While we often attribute other people’s successes to pure dumb luck, the reality is that success most often results from hard, sustained work, and in particular from forming good habits.
Being in good physical shape, mentally healthy, financially stable, and romantically fulfilled are all things that can come from sustaining positive behaviors on a daily basis through long periods of time.
We are formed as people through repetitive actions, not through any single decision. But forming positive habits is much more challenging than sticking with negative ones.
Anyone who’s committed to a restrictive diet or a new program for productivity, then found themselves slipping back into their old ways, can attest to the difficulty of turning behaviors into habits. If you have trouble sticking to a positive course of action until it forms into a regular tendency, you might try these proven methods of turning behaviors into habits.
1. Create chains of behaviors
One of the hardest parts of forming new habits is altering our daily routines to incorporate these new activities. Human beings are set in their ways, and it’s all too easy to lapse back into our old customs, especially if our new habit requires a drastic alteration of our lifestyle. Using your current routine as a framework for your new habit can help you avoid this problem.
Your brain responds better to contextual cues than to sheer willpower, so set up your desired habit in relation to things you already do. For example, if you want to start exercising in the morning, and you already start each day by brewing a pot of coffee, set a routine where you exercise as soon as you put the pot on.
This way, your brain will start to develop an association between the established action of brewing coffee and the new one of exercising, and your neural pathways will be rewired so taking one action triggers the next.
2. Eliminate excuses
The enemy of positive habit formation is that moment where you decide it’s not worth it to practice your new behavior today, for whatever reason.
Examine your actions and find the points at which you frequently make excuses for yourself. If you frequently choose not to hit the gym after work because you’ll have to drive home to get your gym clothes, eliminate the hassle by bringing your clothes to the office or keeping them in your car.
Find the decision points throughout your day and take steps to make these decisions pre-determined, so that the mental calculus when it comes time to make them is basically non-existent.
3. Set macro goals and micro quotas
Focusing on the ideal outcome of our new behavior can adversely affect our efforts to turn it into a regular habit. While we often have a concrete, observable goal in mind when we go about trying to form new habits, face difficulty motivating ourselves when we see little progress toward our goal, in particular if it’s a lofty one. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set goals at all.
Rather, researchers have found that people motivate themselves best by setting both macro goals, the big picture outcomes you hope to achieve one day, and micro quotas, smaller, incremental amounts of work that you force yourself to do daily.
By divorcing your daily actions from the planned outcome, you can make it much easier to sustain, even when it appears you aren’t making progress.
4. Reduce variability
Repetition is the key to establishing the neural system of triggers and rewards that constitutes a habit. You need to reach the point where it’s no longer a choice to engage in your habit; where it becomes instinctual and unavoidable. For this reason, it’s best to be “boring,” making your habit as repetitive as possible.
Plan your routine to minimize the smaller decisions you’ll have to make, and you’ll be using less mental energy on these unimportant things. Take the same exact route to the gym every day, and you’ll be less likely to spot something to distract you.
Choice, itself, is demotivating, and forming real, repetitive habits is a way of taking motivation out of the equation. Set all variables equal, each time you engage in your new behavior, and track your progress. Soon, you’ll have a habit you just can’t kick!