Imagine a human without habits. Every day, they wake up and face a day chock-full of uncertainty. Thousands of small decisions to make. What will I wear? What will I eat? Do I shower in the morning or in the evening? Shall I floss? When do I start work? Which tasks do I begin with? Emails first? Maybe a burrito for lunch? Shall I work out today? When do I go to bed?
I can't imagine they'd be very productive. Instead, they'd be exhausted after a few hours, their willpower spent on small, everyday decisions. This is why habits are important. Habits automate those decisions and open up cognitive space that we can spend on bigger, more important questions.
Of course, a human without habits doesn't exist. Even if you haven't consciously implemented habits, your life is full of actions you take repeatedly because you've taken them in the past. That's the definition of a habit: behaviors performed automatically because they've been performed repeatedly before.
You have every reason to create habits that make your life better. After all, it's the thoughtless, small steps forward that will eventually lead to big results. Or, as Aristotle said more than two thousand years ago:
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
The Three Components of a Habit
Habits are powerful ways to achieve your goals. However, in order to build a strong habit, you need to understand it first. Charles Duhigg, in his excellent book The Power of Habit, explains that a habit is made of three components:
- a cue
- an action
- a reward
Every habit starts with a cue, a sign for you to take action. This cue can be both external or internal. It can be the end of your workday (after which you go to the gym) or a feeling of boredom (after which you pop two chewing gums into your mouth).
Cues are the main reason why it's harder to work out on weekends, despite an abundance of time. You're simply missing your usual cue. Without a cue, working out is no longer a habit. It's a conscious decision, and that takes mental effort that we're not always willing to spend.
If you have a bad habit, think about what triggers it. Once you've identified its cue, you're one step closer to removing the bad habit out of your life and replacing it with a good one. For example, instead of smoking a cigarette after a meal, take a nap or go for a run. Don't simply try to stop smoking after a meal, because that won't work.
After the cue comes the action. What's important to know about the action is that you have to like doing it. If you're doing it for any type of reward, your habit won't last. Scientifically, this is called self-determination theory. Actions that are initiated for their own sake, because they're interesting or satisfying in themselves, make for much stronger habits.
Despite this, the third component of a strong habit is a reward. It's the most misunderstood component of a habit. For one, giving yourself a big reward after a week or a month of doing your habit does not work. In fact, it might make you less motivated.
Instead, the reward should be small and occur immediately after the action. In that sense, we're all Pavlov's dogs. It can be something as simple as taking a shower right after a workout, so you feel fresh, or rewarding yourself with a piece of dark chocolate after you've written 1,000 words of fiction right after you've woken up.
But, as said above, rewards shouldn't be used to motivate any type of behavior. Rewards should be used to reinforce the behavior that you enjoy doing already.
How to Build a Strong Habit
Now that you know the three components of a habit, we'll cover a few tips that will make it easier to build a new habit, or that should make your existing habits stronger. If you want to go in-depth on these, I suggest James Clear's book Atomic Habits.
Firstly, start small. The best way to achieve a goal is to take it tiny step by tiny step. Don't go overboard because you're excited about your new resolution. Hitting the gym for three hours every day because you've decided to lose 10 lbs this month won't work.
Instead, be patient and start with something so small you can't say no to it. Ten push-ups a day. Ten minutes of reading a day. It should require very little willpower and should feel ridiculously easy. Because consistency is far more important than intensity.
As your habit solidifies, you'll notice that it'll start taking less effort. It'll become automatic. From that moment, start improving 1% every day. Tiny gains make for big gains over time. For me, this manifests itself in one extra rep in the gym. Fifty extra words a day. Five minutes more reading.
Eventually, however, you'll plateau. The habit will take an unreasonable amount of time. After all, fifty extra words a day becomes an unwieldy 4,500 extra words a quarter. When that happens, change the format of your habit or break it into chunks.
Instead of doing 100 push-ups every morning, do two sets of fifty. One in the morning and one when you come home from work. Instead of writing 4,500 words every day, spend four hours writing every day instead (which you can also break into chunks). Switching the format and breaking habits into chunks is what will allow you to keep on growing in the ways you want.
This being said, you want to make sure your habit is sustainable. Find a good pace between laziness and burnout that still incorporates that 1% growth. Lean toward laziness in the beginning and ramp up the intensity only when the behavior has grown somewhat automatic.
Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition. (W.H. Auden)
Habits are a powerful way to achieve your goals. They consist of a cue, the actual action, and a reward. But you should perform the action because you enjoy doing it, not because you want the reward.
Additionally, when creating strong habits, it's important to start small, improve 1% a day, find a good pace, and change the format or break a habit into chunks when it becomes too unwieldy.
What about you? Any habits you want to build?