How Habits Are Formed

By guest editor LEO BABAUTA

Habits are formed when actions are tied to a trigger by consistent repetition so that when the trigger happens, you have an automatic urge to do the action.

Some examples:

  • When you wake up (trigger), you start the coffee machine (habit).
  • When you get to work (trigger), you check your email (habit).
  • When you get stressed (trigger), you eat junk food (habit).

Our lives are filled with these trigger-habit combos, often without our being aware of them. If you drive home from work every weekday following the same route, you probably often drive by rote, making turns without thinking about it, because of constant repetition.

How did these habits form?

  1. Through consistent repetition over the years.
  2. They started with actions performed very consciously at first, before they were a habit, and gradually they became more automatic and less conscious.
  3. There is a feedback loop that helped us repeat the habit for a good length of time. For example, if you are stressed and then eat junk food, you might get pleasure or comfort (positive feedback), and if you don’t eat the junk food, you remain stressed (negative feedback). So positive feedback for indulging an urge and negative feedback for not indulging it makes  to want to do it repeatedly, whenever the trigger happens, which leads to the formation of a habit.

The opposite feedback loop exists for many things, including exercise and eating healthy:

  • If you dislike exercise or are out of shape, then when you exercise it is painful or unpleasant (negative feedback) and much more comfortable if you don’t exercise (positive feedback).
  • If you dislike healthy food, then when you eat healthy food you think it’s boring, bland, or unpleasant (negative feedback), and when you eat unhealthy food, you enjoy yourself more (positive feedback).

And so feedback is normally set up so that you are unlikely to stick with these habits for long enough to actually make them automatic habits. Feedback is instead set up so that many bad habits (eating unhealthy food, being sedentary, doing drugs, surfing the Internet constantly) will be repeated often enough to become habits.

Fortunately, we can reverse the feedback loop by engineering our habit environment:

  1. Create positive feedback for habits you want to form. Good ways to do that are to start with habits you enjoy and focus on the enjoyment of those habits, create social accountability by telling your friends that you acted on the good habit, and rewarding yourself.
  2. Create negative feedback for not doing the habit. Social accountability is a good way to do this — tell your friends you’re going to act on this new habit for 30 days, and for each day you don’t, there will be a negative consequence.
  3. Reduce negative feedback for doing the habit. Don’t expect to form habits you persistently dislike — find healthy foods and exercise that you enjoy. Only do the activity you want to make a habit for 3-5 minutes at first — so it’s easy and not something you dread.
  4. Reduce positive feedback for not doing the habit. If you sit on your butt and don’t exercise, don’t allow yourself to do other pleasurable things. Create negative consequences. Make people get on your case and take away your wireless router and cable TV box, for example.

How to stick to a new habit method

1. Pick only ONE small, positive habit — A 5-10 minute limit to start with. You will expand it later, but start as small as possible. This is extremely important, because most people make the mistake of doing multiple habits, or trying to do too much with the habit they’re forming, or both.

2. Come up with a plan. Take 1 week to pick your specific habit (start as small as possible), analyze your behaviors, pick a trigger, plan out how you’ll overcome your obstacles, pick the time of day you’ll implement the habit, plan who your support network will be, create a log for the habit, pick rewards, and decide what your motivations are. Write these down!

3. Do the habit immediately after the trigger for 4-6 weeks. Build in reminders. Try never to skip it. The more consistent you are, the stronger the habit will be.

4. Build in positive feedback. Focus on enjoyment, make it a game, create competition, do it with a partner or group if possible. Some good ways to build in positive feedback:

  • Enjoy the habit. This is the best way. If you form a daily habit of having tea, focus on the full enjoyment of that tea as you do the new habit. This is built-in positive feedback, and you’ll look forward to the new habit if you focus on enjoyment.
  • Announce your success after the habit. After you go for your walk (a new habit), post about it on Facebook, Twitter, and your blog. People congratulate you. You feel great.
  • Do something enjoyable right after the habit. If you like to check email, but want to write for 10 minutes a day, check email right after you write for 10 minutes (but not before).

5. Report daily to a social group (blog, Twitter, Facebook, email, or friends at work), use them for support when things get difficult. When you feel like not doing the habit, have one or more people you can call on for help. A social group is built-in positive feedback, as well as motivation through accountability. A few notes:

  • Find a group you care about. This might be your friends on Facebook or Twitter. It might be your blog readers. You might have friends, family, or colleagues you can email. It might be an online forum you’re a part of.
  • If you don’t have such a group, join an appropriate forum online and get to know the people there. There are tons of forums — find one that relates to your habit change. Read the rules of the forum, introduce yourself. Post questions, tell people about your new habit. Pledge to report to them daily.
  • Every single time you do the habit, report to the group immediately after. When you’re done with your 10-minute run, for example, get into the house, drink a glass of water, and then go to your computer and report it. Or tell your wife and kids if that’s your accountability group.
  • If you don’t do the habit for some reason, still report it. Commit to reporting either way, no matter what. It will greatly increase your odds of success.

6. Test, adjust, iterate immediately. When you start a habit change, you are testing an approach, and it is very possible it will fail. That’s fine. Knowing that your initial approach didn’t work is good information, and you should use it to adjust your approach and retry as soon as possible.