ Fogg’s suggestions for celebrating right after you’ve completed your habit:

  • Do a physical movement — Thumbs up, fist pump or clap your hands.
  • Do a flowing physical movement — A short victory dance or applaud.
  • Say something out loud or inside, to yourself — ”Awesome!”, ”Bingo!” or ”Good job!”
  • Sing a song out loud or inside, to yourself — ”Hey now, you’re a rock star”
  • Vocalise music or a sound effect — ”Do do do doooo!” (trumpet for royalty)
  • Imagine hearing music or sound effect — A roaring crowd, happy for your success.
  • Move your face to look happy — Smile or laugh.

If you want, you can combine two or more of these suggestions or come up with your own, unique celebration. The important thing is that it does feel like a celebration. If your reward makes you feel silly it won’t be helpful. You may have to do some experimenting with your reward in order to find a good fit for you personally.

Raise the Stakes

Now that we’ve looked at the importance of a reward — a nice big carrot — to drive your behavior, it’s time to flip the coin and investigate how the opposite approach — the stick — can be helpful.

To do that, imagine the following scenario:

It’s 5:30 am and your alarm clock goes off. You have your usual inner dialogue and you’re just about to convince yourself of snoozing instead of hitting the gym before work like you said you would.

But then you remember that you’ve promised a friend to meet up at the gym at 7 am.

Or, that you’ve committed to your workout plan by sending a friend 50 bucks every time you fail.

Or, that you’ve committed publicly to your family/blog readers/Facebook friends to stick to your workout plan for 30 days.

Or, if necessary, all of the above. Suddenly, going back to bed won’t be so easy.

For most of us, promising ourselves that we’re going to do something simply doesn’t provide enough incentive to actually follow through. The short-term consequences for procrastinating just aren’t enough to get us moving.

But as soon as you raise the stakes the game changes. And if you involve other people, suddenly your identity is on the line. No one wants to be the kind of person who commits to something publicly and then fails.

A very effective way to do this is to create a ’commitment contract’ (13). Your contract should include the following:

  1. Your goal. The habit you want to create. For example: Do ten push-ups every day.
  2. Something at stake. Cold hard cash and/or your reputation. For example: Send a friend 50 dollars and/or let my social network know that I’ve failed by publishing a Facebook status.
  3. A referee. Someone that will hold you accountable to your contract. For example: A strict and fair friend or a coach.

Share your contract with your referee and put it somewhere that you will see it every day. This clever service created by economists lets you donate money to a charity you DON’T like if you fail.

Shape Your Environment

During the Vietnam war, more than 15 percent of US soldiers developed an addiction to heroin. This discovery shocked the American public and lead President Richard Nixon to announce the creation of a new office called The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention.

The office was created in order to promote prevention and rehabilitation of drug addictions s well as track and research the paths of the addicted soldiers when they returned home. This last part, the tracking of the returning troopers, that lead to some very surprising insights.

What the researchers found was that when the soldiers returned to the United States, 95 percent of them eliminated their addiction almost overnight.

This finding completely contradicted what the usual patterns of addiction looked like. A typical heroin addict would enter a clinic and get clean but as soon as they returned home, the risk of falling back into addiction was 90 percent or higher. The pattern of the Vietnam soldiers was the pretty much the exact opposite. So, what was going on here?

The soldiers spent their days in Vietnam surrounded by a certain environment. They were put under huge stress and they befriended other soldiers who were heroin users. In other words, they were surrounded by an environment containing multiple stimuli that drove them toward heroin use.

When the soldiers returned home, they found themselves in a completely different environment. Back home, there weren’t any stimuli promoting heroin use and this helped most of the soldiers drop their addiction.

If you compare this with the situation of a typical drug user, it makes sense that they tend to relapse. The clinic removes all the stimuli and makes it easier to get clean, but as soon as this person returns to the home environment again, all their old triggers will reappear into their environment. Considering this, it’s no wonder that 90 percent of heroin users became addicted again upon returning home.

We’re all affected in a big way by our surroundings, often unconsciously. In many ways, our environment drives our behavior. Supermarkets are very aware of this fact and set up their stores exactly the way that will get you to buy the most.

According to BJ Fogg there’s only one way to radically change your behavior and that is to radically change your environment. He suggests that instead of focusing on the motivation to do our habit, we should focus on making the habit easier to do.

A very useful way to do this comes from Professor of Psychology Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who in his book ’Finding Flow’ explains what he calls the ’activation energy’ of habits. This idea is very straightforward: The bigger the obstacles standing in the way of your desired behaviour, the more activation energy you will need to muster up and the less likely you’ll be to do it.

There are two ways to alter your environment and make it much more likely that your habit sticks:

  1. Decrease the activation energy of your desired behaviors.
  2. Increase the activation energy of your unwanted behaviors.

For example, if you want to read more books but you find yourself spending all your free time in front of the TV, put the remote in another room (increasing the activation energy) and put your book on the living room table (lowering the activation energy).

If that doesn’t work you can always put the TV in the garage. Yup, I’m serious. How far you take this depends on how badly you want the change to happen.

Surround Yourself With the Right People

Another big part of our environment are the people we hang out with. Humans are social creatures and we affect each other much more than we are consciously aware of.

One way we do this is by picking up other people’s emotions by automatically mimicking and synchronizing with their expressions, vocalizations, postures and movements. As a result we soon start feeling like they do. Psychologists refer to this as ’emotional contagion’.

So, if you socialize with a lot of enthusiastic and happy people, you will pick up on that and start feeling that way, too. If you spend your time with pessimistic and negative people, that’s the way you’ll feel instead.

What’s perhaps even more important for the purposes of this article is what psychologists call ’goal contagion’, which is our tendency to take on the goals of others. One study that perfectly illustrates this tendency showed that if your friend becomes obese, your risk of obesity increases by 57 percent — even if your friend lives hundreds of miles away (!!).

What we can learn from this is that if you want to create big changes in your life, it’s essential that you have the right people in your corner. If you want to create healthy habits but all of your friends are unhealthy, it’s time to make some new friends. If all of your friends are pessimists who drag you down, you need a new support group who inspires you and lifts you up when you fall.

Start looking for people who are already at the level you want to be or who are pursuing the same goals as you and befriend them.

Get an accountability partner, start a mastermind group and/or hire a coach. The more positive influences you have around you, the more likely you will be to create the change you want.

Plan for Failure

Now, it’s important to realize that even if you prepare yourself well using all of the strategies outlined above, there will most likely come a time when you fail.

For one reason or another, one day you will miss your chance to execute on your habit and when this happens, you’ll be very vulnerable to to what psychologists call ’the what-the-hell effect’.

One clever study did a great job of illustrating this phenomenon. In this experiment the researchers asked their participants not to eat beforehand and then treated all of them to the same exact slice of pizza when they arrived. Some of the participants were dieters and some were not.

After finishing their pizza, they were asked to taste and rate some cookies. But the researchers didn’t actually care how the cookies were rated, just how many each participant ended up eating.

That’s because they had carried out a trick; even though everyone was given the same size slice of pizza, for some of the participants it was made to look larger by comparison. This made some people think they had eaten more than they actually had; although in reality they had all eaten exactly the same amount.

When the cookies later on were weighted it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they had blown their limit ate more cookies than the participants who weren’t on a diet. In fact they ate over 50 percent more! On the other hand, the dieters who thought they were safely within their limit ate about the same amount of cookies as the non-dieters.

You can probably recognize this pattern from your own habit creation efforts. From time to time, you get a really nice streak going, but the moment you break it, you think to yourself ”Aah, what the hell, I’ve already messed up. I might as well let one more day slip”, and before you know it, you’re back to square one.

What most people tend to do after messing up is harshly criticizing themselves. We tend to think that if we are going to perform better in the future, we need to be hard on ourselves for messing up. The problem is that research has shown that this kind of self-blame is counter-productive as it will only make you feel worse which in turn reduces your performance in the future.

What sets people who successfully change their behaviors apart from others is that they view setbacks as valuable data rather than a failure. They accept temporary setbacks because they know that they are part of the game.

Whenever something doesn’t work out as planned, they simply readjust their approach and try again until they succeed.

The theories and strategies in this article have all been proven very effective, but that doesn’t mean they will immediately work flawlessly for you personally. That’s why you need to become a scientist of your own psychology and behavior.

Experiment with different ques, routines and rewards. Try different commitment contracts or other forms of external accountability. Keep readjusting your environment. Pay attention to what people lifts you up inspires you, as well as who subtly brings you down. Change and adjust until you find a way that works.

In Summary

We’ve covered A LOT of ground in this article. Here is a quick summary of the key points to keep in mind when you set out to create a new habit:

  • The Habit Loop consist of three components:

– A cue that gets the habit started. You can create cues by using implementation intentions, habit stacking and/or scheduling.

– A routine that is the actual habit that follows the que. You can optimize your routine by making the habit so small you can’t say no and tracking your progress.

– A reward that you gain from doing the habit. You can reinforce the habit by celebrating in order to create positive emotions right after completing it.

  • Raise the Stakes — Stick to your habit by creating a commitment contract and sharing it with someone for accountability.
  • Shape Your Environment — Alter your surroundings by:

– Decreasing the activation energy of your desired behaviors.

– Increasing the activation energy of your unwanted behaviors.

  • Surround Yourself With the Right People — Get an accountability partner, start a mastermind group and/or hire a coach to support your efforts.
  • Plan for Failure — Treat setbacks as valuable data rather than failures. Keep adjusting your approach until you find a way that works for you.

P.S. If you liked this post then you’ll like my books as well. You can get them on Amazon.