We’ve been talking a lot about habits recently and for good reason. Habits actually dominate most of our actions throughout the day.
When we think of a habit, we typically think about good behaviors or bad ones that we exhibit on a regular basis. Maybe we have a good habit of drinking water first thing when you wake up in the morning, or you have a bad habit of checking your email first thing when you wake up in the morning.
These are certainly examples of habits, but we can think of a habit a bit more generally. Broadly speaking, a habit is any kind of behavior you repeat over and over in a predictable pattern either consciously or unconsciously.
Some examples include:
- How you brush your teeth
- How you back your car out of the garage
- What you put into your coffee
- Which pocket you put your keys and cellphone into
- The route you take to work
Throughout the day, we’re faced with hundreds of small choices. If we had to make a new conscious decision every single time, we would feel easily overwhelmed. Habits are an easy way to simplify our daily choices by building in routine decisions.
Our day is full of a ton of small habits, and as we’ll explore, it’s absolutely critical to understand why habits form and how to use this information to build good habits.
Why Habits Are Important
It’s easy to see why a habit of smoking would be bad for your health, but these other habits – how you brush your teeth, for example – seem relatively insignificant. Over time though, they add up to something much larger.
In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains why:
And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness.
Habits add up over time so it’s imperative that we build the good ones and ditch the bad ones.
The 3 Key Steps to Building a New Habit
According to Duhigg, every habit contains three key elements – a cue, routine, and reward.
- Cue – A cue “can be almost anything, from a visual trigger such as a candy bar or a television commercial to a certain place, a time of day, an emotion, a sequence of thoughts, or the company of particular people.”
- Routine – The routine is the actual habit – what you do when you receive the cue.
- Reward – The reward could be “from food or drugs that cause physical sensations , to emotional payoffs such as feelings of pride that accompany praise or self-congratulations.”
For example, each night, I tend to have a glass of wine after dinner. It started simple enough; one night we had a bottle of wine and decided to open it after dinner. Then, the next night, we did the same. I had no intention of building the “habit” of having a glass of wine after dinner one night. After several nights though, the cue (finishing dinner and doing the dishes) triggered a routine (having wine), which gave me a reward (from having the alcohol).
Duhigg goes on to explain that habits emerge “without our permission.”
Studies indicate that families usually don’t intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week—as the cues create a habit—until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.
Fast food restaurants understand this concept very well, which is one reason you’ll notice standard store architecture. When you walk in or drive by, they want you to feel that same, familiar cue and take action.
Using These Pieces to Build Good Habits
We can hijack these three key pieces (the cue, routine, and reward) to build good habits and replace bad ones.
Every good habit needs a cue. It can be a specific time of day or any specific trigger that causes you to take action. For example, a lot of people find that going to the gym at the same time of the day (maybe first thing when they wake up in the morning or right after work) helpful for maintaining a consistent workout routine. The cue (wake up or end of the workday) is consistent from day to day.
Pick a specific cue of the habit you want to build and commit it to memory. We’ve all done this subconsciously for so long that it can feel weird, but it’s important to note that this cue -> routine system will eventually feel natural. When you were a kid, your parents likely had to coerce you to brush your teeth before bed, but now it feels completely natural.
Some example cues:
- When I first wake up…
- Every time I brush my teeth…
- Before every meal…
- Each time I walk into work…
- Every time I walk through a doorway…
- Each time I’m on a conference call…
- Before I go to bed…
- Every Sunday…
Keep the initial routine simple and easy when possible. If you never cook dinner at home, it would be difficult to start cooking dinner five nights a week from the very start. Saying something like “When I get home from work (cue), I’ll cook dinner (routine)” likely won’t lead to much success. Keep it simple at first. This would work much better: “Each Monday (cue), I’m going to cook dinner at home instead of eating out (routine).”
Build in a reward. Eventually, many good habits have built-in rewards. For example, exercise releases endorphins that you will eventually crave once you build a consistent habit. At the start though, Duhigg recommends building in some simple reward to increase the chances of cementing your habit. In our dinner example, maybe you get to enjoy a small dessert if you cook at home. If you’re looking to build a morning workout habit, maybe you get to pick up Starbucks on your way to work if you hit the gym that morning. Keep the rewards simple and make sure they don’t destroy the work you’re doing in building the healthy habit.
5 Habits to Start Building
Now, you have the tools necessary to build some awesome, healthy habits. So, where do you start? Here are five habits you could start with:
- Drink 16 oz of water immediately when you wake up. Unless you’re waking up a ton, you didn’t have any water for 6+ hours so you’re likely a bit dehydrated. Chug a glass before having coffee.
- Spend 5 minutes stretching before bed. Identify some tight areas and pick some easy stretches to hit. It will help prepare your body for sleep and increase your flexibility.
- When you’re shopping for groceries each week, pick out one vegetable you’ve never had and learn how to cook it. Expand your cooking repertoire and get some healthy nutrients all in one go.
- When you jump on a conference call, take it standing up. You’ll burn some extra calories and lessen the time you spend sitting throughout the day. As an added bonus, you’ll be more alert during the call.
- Write down 1-3 things that went well that day before bed every night. Practice a bit of gratitude.