How to Build a New Habit — And Make it Stick
Are you a master of a skill?
Perhaps you’re fluent in a language. A world-class pianist. A master craftsman in carpentry.
If you are, it’s not necessarily a result of your income, personal circumstances, upbringing, or any other variable. It’s a result of something a lot more powerful, something you have complete control over. It’s a result of habit.
The people who have mastered their businesses, their love lives, their health or any other area have done so because they have mastered their habits. But there is a price to pay: It requires a lot of hard work and years of practice.
A lot of us want to change our habits for the better. We want to eat healthy, exercise regularly and start writing, to name a few. It’s not that we’re unmotivated; we’re not. It’s that we often don’t know where to start. We don’t know how to change. But it doesn’t have to be hard once you have a framework for change.
How a Habit Works
In his New York Times best-selling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change, Charles Duhigg explains that the same neurological loop, called the Habit Loop, is at the core of every habit. There are three parts.
The cue is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
The routine is the behavior itself. This can be an emotional, mental or physical behavior.
The reward is the reason you’re motivated to do the behavior. It’s also a way your brain can encode the behavior in your neurology — if it’s a repeated behavior. Once the brain begins to crave the reward, the habit becomes automatic.
How to Build a New Habit
All habits are different. Some are easier to form than others. It’s easier to drink a glass of water upon waking up than it is to go running every morning.
Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take 21 days to build a new habit. In fact, there’s no solid evidence for this number at all. It’s actually closer to 66 days. (Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J., 2010).
Checking your iPhone when you receive a notification, accepting a chocolate that’s offered to you and turning on the television when you sit down are all examples of habits we’ve picked up and conditioned, easily, because of their immediate payoffs. However, when exercising, eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and flossing daily are new behaviors, they have no immediate reward and are harder to commit to.
The following three-step model is for habits that are hard to create because their rewards are delayed (Fogg, 2014).
- Make your habit tiny.
The first step is to focus on what Stanford University researcher B.J. Fogg calls “tiny habits.” These are the smallest behaviors that matter (or SBTM for short). A tiny habit has to be:
- A behavior you do at least once a day.
- Takes you less than 30 seconds to do.
- Requires little effort.
- Is relevant to the full behavior.
If you don’t make your behavior tiny to begin with, you will almost certainly fail to create a new daily habit. For example, if you start out running one hour each day, you won’t create a habit of exercise. But if you commit to putting on your running shoes, you are, as Leo Babauta would comment, “making it so easy, you can’t say no.” (Babauta, 2013).
Later – perhaps months later – you can expand on your habit. But when you do, the larger behavior will be easier. Why? Because the more you do something, the easier it becomes.
Consider all of your existing habits. They are all easy to do because you’ve practiced them for thousands of hours. Soon, your new habit will be no different.
- Do your tiny habit immediately after an existing behavior.
The next step is to identify an existing habit. This is going to be the cue that triggers your new behavior.
Ask yourself: “What behavior do I always do, regardless of how I feel?” This can include waking up, showering, going to the bathroom and brushing your teeth, to name a few. You need to know what your tiny behavior comes after. For example: “After I brush my teeth, I’m going to floss one tooth.”
- Celebrate tiny successes.
The final step is to celebrate doing your new habit. You may find this approach weird, but it works, because the ability to self-reinforce good behavior is the key to rapid habit formation.
You can speed up the process of habit formation by experiencing positive emotions about your tiny habit the moment you remember to do your tiny habit sequence and after you do it.
When I build a new habit, I physically rehearse the sequence a few times, each time declaring victory. This gets your brain wired to remember it. For example, my newest tiny habit is doing two pushups after I’ve meditated. I sit down to meditate (cue), then I get in the position to do a pushup (routine) and finally, I celebrate my tiny success by patting myself on the back (reward). I repeat this sequence a few times until I’ve got it down pat.
There are multiple ways you can celebrate tiny successes. You can do a physical movement like a thumbs up. Say a word or phrase like “Awesome!” internally or out loud. Or move your face to look happy like smiling in the mirror. Whatever you do, make it personal to you.
Every day, just do your tiny behavior immediately after the existing behavior you’ve chosen and remember to celebrate. Here, your brain and body is learning a sequence. “After I X, I do Y and I feel Z”. For example, “After I meditate, I do two pushups and I feel awesome!”
Note that in this step, you are learning to put a new behavior into your routine. You are not learning the behavior itself.
Let me explain. Suppose you want to floss daily. You already know how to do it. But what you don’t know is how to do it regularly. You haven’t mastered putting flossing into your routine as an automatic action — yet.
But tiny habits will help you do that. The more you train this new routine, the more the new behavior will become the new normal.
Duhigg, C. (2012) The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do and How to Change. New York: Random House.
Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W. and Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur J Soc Psychol, 40: 998–1009. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.674
Fogg, B.J. (2014). Tiny Habits. (Accessed October 29, 2014).
Babauta, L. (2013). The Four Habits that Form Habits. (Accessed October 30, 2014).
Davies, S. (2018). How to Build a New Habit — And Make it Stick. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-build-a-new-habit-and-make-it-stick/