Habits shape every aspect of your life, whether you realize it or not. They dictate what you do when your alarm goes off, what you eat for dinner, and how you get ready for bed.
Habits can work for or against you, but they work nonetheless. Therefore, it’s worth taking some time to build good habits that put you on the life path you desire.
But what makes a good habit? And how do you build one? Below, we’ll take a look. We’ll start with defining what a good habit is, and then move to techniques you can use to build good habits that last.
Need to break a bad habit? Read this.
Before we can discuss how to build good habits, we need to define what makes a habit “good.”
In some cases, the difference between good and bad habits is obvious. Smoking is a bad habit; exercising is a good one. Eating chips and soda for lunch is an unhealthy habit; eating carrots and hummus is a healthy one.
In many cases, however, a habit is good or bad depending on the context. Taking an example from James Clear’s Atomic Habits, eating a bagel with peanut butter for breakfast could be a bad habit if you’re trying to lose weight but a good one if you’re working to add muscle.
Therefore, our preferred definition of a “good” habit is a repeated behavior that serves your long-term goals in a healthy way. Beyond that, you know intuitively if a habit is good or bad for you. If in doubt, use common sense.
But while recognizing good habits may be straightforward enough, building them is a different matter. So next, let’s take a deep dive into the subtleties of forming good habits that last.
If you’re reading this article, you likely know which good habits you want to form. Your struggle is actually forming them.
Fortunately, there are concrete things you can do to build (and maintain) good behaviors. Whether you’re looking to eat healthier, wake up earlier, or build a daily writing habit, the techniques below will help you out.
Choose Your Habit with Intention
It’s easy to get so caught up in the nuts and bolts of building a new habit that you fail to consider why you want to build the habit in the first place. However, deciding which habits to build is just as important as forming them.
The power of habits lies in their automatic quality, their ability to direct your actions without conscious effort. However, this is only beneficial if you pick habits that serve your goals, that matter to you personally. Otherwise, your habits could lead to a life you don’t even want.
Taking a personal example, I’ve wanted to learn to code for years. I devised many elaborate systems and bought several courses in the hopes that they would get me to practice programming daily.
What I eventually realized, however, was that I don’t even enjoy coding. I was only trying to learn it because so many other people said it was a worthwhile goal to pursue. Realizing this was immensely freeing, but I wish I’d realized it sooner. I could have spent all that time on something I cared about more.
Don’t make my mistake. Before you start forming a new habit, reflect on why you want to do so. If your only reason is that some guy on the internet said to, you should probably pick something else.
Phrase the Habit Clearly
So you’ve chosen a habit to work on. Great! Your first step to success is formulating the habit in a clear way. This sounds obvious, but you’re going to have a lot of trouble sticking with a new behavior if it’s ambiguous.
For instance, let’s say you want to eat more vegetables. That’s a wonderful intention, but it’s too vague to be useful.
How many vegetables is “more”? More than you currently eat? More than the average person? No one knows.
To make your habit more likely to succeed, you should be specific about how many vegetables you aim to eat.
For instance, “Eat one serving of vegetables per day” or “Eat a serving of vegetables with every meal.” This gives you a measurable target, helping you know if you’re sticking with your habit or not.
However, we can do better. “Vegetables” is also quite vague. A better phrasing would be “leafy greens,” “cruciferous vegetables,” or “carrots and broccoli.” This clarity will also help guide your grocery shopping, ensuring you have enough of the right vegetables on hand to meet your goal.
If you’re struggling to stick with a good habit, sometimes all you need to do is phrase it more clearly.
Start Small and Easy (You Can Optimize Later)
When you’re starting a new habit, it’s natural to be ambitious. You imagine the glorious things your future self will do, and you aim high.
While there’s nothing wrong with having ambitious goals, forming a new habit is no place for ambition. This is because when you start with a habit that’s too big or challenging, you’re more likely to give up.
It’s far better to make a habit as small and easy as possible in the beginning since it makes success much more inevitable. Then, once your baby version of the habit is in place, you can work to optimize it.
For instance, let’s say you want to build a daily cooking habit. You might be tempted to choose elaborate recipes and aim to cook every day. However, if your current cooking skills are minimal and you eat takeout for every meal, this plan will fall apart quickly.
Instead, it’s better to start small and easy. You could aim to cook one meal per week, choosing a recipe that requires simple ingredients and minimal prep time.
Once you’re cooking once a week, you can up the frequency to twice per week or choose more elaborate recipes. With time, you can slowly increase the difficulty and reach your ultimate goal of cooking every day.
Starting small and simple isn’t sexy, but it’s a more sustainable approach to long-term, lasting change.
Need help improving your study habits? Check out this guide.
Create an Implementation Intention
You’re far more likely to perform a habit (and keep performing it) if you specify where and when you’ll do it. Psychologists refer to this as an implementation intention.
What does an implementation intention look like in practice? James Clear put it brilliantly in Atomic Habits as:
“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
As with clearly phrasing your habit, an implementation intention helps because it removes ambiguity. Instead of committing to do something “when you have time” or “when you feel like it” (times that never seem to come), you have a concrete plan for precisely where and when it will happen.
For instance, let’s say you want to start exercising. An implementation intention could look like this:
I will do a basic kettlebell workout at 6 PM Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in my garage.
This is far more likely to occur than a vague intention to “work out with kettlebells.” However, we can also take this concept further with another idea: habit stacking.
Stack Habits for Success
While implementation intentions focus on where and when you’ll do a behavior, habit stacking attempts to make a new behavior easier by connecting it to an existing habit. In this way, your new habit becomes just another part of your daily routine.
Referring once again to Atomic Habits, the formula for habit stacking is:
“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
Putting this into practice, let’s say you want to drink more water. You could use habit stacking to create the following plan:
“After I wake up, I will drink a glass of water.”
Whether you use implementation intentions, habit stacking, or another technique, a habit is far more likely to stick if you make a plan for doing it.
Design Your Environment for Success
Creating plans is helpful for forming new habits, but it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
Another key aspect of forming a new behavior is to design the right environment. If you can create an environment in which doing the right thing is easy, then motivation becomes less of an issue.
I’ve seen this at work in many aspects of my life. For instance, one of my current goals is to learn to play the banjo. In pursuit of this, I’ve committed to practicing banjo for 20 minutes every day.
One of the biggest factors in making this habit successful has been putting my banjo on a stand in the middle of my bedroom. Not only does this help me remember to practice, but it also makes starting a practice session much easier.
All I have to do is pick up the instrument and start playing. In contrast, I’m much less likely to practice if I leave the banjo in a case or closet.
You can apply this idea of environmental design to almost any habit, particularly ones you struggle with:
- To floss more, place a container of floss picks next to your sink.
- To eat more vegetables, put them in the front of your fridge.
- To exercise more, keep a set of weights next to your desk.
It may sound simple, but I encourage you to give it a try. Sometimes, all you need to succeed at a habit is to create a literal environment of success.
Track the Habit
Humans evolved for instant gratification. This makes sense when you’re struggling to survive in the wilderness and food is scarce. But the same tendency can prove problematic when you’re working on habits without immediate rewards.
Most good habits fall into this category. Flossing your teeth has no immediate reward; in fact, it can be quite painful at first. However, it’s worth doing in pursuit of long-term oral health.
How do you bridge the gap between your primal desire for instant gratification and your higher-order pursuit of good habits?
One of the best solutions is to track your habits. When you check a box or cross off an item after doing a habit, you receive instant satisfaction. This feeling only compounds as you look back on your progress, with each past success motivating you to continue.
In light of this, we encourage you to track your habits as you build them. How you track them is up to you. But here are a few proven techniques to try:
- Don’t break the chain – Jerry Seinfeld famously uses this technique to write a joke each day. After he’s written a joke, he crosses off the day on a paper wall calendar. You can apply this to just about any habit you want to build; all you need are a calendar and a writing utensil.
- Habit-tracking apps – If you prefer a digital approach, there are dozens of habit-tracking apps to help you out. For a look at our favorites, check out this guide.
- The goalbook system – Developed by Martin, our web developer/podcast co-host/operations lead, this paper-based system combines habit tracking with regular reflection and review. You can learn more about it here.
And these are just a few ideas to get you started. Use whatever system works for you, but use something!
You now have a system you can use to build the good habits you want. However, remember to have patience. Contrary to popular belief, there isn’t a magic amount of time it takes to form a new habit. What matters is the frequency of a habit, how often you do it.
Given this, it’s easy to get discouraged while working on a new habit. To help you maintain your motivation, we recommend taking our free course on how to build habits that last:
Building habits isn’t just about discipline; there are real-world steps you can take to set yourself up for success! In this course, you'll learn how to set realistic goals, handle failure without giving up, and get going on the habits you want in your life.
Image Credits: plate of salad