How do you make a habit stick?
How long does it take to form a new habit?
You’re ready to change your life, one small habit at a time!
Getting started is easy, maybe you’ve even made it one week with your new habit.
But soon enough, life starts to get in the way, and it becomes harder and harder to make your new habit actually stick.
I paid off $30,000 of debt in 1.5 years. Also, I practice yoga every day and eat on a $150/month grocery budget including eating salads every day. I started two online businesses.
I’m not superwoman. I don’t make tons of money to explain the quick debt payoff. The truth is, I was never athletic, or into the gym. Admittedly, I’ve always hated salads (and still hate some of them). And, I actually consider myself naturally lazy, unathletic and extremely average.
So how was I able to transform my life around? Habit formation. And more importantly: how to make a habit stick.
Why Are Habits So Important?
Think about when you drive somewhere for the first time. If you’re like me (extremely prone to getting lost) you check the GPS about 8,528,382 during the drive – no matter how far away it is.
Habits Work to Save Mental Energy
I drove to a new doctor’s office the other day and I was so hyper-alert to my surroundings. I was reading every building, every sign, and checking my GPS every two seconds. Oh, I forgot to mention…the office was 6 minutes away from my work, and the path there was roads I drive on every single day, haha. Even though I was kind of familiar with the route, it wasn’t a habit, so I was seeing everything on the road with completely new eyes.
Now think about when you drive to work. You probably barely even think about what you’re doing – you’re so familiar with the path that you use pretty much no mental energy getting to your work.
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In fact, I’m so familiar with the path to work that sometimes I accidentally make the turns to work when I meant to go somewhere totally different that’s on the same path. Anyone else ever makes this mistake??
Our brains actually make the trip to work extremely mundane to us for a reason. If we had to re-learn and actually think about the drive to work every day, we would be literally exhausted by the time we got there and could not cognitively function and be as productive as we need to be.
Habits help us save energy by memorizing patterns so we can spend energy on more important tasks.
Some Habits Hurt, Not Help Us
While biologically our brains create habits to help us, many times we end up using habits to hurt us. We form bad habits of biting our nails, leaving dishes in the sink, going to bed too late, eating ice cream every night, smoking, and grabbing Chipotle on the way home from work every day instead of cooking. Often times, we do these things on “autopilot” without even thinking
But what if we used habit formation to autopilot us to our goals?
What if instead of just driving us to work with ease, our habits drove us to accomplish everything we want and live the life of our dreams – without even thinking about it!?
How about instead of smoking every day, we went on a run every day? What if we all lost weight, saved money and became happier without even trying – the same way we do our “bad” habits without even trying?!
Instead of trying to force ourselves to go on a run every day, failing every day, and feeling guilty every day, I’m going to show you habit formation psychology that will show you how to make habits that stick and autopilot you to reach your goals.
Researchers Figured Out How Habits are Formed
MIT researchers found that habits are made up of three components: a trigger at the beginning, a behavior in the middle, and a reward at the end.
A study completed in 2005 studied the brain of a rat as he through a maze. At first, all the neurons in this little rat’s brain are going haywire – because every little thing in the maze ~may~ be important. The brain is taking in every single clue.
When the researchers added chocolate to the end of the maze, they discovered that the rat began to form “habits”. Now that the rat had a reward he knew he could get every time he ran through the maze, his brain stopped getting curious – and started focusing all neuron activity on increasing efficiency in getting the chocolate reward.
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The Science of Forming a New Habit
Because of this efficiency, a new pattern emerged in the rat’s neuron activity. The neuron activity spiked at the beginning when the rat started the maze and spiked again at the end when the rat licked up the chocolate.
During the maze, however, the neurons fizzled out. It’s like the neurons decided it wasn’t worth spending energy on every second of the maze itself anymore. The rat’s brain only wanted to focus on what was important (getting to the chocolate) and it no longer needed to take in and analyze everything in its surroundings. The brain was on autopilot.
The researchers also noticed that when they took away the chocolate, the rat’s brain went crazy again. There was no longer a reward, so there was no longer a need to focus on it.
Meet the Habit Formation Model
First, they show us that habits are made up of three parts: the first activity spike (the trigger), the fizzling out (the behavior) and the last activity spike (the reward). When we see specific triggers, we expect certain rewards, and the behavior is simply the means to get there.
Our brain may see a certain trigger (like the beginning of the maze) immediately know that the maze = chocolate (reward) and that running through the maze in a specific pattern will lead us to that reward.
We’re not rats in a maze, but maybe you can relate anyway.
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Real Examples of Habit Formation Psychology
- If you’re at a party and feel anxiety (trigger) you may want to loosen up and feel more comfortable and friendly (reward), so you reach for the tequila shots (behavior).
- Maybe you wake up in the morning and feel very tired (trigger) but you know you will feel nice and energized (reward) if you just drink a Red Bull (behavior).
- If you are scrolling through Instagram and see someone in a hot trendy outfit you may feel a twang of jealousy and inferiority (trigger) which causes you to go out and buy two new hot trendy outfits and post your own photographs on Instagram (behavior) to feel accepted, pretty and cool (reward).
There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to go from anxious to comfortable, tired to awake, or inferior to accepted. There could possibly be a bad habit formed in how we get there.
This habit formation psychology can help us hack our own habits. If we currently have a bad habit we want to get rid of, all we have to do is identify the reward and trigger causing the behavior – and make sure to satisfy those with a different behavior (a good habit). It’s the only way to make a habit stick, based on science. If we try to just stop doing something, our brain will still crave that reward, making it all too easy to fall back into our old ways.
How to Change Bad Habits
Let’s say every morning right now I drink a Red Bull. I noticed that while I crave the Red Bull in the morning, it is leading to problems during the day. I have started to get headaches later in the day and I’ve also started gaining weight. However, no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake this habit. I keep finding myself craving red bull!
What’s your bad habit that you need to change?
There are two ways to change bad habits: change the behavior or eliminate the trigger.
#1. Changing the Behavior
Maybe I am drinking a Red Bull every morning because I feel so exhausted and can’t open my eyes without it. In this case, I identify my trigger as “tired”. I identify my reward as “energized”. Drinking Red Bull is the “behavior”. By analyzing this information, I recognize that what my body and mind is actually craving is to get a surge of energy when I feel tired in the morning – not the Red Bull itself.
If I can find another way to go from tired to energized, I will be able to change my habit to a better one quite easily.
Instead of drinking Red Bull in the morning, I could try switching to coffee or go on a run. The key of how to make a habit stick is that you the reward center of your brain has to feel satisfied after your trigger.
#2. Eliminating the Trigger
If I notice I am reaching for a Red Bull every time I feel tired in the morning, maybe I need to change my sleeping habits instead. I could begin going to bed earlier to feel well rested when we wake up in the morning. Never feeling tired in the morning eliminates the trigger for the Red Bull habit.
You don’t need to learn how to make a habit stick if you don’t even have a habit pattern to break in the first place!
Identifying the Habit Trigger and the Reward
While we think changing the behavior is the hard part, it’s actually many times the easiest. The hard parts can actually be identifying the trigger and the reward.
What’s the Habit Trigger?
In the Red Bull example, maybe you thought your trigger was “tired”. Because of this, you made sure to get plenty of sleep every night for a whole week. However, through that whole week, you still craved Red Bull the whole time! Maybe the trigger is not actually being tired. Maybe the trigger is actually arriving to work. Since you’ve done it so many times, maybe every time you sit at your work desk your body remembers feeling energized, so you go to the cafeteria and purchase a Red Bull.
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The trigger is actually sitting at your work desk. Ok, so right when you sit down at the work desk you need to find a solution to energize you. Going on a morning jog won’t work in this case. It may energize you, but right when you get to work, you’re going to crave another bolt of energy.
What’s the Habit Reward?
The reward can be an even harder trigger to identify. Sometimes the rewards are so subtle and intangible that we may not even know it’s something we desire. Maybe you drink Red Bull because you feel “cool”, or you like traveling to the cafeteria for the potential social interaction.
In the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, he outlines a process he personally used to stop eating cookies at work every day. Charles did personal experiments on himself to identify various triggers of what was causing him to crave that cookie. If you want a more in-depth look at how to make a habit stick, I highly recommend his book!
Why Your New Habits Aren’t Sticking
If you’ve ever tried to form a good habit or kick a bad habit in the past but failed, it’s because you haven’t been properly identifying the trigger, behavior and then reward.
You may have all the motivation in the world to go to the gym in the morning. However, you are relying on your body to accomplish working out – with no reward.
How to Make a Habit Stick Step-by-Step
#1. Identify the Behavior
Be as specific as possible. Instead of “stop drinking red bull”, try “I want to stop putting my stuff down at work and then immediately going to the cafeteria for a red bull and then drinking it while I check my email”.
Identifying what else is happening around you will help you identify the triggers and rewards in the next step.
#2. Identify the Trigger and Reward
Brainstorm many possible triggers and many possible rewards even if you’re sure you know what they are. Often times, the triggers and rewards are not what we think they are.
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#3. Isolate Each Trigger and Reward, and Test Them Out
THIS is where the truest habit change forms. Each hypothesis needs to be experimented with until you can prove that it is the cause.
If you think you are drinking Red Bulls because you are tired, then you need to test this out. Get more sleep. Are you tired in the morning anymore? If you’re not tired, are you still craving a Red Bull? You must self-reflect and actually evaluate every behavior. Try each hypothesis out for about a week before you can officially eliminate it.
If you start going to bed earlier, and feel less tired, and no longer crave red bull, then you figured out the trigger and reward, good job!
However, “old habits die hard” is still a true phrase. Just because you can feel yourself less addicted to red bull, and you know you found the right trigger, doesn’t make behavioral change automatic. You still have to work at changing your behaviors to match your feelings.
#4. Change Your Behavior
If you don’t correctly identify your rewards and triggers, you will never be able to make a habit that sticks.
However, if you do correctly identify them, you still have to work hard to change the behavior itself. You’re not going to automatically and easily go from eating 3 donuts in the morning to going on a 10-mile run. Even if you know the run will satisfy you reward centers, that is a huge change to just randomly implement in your life.
When you’re learning how to make a habit stick, you need to take it easy on yourself. Changing your behavior the right way is just as important as identifying the trigger and rewards.
Tips to Help You Change Your Behaviour
Here are some tips for how to change your behavior for how to make a habit actually stick:
Tip #1: Make small changes first
Don’t jump from a Red Bull to a 10-mile run. It’s too ambitious. Just go from Red Bull to ½ a Red Bull, or to a coffee. Even if your end goal is a 10 mile run in the morning, you can work your way up.
You don’t have to go from a very bad habit to very good habit within a day. Be forgiving to yourself. Make progress, not perfection. If you are doing better than you did yesterday, you are feeling great!!
The point is that you will only change your behaviors if you feel rewarded. If you make huge goals for yourself and don’t accomplish them – you will feel like a failure and immediately fall back into your old habits.
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Tip #2: Create an identity shift
Each small, tiny behavior that you show up for every single day will soon really work on your personal psychology. Your identity will shift to make behavioral changes easier.
Maybe you drank red bull because part of your identity was “I am addicted to sugar. I always need sugar to start my day. I’m not really into healthy things so sugar works for me”.
If you begin drinking coffee, your mind slowly shifts to “I am actually not addicted to sugar. I like the taste, but other healthier substances satisfy me as well”.
Since THAT is your new identity – it may help snowball shift OTHER bad habits you have – like eating a brownie every night. If you truly believe you are a healthier person, it truly makes any healthier habit that much easier to stick. Running can be a replacement behavior now that you believe you are a healthy person and not sugar-addicted. When you want to learn how to make a habit stick, changing your identity slowly but surely is an important place to start.
If you shift your identity, it will be really psychologically easy for you to learn how to make a habit stick. You will begin to want to behave in a way that fits your new identity.
Tip #3: The behavior has to meet your goals
If your goal is to lose weight, but you replace drinking Red Bull with eating a cake, you are not choosing an effective behavior. However, if your goal is to simply drink less caffeine and you don’t care about weight, then eating cake is fine because it has less caffeine.
Tip #4: You have to be able to do the behavior
This seems obvious as well. However, if you want to commit to drinking coffee instead of Red Bull every morning but you never take the time to make coffee, you have no coffee to drink and therefore cannot complete this behavior. Pick something you know you can complete with ease.
Put it Into Practice To Make A Habit Stick
This whole system is the best system to actually change our behaviors. Even though habits won’t be formed overnight, this habit formation model will actually create permanent habits in your life.
It makes every single change simple and rewarding. Nobody is forcing you to just randomly start running ten miles, or give up everything you find joyful. We’re simply finding healthier, alternative ways to meet the reward centers already active in your brain.
The process is definitely not easy. It takes commitment and consistency. You have to work with yourself and be honest with yourself and really dive deep.
Get Your Printable Habit Tracker Templates
Ready to form a new habit and make it actually stick? Get your FREE printable habit tracker templates, with spreads for 30 and 31 days.
In the end, however, when you make these new habits, your whole life will be transformed.
Your reward center in your brain will still be lighting up all the time because you’re satisfying it every day with every habit. However, MORE problems aren’t popping up in your life due to your current behaviors.
If you use this habit formation model to really change the habits holding you back, all your new habits will stick like glue.
How will you make your new habit stick?
More About Guest Contributor
Kelsey is the founder of On My Way to Happiness, a place for millennials looking for “more” through money talk made simple! She’s slashed her grocery budget by over 50%, paid off $30,000 of debt in 1.5 years, and is navigating through this whole ~adulting~ thing with you.