Our lives consist of a series of unconscious habits, routines, and rhythms that we perform daily, and these habits grow more and more powerful each time we repeat them. Learn how to create good habits and use the power of routine to overpower old bad habits today!
When we focus on creating new positive habits and routines in place of old negative ones we can literally change our lives.
Thoughts and emotional patterns can become habits as easily as the actions that go with them, and they work to strengthen each other. Even though many of our daily choices may seem like well thought out conscious decisions, they are actually unconscious routines we complete out of habit.
The Power of Habits and Routines
The difference between the person that you are today and the person you want to be is a product of your habits. Understanding how habits are formed is the first step toward both creating new positive habits and replacing negative habits with positive ones.
Neurons that fire together wire together and become stronger and stronger over time. The old impulse reactions will still be there, but they will weaken over time becoming less triggered. This change can be hard-won depending on how deeply ingrained the habit is, but behavior modification is always possible.
Related: How to Create and Set Goals
How Do Habits Form?
I found the New Your Times bestseller “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business” by Charles Duhig to be a fantastic book about using the power of habit to change our lives. Duhig explains how some scientists believe that habits emerged to help the brain conserve energy while executing mundane tasks and basic behaviors. When a chunk of habits or a routine starts the brain shuts down in order to conserve mental energy.
The brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a task looking for a clue about which pattern, routine, or habit, it can use. Once triggered habitual behaviors or routines take over until a reward appears. The brain then comes back online once the routine or habit is complete.
The Habit Loop
Habits consist of a Cue, a behavior or routine, and a reward. Charles Duhig explains it as a three-step process that he calls the habit loop:
First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally there is a reward which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop–cue, routine, reward: cue, routine, reward–becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually… A habit is born. (Kindle Loc 427)
What’s important to remember is that the cue and the reward need to be linked in order to create the neurological cravings that power the habit or routine. Most of the time these cravings emerge so gradually that we don’t even notice they exist, or the subconscious power they have over our daily choices.
How to Replace Bad Habits with Good Habits
Once understood old habit triggers can be identified and used to create new habits or replace old ones. Because we often don’t notice these habit loops as they grow, we are blind to our ability to control them.
Becoming mindful of our own personal habits is the first step in the creation of positive habits. When we learn to observe the cues and rewards present in our own habitual patterns and behaviors we can begin to change negative routines in favor of positive ones.
If someone creates a habit out of having a drink every day after work by going to the fridge to grab a beer when they arrive home, this habit will create the thought patterns, emotions, and cravings that surround the physical action of having a drink.
As it begins it may just be a physical action performed out of boredom, but soon the person will eventually feel compelled to have this drink every day after work. It will no longer be optional. This is how addictions form.
The brain will become addicted to the habit regardless of its repercussions. Addictive substances, of course, have a lot of added influence due to their addictive nature. They cause an even stronger craving and deliver an even stronger reward than other habits and this works to further strengthen the habit loop.
How to Create New Habits (and Overpower Old Habits)
New habits are created by putting together a cue, a routine, and a reward to create a new habit:
- First, figure out a simple and obvious cue to use as a trigger to execute the habit or routine.
- Then, come up with a satisfying reward that will motivate you to complete the routine.
- Next, execute the habit or routine.
- Finally, reward yourself!
Duhig explains a cue as something simple and well defined like when you get up in the morning, after you brush your teeth, when your daily alarm goes off, when you return home from work, etc. Anchor points in your daily routine or rhythm are also fantastic times to cue the execution of a new habit or routine.
Once the new behavior is in place a craving must be cultivated (for the reward) to power the habit or it will not have any ability to overpower old patterns and their habits. Studies have shown that a cue and reward aren’t enough–your brain must begin to expect or crave the reward.
A habit will become automatic only when the cue triggers both a routine and a craving for the reward to come–this is why addictive substances create such strong habits. Having a craving is what makes cues and rewards work by powering the habit loop.
How to Reward New Positive Habits
Rewards can be either be given after completing the new habit daily or after completing the habit for a specified amount of time. The only thing that matters is that it must work for you.
If you would like to create the daily habit of going for a walk to lose weight, eating a cookie after you walk as your reward wouldn’t be the best choice. A better choice might be a cup of coffee with a friend or a new outfit after you’ve been walking every day for a month.
Other rewards might be allowing yourself some free time to work on a favorite hobby or some time to read or watch a favorite show. Whatever you choose, it must be something that creates desire and anticipation, otherwise, it will not work as a reward.
You gotta want the reward… or it won’t work.
Another technique that works well as a reward is to check off the habit each day that you complete it. There is nothing more motivating than seeing another check mark to feel good about your commitment to yourself.
When you miss a day the lack of seeing the red check mark can motivate you to get you back on track. You can use your calendar or planner, or put a sheet on your fridge to track your progress. We even made a free habit tracking printable you can use!
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
Charles Duhig, claims that the golden rule of habit change is that “You can not get rid of a negative habit, but you can change it.” In order to change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, while changing the behavior or routine.
Duhig explains, “That’s the rule: If you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behavior can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same.” (Kindle Loc 1053)
In the case of the person who has the habit of going to the fridge to get a beer every day they come home from work, we will assume that their reward was the relief of letting the day go.
In order to change this habit, this person could instead put on a pair of running shoes and head out the door every day after work. I don’t know about you, but I find there is nothing like a nice walk or a quick run to help me shake off the day.
The 3-21-28 Rule of Habit Creation
When I was in graduate school studying psychology I learned that research at the time had proven that habits become established after 21 days of repeating them. Later, I came up with my 3-21-28 rule of habit creation.
This rule helped me to see the forest through the trees when I was struggling to create positive habits in my life. I noticed that after about 3 days of repeating a new behavior the new positive habit was beginning to form.
In other words, I found the new habit much easier to complete once 3 days had passed. The habit was nowhere near automatic, but it was no longer a struggle.
After 21 days the habit would become firmly established in my daily repertoire, and at 28 days I could forget it. The new positive habit had become automatic.
3–Set it, 21–Establish it, 28–Live it.
Research today is showing that there can be lots of variation among individuals with regards to habit formation, but I have a lot of confidence in my 3-21-28 rule.
Completing day three has now become its own reward that I crave, which has made creating new habits even easier. I have proven to myself that if I can complete a new habit for 3 days, I can do it for 28. And if I can do 28, the new behavior pattern will become a habit for as long as I want it to be.
Once I complete 3 days I start to believe… and for me, belief is 99% of the journey!
Related: 10 Reasons to Make Routine a Habit
The Final Rule of Habit Formation
Go easy on yourself.
Only choose one habit at a time to add, change, or modify in whatever way you want to. Don’t add or try to change another habit until the first is automatic or you may become overwhelmed and give up.
Creating new positive habits takes time, effort, and a whole lot of grace. Take it easy and do your best to stay positive. Before you know it, 28 days will have passed and you can now think about adding a new positive habit.
Congratulations, your well on your way to reaching your highest potential… One habit at a time.
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhig
If You Liked How to Form Habits, You May Also Like
- How to Plan Your Daily Rhythm
- Household Rhythms: The Power of Routine in the Home
- How to Set Goals
- How to Create an Action Plan to Accomplish Goals
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Nell has over 20 years of experience working with children and is the founder of Rhythms of Play. She believes in the wonder of childhood, the power of the imagination, learning through play, and getting outside in all seasons! Learn more…