How to Build Good Habits
We all know we need to build good habits in our lives in order to find success. Regardless of what kind of success we’re working toward, good habits will help us get there. The problem for most of us is that bad habits tend to be easier to maintain and are sometimes more fun. In order to know how to build good habits, we need to understand how habits form and how to get rid of bad habits.
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Whenever we do something repeatedly, we form a routine. Do the routine often enough, and it becomes habit. When it’s something that is difficult for us to attain, building that routine and habit might take longer than we want, which is why I am always reminding you that it’s a process.
In order to build good habits, we need to understand how habits work. Before we dive into how to build good habits, let’s take a look at bad habits and why they’re so attractive. Many bad habits tend to be addictive. Smoking, drinking, eating junk food, procrastinating—all of these things supply your brain with a dose of happiness. I’m not going to get all technical and talk about dopamine and the triggers for your brain.
I’m not a doctor nor a licensed therapist, so what I am going to say is that it is human nature to want to do the easy thing. No one sets out to be an alcoholic or obese or chronically late with projects. But once we start and our brain gets used to something, we don’t want to let it go.
The thought of struggling against the bad habit is too much. It’s hard, but not impossible.
In order to break a bad habit, follow these 4 steps:
1. Define the habit
What do you need to change? This requires a lot of reflection. If you’re always late turning in projects, what are you doing instead? What causes you to do that thing instead of what you’re supposed to be doing? What makes you want to grab a drink or eat junk food? Be as specific as you can in defining what the habit is that you need to break.
2. Replace it
The biggest issue most people have in trying to break a bad habit is that they believe willpower is enough. They just have to choose to quit. While that might work for some, it’s not easy, nor does it work for everyone. For example, for smokers, some find that holding something in their hand helps when they crave a cigarette. If you find that you eat a lot of junk food when you watch TV, give yourself something else to do during your favorite shows. Take up knitting. It will keep your hands occupied so you don’t reach for the potato chips.
3. Find your motivation
Why is it important for you to make this change? And why now? If you keep just thinking this is something you “should” do and not something you feel you need to do or even want to do, achieving success will be more difficult. How will your life change for the better if you let go of this bad habit? What could you accomplish if this wasn’t part of your life?
4. Seek change
This can be hard, but your environment is a big factor in your behavior. If you’re trying to give up alcohol, but you only go to bars with your friends, quitting will be harder. You need to find some other way to spend your social time. This might be extra hard if your friends don’t want to change. You might also need to let them go, at least for a while. Surrounding yourself with unsupportive people will kill your motivation. Spend time with people and in places that make you happy. You want to be around positive influences as you make changes.
Once you know what you need to change and you’ve started that process, we can talk about how to build good habits. Sometimes, you can have the work do double duty—replace a bad habit with a good one. Other times you need to do them one at a time. Either way, you’ll be seeing an improvement in your life. Just remember to give it time.
Here are some steps to follow when you’re ready to build good habits:
1. Start small
Just like with breaking a bad habit, you can’t just go all in and think it will magically happen. You’ll be setting yourself up for failure. For example, if you want to be healthier through exercise, deciding to train for a marathon when you’re not a runner is a little over the top. So is thinking that you’ll wake up at 5 am every day to go to the gym before work when you have a hard time getting out the door for work every day. Pick something small and start there. Easy wins will keep you motivated.
2. Add the routine to your schedule
Remember that a habit starts with a routine, which starts with a schedule. Look at your typical day and decide where you should add in this new routine. You want to choose a spot in your schedule when you can easily add something without feeling overwhelmed. In addition, make sure you’re choosing a time where you will have enough energy to finish the routine. If it’s a mentally draining task, waiting until after work might not be the best time. However, if it’s a physical task, it might be a great outlet for your work-related stress to be worked out.
3. Trigger reminders
Trying to build a new habit is hard when we forget about it. And we often forget about it because it’s new and not part of our routine—another vicious cycle. One way to overcome this hurdle is to give yourself specific triggers to remind yourself to do the new thing. For example, if you’re trying to drink more water, always drink a glass after your morning cup of coffee. This is a visual trigger. If you want to practice more meditation to calm your mind, do it before bed at night or first thing in the morning and you can use brushing your teeth as your trigger.
If all else fails, set an alarm on your phone as a reminder. I always suggest to my clients to use different sounds for different reminders because we learn to ignore the same sounds.
4. Change works
Just like breaking a bad habit, forming a good habit will require change. Change pieces of your environment to make doing the routine easier. Back to my example of drinking more water. If you put your water bottle next to your coffee maker, it will be easier to remember. If you want to exercise every morning before work, lay out your workout clothes and gym shoes the night before. If they’re staring you in the face, it’ll be easier to follow through.
5. Visualize success
Visualizing helps create success. It’s just as important that you imagine your routines and habits as the end result you hope for. It will help cement in your mind that the reason you need the habit is to reach your desired result. So, visualize the goal you want to achieve and the steps needed to get you there.
6. Have contingencies
Things rarely go as planned. You can set up the perfect routine for yourself, but then something happens to interrupt it. What’s your recourse? Most people throw up their hands and give up. This is why contingencies are important. If you have a plan in place for when your routine gets messed up, you’ll be able to bounce back from it.
However, this is something that rarely happens in the moment—especially for people who have poor executive function skills. Pivoting tends to be hard no matter what, so figuring out a plan and then implementing it isn’t likely to happen. If you have a list of responses to “what ifs” then you’ll already know what to do and be able to follow through.
Every day that you stick to your new routine to help you build good habits should be celebrated. I’m not talking about throwing yourself a party, but you should give yourself a pat on the back or congratulate yourself in your journal. Remind yourself that you are proud of your accomplishments. If you feel good about your progress, you’re more likely to continue.
8. Forgive yourself
Mistakes will happen; days will be lost. It’s important to not give up. Forming new habits takes time, and I urge all of my clients not to buy into “it takes 2 weeks” or “magic 21 days.” Everyone moves at their own pace. You’re bound to slip up. If making changes and sticking to schedules was easy for you, you wouldn’t be looking for executive functioning help.
Accept that slipping up will happen and forgive yourself. You’re not perfect. Studies have shown that missing a day of habit-building doesn’t ruin the whole process. Just keep going.
We all have goals we want to achieve. In order to find that success, we need to learn to build good habits to get us there. Getting rid of your unhealthy or bad habits is a start, but you want to replace them with the habits that will give you the life you want.
What is the number one habit you would like to build that could change your life?