Habits: The Definitive Guide to Lasting Change
Do you know the feeling?
You’re all fired up about a big change you want to create in your life.
And for a couple of days, or maybe even weeks, that initial rush of inspiration keeps you going.
But sooner or later, your motivation starts to fizzle out.
Then, before you know it, you’re back to your old ways.
If you’ve been through this pattern a couple of times, maybe you’re getting a bit discouraged.
But you don’t have to feel that way because creating lasting change doesn’t have to be so hard.
As we’ll see, it can be quite easy. And even a lot of fun.
[Note: This guide is 5,000 words long. If you’d prefer reading it as an e-book, you can download it here.]
Habits: The Definitive Guide to Lasting Change
This guide contains everything you need to know about habits. Here’s what you’ll discover:
I. How Habits Work
II. How to Create Good Habits
- Change Your Mindset
- Start With a “Keystone Habit”
- Make it Ridiculously Easy
- Get Yourself Hooked
- Create an “If –> Then” Plan
- Reward Yourself
- Design Your Environment
- Surround Yourself With the Right People
- Create a “Commitment Contract”
- Get Accountability
- Avoid “Mental Loopholes”
- Review & Readjust
III. How to Break Bad Habits
- Be Kind to Yourself
- Focus on One Change at a Time
- Track Your Bad Habit
- Cut Out the Cues
- Create a “Substitution Habit”
- Make it a Game
- Team Up With Someone
- Maintain the “Scientist & Subject” Mindset
IV. Best Habit Resources
I. How Habits Work
What is a Habit
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
A habit is “A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.” 1
According to research from Duke University, about 40 percent of what you do every day is habitual 2.
And, just as Aristotle figured out long ago, your habits determine who you become.
Your life today is the sum of your habits from the past.
- 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 healthy your relationships are is a result of your habits.
That list could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.
As the 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.” 3
When you take control of your habits, you take control of your life.
The Habit Loop
Researchers at MIT have found that all habits are driven by the same underlying neurological loop. This “habit loop” (4) consists of three parts:
- A Cue — The trigger that initiates the habit. Example: You get an e-mail notification.
- A Routine — The habit itself. Example: You open the e-mail.
- A Reward — The benefit gained from doing the habit. Example: You get to know what the e-mail is about.
If your brain perceives the reward as positive, it will want to repeat the loop the next time the cue is presented.
Repeat this sequence enough times, and it will move from voluntary into automatic action. That’s how a habit is formed.
That is very useful to know because it allows you to experiment with different cues, routines, and rewards to create and break any habit you like (or don’t like).
How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
There is a lot of misleading information out there when it comes to this question.
One of the most common estimates is 21 days. Another number that’s been showing up a lot lately is 66 days.
But unfortunately, practical as it would be, there is no set number of days that guarantees a habit is completely automated.
The 21 days is a myth that’s been around ever since it was introduced in the book Psycho-Cybernetics in the 1960’s.
In that book, the plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz writes about how it would take his clients about 21 days to adapt after an operation.
His book went on to sell 30 million copies, and ever since then people have generalized the idea of 21 days to ALL habits.
The 66 days estimate comes from a 2009 study at the University College of London 5. But that number is a gross oversimplification of the results.
It did take the participants 66 days to build a habit, on average. However, for any given person or habit, it took anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
So, instead of aiming for some arbitrary number of days, it’s much more effective to embrace the process and let the results take care of themselves.
II. How to Create Good Habits
1. Change Your Mindset
Whenever you create a new habit, consider it an experiment.
And always see yourself as both the scientist and the subject (6).
By doing that, you allow setbacks to become valuable data rather than failures.
A scientist doesn’t get discouraged by setbacks. A scientist gets curious, forms another hypothesis, and then tries again.
So, whenever a particular strategy isn’t working, simply try another one. And another one. And another one.
And, like a good scientist, refuse stop until you’ve found an approach that works.
Let go of the long-term results you’re after and, instead, focus on showing up and doing the habit every single day.
If you can do that, the results you’re after will inevitably show up as a side effect of your efforts.
Sound good? Got on your lab coat? Awesome! Let’s get started! 🙂
2. Start With a “Keystone Habit”
Have you ever noticed how some habits tend to “spill over” and create positive change in several areas of your life?
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg refers to these behaviors as “keystone habits” 4.
For me, exercise has always been a keystone habit. Whenever I work out regularly, I tend to sleep better, eat better, and get more done. It also makes me feel better in general.
So, if you’re unsure of what habit to create first, I highly recommend starting with a keystone habit.
Ask yourself what habit(s) have created positive ripple effects effect in the past.
It could be exercise, but it could also be proper sleep, healthy eating and drinking habits, meditation, or something else entirely.
You’re the world greatest expert on your own psychology, so you know what habit tends to make the biggest difference in your life.
If you can think of several keystone habits, that’s great, but I encourage you to start working with just one to avoid overwhelming yourself.
So, pick just one habit right now, and…
3. Make it Ridiculously Easy
It’s always tempting to try to create a massive change overnight.
You have a big goal in mind, so it makes sense to go after it with a big behavior change.
The problem, as you may have experienced, is that this approach rarely works.
Going to the gym four days a week when you’re used to zero won’t lead to success — it will lead to burnout or even injury.
So, what you want to do is start small. Really small. Like, ridiculously small:
- Instead of 50 pushups, do 5.
- Instead of 20 minutes of meditation, sit for 2.
- Instead of saving $100 every month, save $10.
Establish the actual behavior first. When you’re consistently showing up and doing it, you can start increasing the effort.
But always start so small you’d feel silly to say no 7. That’s how you…
4. Get Yourself Hooked
When you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into something, it gets much harder to quit 8.
You can take advantage of this by using what comedian Jerry Seinfeld calls the “Don’t Break the Chain” strategy 9.
Get a big wall calendar, put it on a prominent wall in your house, and start putting a big, red X over each day you complete your habit.
Or use a habit tracker like Coach.me to check in each time you’ve completed your habit.
These are great ways of creating a physical representation of your efforts.
When you’ve done this for a while, you’ll find yourself pushing through even when it’s hard — just to keep the chain going.
Once, you have your wall calendar (or habit tracker) in place, it’s time to…
5. Create an “If –> Then” Plan
One of the biggest mistakes people make when creating a new habit is having vague intentions.
If you’re serious about creating lasting change, statements like these won’t cut it:
- “I’ll drop by the gym a couple of times after work this week.”
- “I’ll try to get some more sleep tonight.”
- “I’ll meditate when I get some extra time.”
Research has shown that if your goal is going to be effective, you need to have very clear intentions about it 10.
You have to know exactly when and where you’re going to do what.
A very useful strategy for developing clear intentions is what researchers call “If –> Then Planning.”
What you do is complete the following statement:
If [situational cue], Then I will [planned response to the cue].
Let’s rephrase the statements above as If –> Then plans to see what they look like:
- “If I leave work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday –> Then I will go to the gym and run for 30 minutes”.
- “If it’s 9 pm on a weekday –> Then I will brush my teeth and get into bed”.
- “If I’ve finished my morning cup of coffee –> Then I will meditate for two minutes.”
If you think this seems overly simplistic, I highly recommend you try it anyway.
More than 200 studies show that if-then planners are about 300 percent more likely to reach their goals 11.
Then, each time you follow through on your plan, you need to…
6. Reward Yourself
The founder of modern behaviorism, B.F. Skinner, used a time clock connected to his chair to “punch in” each time he sat down to work.
Whenever he stood up, the clock would stop, indicating that he had “punched out.”
This tool allowed Skinner to measure his time the same way lawyers and architects would do to keep track of the time to charge their clients.
He then recorded his times in flow charts and awarded himself with a gold star each time he completed a segment of work 12.
The strategy of giving out gold stars (or any other suitable symbol) is known in psychology as a “token economy” 13.
The tokens themselves have no intrinsic value but can be exchanged for “backup reinforcers” in the form of actual rewards.
By rewarding yourself this way, you can reinforce healthy behaviors and make them more likely in the future.
Here’s how to model B.F. Skinner’s reward system:
- Create a specific daily quota. For example, 30 minutes of running, three times per week.
- Get a token to reward yourself with. Gold stars, coins, poker chips, or something else you have laying around the house are all good alternatives.
- Set up “backup reinforcers.” These are the actual rewards you can exchange your tokens for. The key here is to reward yourself with things that keep you moving toward your long-term goal. For example:
- Water bottle = 3 tokens
- Portable music player = 10 tokens
- Pedometer = 20 tokens
- Running shoes = 50 tokens
- Entry to marathon = 100 tokens
Then, each time you meet your daily quota, you award yourself with a token.
Once you have your token economy in place, it’s time to…
7. Design Your Environment
Your environment affects your behavior in a big way.
If you’ve ever walked into your kitchen, spotted a plate of cookies on the counter, and eaten them just because they were in front of you, you know what I mean.
To create change in your behavior, you need to create change in your environment.
Professor of Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, provides an excellent strategy for this.
What he recommends is that you deliberately change the ”activation energy” of your habits 14. You can do this by:
- Decreasing the activation energy of your desired behaviors.
- Increasing the activation energy of your undesired behaviors.
If you, for example, want to read more books but find yourself consistently choosing to watch TV instead, place a great book next to your living room couch. Then put the TV remote in another room (or, if necessary, in the garage).
By changing your environment to support your habit, you can gently nudge yourself in the right direction until it’s the behavior you choose by default.
Another essential strategy for creating a supportive environment is to…
8. Surround Yourself With the Right People
The people around you also have a huge influence on you.
One study found that if you have a friend who becomes obese, your risk of obesity increases by 57 percent — even if your friend lives hundreds of miles away 15.
Other research has shown that we tend to feel like 16, and adopt the same goals 17, as the people we spend the most time with.
So, if you’re serious about creating significant change in your life, you need to have the right people in your corner.
If you want to be healthy but all your friends are unhealthy, it’s time to make some new friends.
And if you want to go after big goals but you’re surrounded with pessimists, it’s time to surround yourself with inspiring and uplifting supporters.
If you’re unsure of where to do that, I highly recommend you say hello in The Selfication Facebook Group.
That is our friendly and encouraging online community of growth-oriented people, just like you!
So, drop by, introduce yourself and let us know what habit you’re trying to create.
We’ll be honored to support you (as long as you do the same for us). 😉
Next, it’s time to…
9. Create a “Commitment Contract”
Imagine the following two scenarios:
- It’s 5:30 am on a Monday morning, and your alarm goes off. While fumbling to turn it off, you remember promising yourself to hit the gym before work.
- It’s 5:30 am on a Monday morning, and your alarm goes off. While fumbling to turn it off, you remember that you have a flight to catch for an important business meeting.
If you’re like most people, you’ll be much more likely to get out of bed in scenario number two.
Why? Because it comes with much greater immediate consequences.
Letting ourselves down for missing a workout usually doesn’t seem like a big deal.
In the second scenario, however, the immediate consequences are staggering.
If you don’t show up on time, you’ll have to deal with significant financial setbacks and the public embarrassment of letting people down.
The beauty (and horror) of a “commitment contract” 18 is that it allows you to ramp up the immediate consequences for any habit you like.
Let’s imagine the first scenario once again. Only this time, you remember that you’ve promised a friend to show up at 7 am. Or, that you’ll send another friend $50 if you don’t show up on time. Or, that you’ve publicly committed to your family/blog readers/Facebook friends to stick to your exercise routine for at least 30 days.
Or, if necessary, all of the above.
Going back to sleep won’t be as appealing anymore, will it?
So, commit to your habit by creating a commitment contract stating your goal, what you’ll put at stake, and your signature.
The e-book version of this guide contains a commitment contract template you can use.
Once you’ve committed in writing, you need to…
10. Get Accountability
In the 1950’s, researcher Henry Landsberger analyzed data from experiments conducted about 20 years earlier at the Hawthorne Works near Chicago by psychologist and industrial researcher Elton Mayo 19.
The purpose of Mayo’s studies had been to investigate whether more light in the building would have a positive effect on the worker’s productivity.
And he did indeed find that the workers increased their output when they were exposed to more light.
There was just one problem: They also increased their production when they were exposed to less light.
In fact, it didn’t matter what change Mayo did to the work environment.
As long as he did something — anything at all — the worker productivity would spike.
This finding would later be named the “Hawthorne Effect,” and the work of Mayo and Landsberger would become foundational in industrial psychology.
The Hawthorne Effect teaches us that we perform better when we’re aware that someone else is observing us.
And this is why accountability is such a powerful tool when creating new habits.
When someone else is keeping track of your progress, you’ll be much more likely to follow through.
So, make sure to put your commitment contract in the hands of a friend, trainer, teacher, mentor, coach, or someone else who is willing to hold you accountable.
Then, make sure to…
11. Avoid Mental Loopholes
In her book, Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin, writes about what she calls mental loopholes 20.
These are the excuses we tell ourselves to avoid the discomfort our habits bring with them.
Here are some of the most common ones:
- Moral licensing. You give yourself permission to do something “bad” because you’ve done something “good.” For example, “I’ve been so good at sticking to my diet that I deserve this pizza.”
- False choice. You pose two activities in opposition as if you have to make an either-or decision, even though the two aren’t necessarily in conflict. For example, “I’ve been so busy at work that I haven’t had time to exercise.”
- Lack of control. You tell yourself that your lack of control over the situation and circumstances forces you to break your habit. For example, “I’d go for a run right now, but it’s raining outside.”
- Questionable assumption. You make an assumption that influences your habit negatively. For example, “I have to go to work in one hour, and I can’t get anything worthwhile done before then.”
- “One-coin.” You devalue the meaning of one single attempt. For example, “I can skip the gym today, one workout won’t matter.”
As you’re building your habit, be acutely aware of the thoughts that pop into your head.
Ask yourself if the story you’re telling yourself is true, or if your brain is creating a mental loophole to avoid discomfort.
Next, it’s time to get out your calendar to…
12. Review & Readjust
No matter how much planning you do, or how many great strategies you put in place, you’re still going to have a setback from time to time.
That is completely normal and to be expected.
What’s important is what you decide to do with that setback.
And that is why having a “scientist & subject” mindset is so important 6.
It lets you perceive every setback as valuable data you can use to improve your approach in the future.
By scheduling a ten to fifteen minutes long weekly review, you can consistently examine the progress you’re making on your habit.
This is the perfect time to:
- Celebrate your wins, big or small, and exchange your tokens for rewards.
- Reflect on the attempts you missed and adjust your strategy for the week ahead.
By asking yourself what went right and what went wrong every week, you’ll build a deeper and deeper understanding of your own psychology.
That, in turn, will help you create a better and better plan.
And that plan will eventually become so effective that it will help you create or sustain any habit you want.
III. How to Break Bad Habits
1. Be Kind to Yourself
“You’re so lazy. You don’t have any self-control. You’ll never change. You’re such a failure.”
These are just a handful of the nasty comments we tend to tell ourselves when we’re struggling with a bad habit.
The reasoning behind this self-talk is that if we don’t use self-criticism to spur ourselves on, we’ll do even worse in the future.
But in reality, self-criticism won’t make you want to perform better in the future. If anything, it will have the opposite effect.
Research has shown that self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed 21 — not exactly the perfect state for creating change.
So, instead of criticizing yourself for every setback, practice self-compassion.
Remind yourself that you’re an imperfect being, and that failing is part of the human experience.
Offer yourself the same support as you would your best friend.
That will make it much easier to bounce back from setbacks and, eventually, break your bad habit.
2. Focus on One Change at a Time
As I’ve mentioned earlier in this guide, it can be tempting to go after massive change overnight.
So, if you have a lot of bad habits you want to quit, you may want to go after them all at once.
The problem with that approach, as you may have noticed, is that it rarely works.
Instead, what tends to happen is that you quickly overwhelm yourself and end up quitting none of them.
That is why I recommend working on just one bad habit at a time.
Ask yourself which one of your bad habits, if you got rid of it, would make all the other ones easier to quit.
Then, start with that one.
3. Track Your Bad Habit
Next, it’s time to collect some real-world data about when, where, and why your bad habit takes place. Reflect on the following questions:
- When does it typically take place?
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- What cues initiates it?
Put a pen and a pad in your pocket and make a note each time your bad habit takes place.
Start keeping score of how many times you do it every day.
Reflecting on these questions and tracking your habit will make you much more aware of the behavior and provide a lot of useful ideas for the next steps.
4. Cut Out the Cues
Do you remember the first part of the habit loop? That’s right — the Cue.
In this step, we’re going to use the information you’ve gathered so far to cut out as many cues as possible:
- If you smoke when you drink, don’t go to the bar.
- If you eat unhealthy snacks when you have them around the house, throw them out.
- If you watch too much TV, put the TV remote in another room (or put the TV in the garage).
Right now, your environment is supporting your bad habit and getting in the way of healthier alternatives.
Change your environment as much as you can to turn that around.
5. Create a Substitution Habit
Naturally, there are going to be less clear-cut cues that aren’t as easy to remove.
Usually, these will be internal triggers like stress or boredom 22.
When that’s the case, you’ll want to change the second part of the habit loop — the routine.
Note that I said change, not break. That’s because a bad habit is much easier to replace than to eliminate.
If –> Then plans are very useful for this. Here are some examples:
- If I get the urge to smoke –> Then I will take a five-minute walk.
- If I feel like eating a snack –> Then I will have a fruit.
- If I want to turn on the TV –> Then I will read two pages in a book.
Try to find healthy alternatives that give you a similar sense of reward as the bad habit.
6. Make it a Game
A powerful strategy to keep yourself motivated over time is to turn your habit change into a game.
And you want to turn it into a game that allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment and progression.
Research has shown that small wins are a powerful motivator 23.
So, divide your big goal into smaller sub-goals for you to accomplish every week.
If you’re currently smoking 20 cigarettes every day, make it a game to smoke one cigarette less every week.
Consider every successful week a win and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.
Use the money you save from not buying cigarettes to give yourself rewards that align with the person you want to become.
7. Team Up With Someone
Knowing that someone else is expecting you to do better is a powerful motivator.
You can use this to your advantage by teaming up with an accountability partner or group.
Check in with each other daily, celebrate your victories and analyze your setbacks with each other.
Discuss which strategies are working and which aren’t.
Be each other’s coach and cheerleader, continuously providing practical tips and encouragement as you progress toward your goals.
The Selfication Facebook Group is a great place to look for accountability.
8. Maintain the “Scientist & Subject” Mindset
No matter how well you plan and how many powerful strategies you put in place, odds are you’re still going to have setbacks from time to time.
That is why it’s so crucial that you keep the scientist & subject mindset at all times (6).
Whenever your plan isn’t working out as you’ve liked, remember that this just means you have another valuable piece of data.
Every failed attempt moves you closer to success.
So, be relentless in your experiments.
Create a new hypothesis, experiment with it, evaluate the results, and repeat.
Repeat that process enough times, and the results you want will inevitably come as a side effect of your efforts.
IV. Best Habit Resources
1. Best Habit Books
- Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler
[Want more great books? Check out my recommended reading list.]
2. Best Habit Apps
- HabitBull is designed to build positive habits or break negative habits. It helps you organize your life by giving you an overview of everything you need to do on a regular basis.
- Habitica is a game to help you improve your habits. It “gamifies” your life by turning your daily tasks into little monsters for you to conquer. Highly recommended for gamers!
- Momentum is based on the “don’t break the chain” strategy. Every day you complete a habit, your chain grows longer. And the longer it gets, the less likely you’ll be to quit.
- Pact uses cash stakes to help you achieve your weekly health goals. If you break your “pact”, you pay. If you stick to it, you get paid by members who didn’t.
- Productive helps you organize your life and build good habits by planning your days. It then tracks streaks of perfect days where everything got done.
- Strides is a habit tracker and SMART goal setting app rolled into one. It helps you stay motivated and on track with flexible reminders and beautiful charts.
3. Best Habit Services
- Beeminder combines self-tracking and commitment contracts. Keep all of your data points on a Yellow Brick Road toward your goal or lose your money.
- Coach.me is a habit tracking service that offers personal coaching in any habit you like. You can hire a coach or sign up to become a coach yourself.
- StickK is a goal-setting service created by behavioral economists at Yale University. Define your goal, choose a referee, and put some money at stake. If you don’t follow through, your money will be transferred to charity you don’t like.
[Want more great resources? Check out my resources page.]
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- Habit definition
- Habits—A Repeat Performance
- Jim Rohn
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
- How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
- Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan & Al Switzler
- The Four Habits that Form Habits
- The Sunk Cost Fallacy
- Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret
- Implementation Intentions
- Get Your Team to Do What It Says It’s Going to Do
- The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil A. Fiore
- Token Economy
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years
- Emotional contagion
- Goal Contagion: Perceiving Is for Pursuing
- Commitment Contract
- Hawthorne effect
- Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
- The Habits That Crush Us
- The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile & Steven Kramer
Where to Go From Here
I hope you found this habit guide useful. If you’d like even more ideas on how to create good habits and break bad ones, check out the five latest habits articles I’ve written below.
- This is How to Program Yourself for Success November 28, 2018
- This is How to Be Happy & Productive with “Flow Habits” October 5, 2018
- This is How to Optimize Your Life with a Habit Calendar September 5, 2018
- This is How to Master Your Habits: Secrets From Research April 19, 2017
- 48 Tiny Habits That Will Make You Awesome March 21, 2017