The Power of Habits – A Complete Guide

In this article: How good habits create a better you and how to change bad habits…

Do you have goals that you cannot seem to realize? Is your life full of plans that are started but never completed? Do you feel like your behavior is holding you back from being the best version of yourself? If you answered “yes” to any of these, then you may be ready to change your habits.

Habits play a significant role in your overall happiness and wellness, and if you want to improve your life, then the first place to start is looking at your existing habits to see if any of them could be improved or replaced. How do you change practices, though? And why are habits such a powerful force in our lives?

This guide answers all those questions and more. We explore the power of habits, how good habits can create a better you, and we offer a step-by-step guide on how to create a new, healthier habit in your life. Ready to change your life? Let’s get started!

Understanding Habits: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

While you may not like to admit that you have many habits (some good, others not-so-good), you may be surprised to learn that at least 40 percent of everything you do in any given day is done out of habit, not out of conscious choice. According to a recent book called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life & Business by Charles Duhigg, nearly half of your choices, behaviors, and daily activities are governed by habitual thoughts and routines. 

So, knowing that, it is therefore important to know and understand your habits and to carefully examine how these might be affecting your health, happiness, success, and overall well-being. Because our brains are programmed to love routine and to be attracted to the familiar, we are automatically creatures of habit, whether we like it or not. So, that means learning to refine your good practices and replace bad ones with better options is key to changing your life and improving yourself. 

The reason our brains love habits is that it cuts down on the things we actually have to pay attention to and focus on, which leaves more brainpower for important decisions and the processing of new information. Most of the habits we develop are in relation to the things we must do to take care of ourselves, to get to and from the various places we go every day, and to manage our stress and emotions. 

After all, if you had to think about every single one of the over 35,000 decisions you need to make in a single day, your brain would not know what to do. Instead, you have parts of your brain that internalize routines and patterns and allow you to run on a kind of autopilot for some regular activities. This saves brain space and cognitive capacity, and it will enable you to focus on other, more crucial details and choices that you need to make every single day. 

The Importance of Having Good Habits

The thing about habits is your brain does not actually differentiate between what is a good or healthy habit and what is a bad or unhelpful one. All your mind knows is that this set of behaviors and responses has worked in the past, and the outcome gives you something that you crave or enjoy, so it must be worth repeating. 

Habits are also extremely strong and difficult to break once establish. Your brain craves routine and similarity, and it will seek out this to the exclusion of other, more favorable outcomes, including the use of common sense. 

Because you do so much on this auto-pilot mode, it is, therefore, crucial that the habits that are governing these subconscious and automatic choices are healthy and beneficial, or you can quickly find yourself in a situation where you are sick, overweight, depressed, or otherwise struggling to enjoy your life. 

Unless you intentionally work to change an old habit and replace it with some kind of new routine, that same pattern of behavior will continue to automatically unfold every time the cue or trigger is presented. While you can never really change the need to be rewarded by certain results, you can change the behavior that you exhibit when that stimulus is presented. 

Because so much of what dictates your well-being is a direct result of daily habits and routines, it is therefore vital that those behaviors you choose to ritualize and make a routine part of your day be healthy and result in your improvements, happiness, or success. 

While having habits saves us brainpower and enables us to think more deeply about important decisions, there is a drawback to having a brain that loves routine and craves sameness. Because it is the default of our minds to want to create habits and to value routine, any time we experience a positive outcome to an unhealthy action, we run the risk of becoming “hooked” on that choice and repeating in the future.

For example, you have a busy life. You work full-time, raise a family, and have many obligations outside the home. Many days, you resort to stopping for a quick dinner at a fast-food restaurant to save time and help you keep everything running smoothly. 

You get what you need (everyone eats, your schedule is more convenient, and there are no dishes to clean later), and the next time things are busy, your brain remembers this instance and wants to repeat the choices. 

Pretty soon, you have developed a habit of eating fast food whenever your time is rushed, or you are a little overscheduled. It will not take long for this habit to start impacting your lives. 

While most people know that smoking, eating too much sugar, watching too much TV, and drinking alcohol to excess, there are still a great many people who do these things. There are also even more people whose habits do not include exercise, flossing, eating five servings of vegetables each day, or getting at least seven hours of sleep. 

While we know logically that these are the not the healthiest choices, we do still choose to engage in habits that lead us away from better ones because these routines have resulted in some sort of positive outcome for us in the past. 

The Process of Habit Formation 

It is crucial to have good habits because the more you engage in a specific routine or honor a particular craving for an outcome, the strong your habits grow over time. Pleasure chemicals in your brain release every time you reward a particular craving by engaging in an action. If you want to change the outcome, you must change the routine. To do this, it is essential to know who habits form, which can help you improve them over time. 

The formation of a habit occurs when a specific loop is engaged. The first step is that there is some sort of cue or trigger. This could be anything from certain emotional or environmental conditions to a time of day, a location, or being around a specific person or group of people. This cue is what tells your brain, “Hey, get ready to do that thing you always do.”

The next part of the loop is the routine, which is simply the behavior that you engage in without conscious thought. Habits can be anything from taking a deep breath during a stressful situation to biting your nails when you feel anxious. Practices can also be positive, such as eating a healthy breakfast each day or going to bed at a particular time every night. 

The reason you do these things is that they provide you with a reward, which is the next stage of the loop. Rewards are what you get out of the deal, and the most common reward is the release of certain pleasure chemicals in the brain after you have completed your routine. 

The reward could also be a feeling of relaxation, such as after drinking a glass of wine, or a boost of energy, such as after you eat a lot of sugar. Regardless, the reward is a pleasant outcome for your brain. 

When you receive the reward, it reinforces the habit. You are more likely to do the behavior again in the future because you enjoy the outcome and value the reward you receive. Over time, this loop becomes self-reinforcing and further perpetuates the repetition of the routine, so much so that it will eventually become automatic. Your brain is no longer fully participating in the decisions, and you have lost the ability to completely control your responses to certain stimuli in your life. 

Once you know how these habits form and work, it makes it easier to learn to control them and even change them. The key to creating a new habit is to develop a new routine, one that elicits a similar reward (i.e., pleasure) but that also results in other, more favorable outcomes, as well. And linking the new routine to an old trigger can also help develop a habit that will stick over time. 

Your habits are not your destiny. You can change them. They can be ignored, altered, or completely replaced, depending on your needs. It is all about how you teach the brain to become more aware of its choices and how you link more desirable actions to the outcomes you want. 

How to Create a New Habit to Replace an Unwanted Pattern

If you want to change your life, then you must work on improving your habits. But changing patterns is not as easy as making up your mind and then doing something new for a little while. You must teach your brain the new habit loop, and you have to reinforce it long enough that it forgets the old loop and defaults to your new, more appropriate, or healthier habit. If you have a habit you would like to change, then here are eight steps to guide you toward a new behavior. 

Step 1. Identify the ONE New Habit You Want to Change

But I have LOTS of habits to work on!! Why can’t I do more than one? The answer is that your brain has a finite supply of self-discipline, also known as willpower. Willpower is essentially your ability to override your default habit loops, and it takes concentration and motivation to do this. Because you only have so much of it, you must focus only on one change at a time, so that you can devote your full supply to this vital change. 

When you focus on just one habit at a time, you increase the chances of making that new habit permanent, but you are not spreading your self-discipline among many changes. So, you must first ask yourself what difference you really want first. 

Habits should be things that naturally fit into your life and that are connected to your values and goals. Learn everything you can about this new habit, what skills and knowledge it takes to do well, and immerse yourself in thinking about this new behavior before you tackle changing your actions. 

Step 2. Commit For At Least 30 Days

The amount of time it takes to build a new habit is not set in stone, and depending on the old practice you are trying to replace, it could take longer than a month, but committing to your new goal for at least 30 days sets you up for success. Once you have done something every day for a month, you find it much easier to keep doing and have already integrated it into your routine. You should focus every single day for that month on creating time in your day to consistently engage in your new habit and link it to your desired outcome. 

Step 3. Link Your New Habit to an Existing Habit

One way to ensure that you remember to practice your new habit every day of your life is to connect it to something you already do that is a well-established part of your routine. By doing this, you are cuing your brain to remember your new habit, and you are establishing a reliable connection for your new habit loop. An example of this type of linkage is to change into your workout clothes every day just before you leave work or to record your gratitude in a journal every night after you finish the dinner dishes. 

Step 4. Focus on Making Incremental Change

Many people falter or are unsuccessful in their attempts to change their habits because they expect instant results and sweeping changes in a brief time. The most crucial thing to remember about developing a new practice is that it about making small, incremental changes and focusing on the rewards of these baby steps. 

You can’t rely solely on motivation to get you to the finish line when it comes to new habits, because eventually, the day will come when you just do not feel like doing it. By focusing on minor changes and incremental growth to your new habit, you build up and make it easier to stay motivated. 

To do this, you should figure out what your ultimate goal is for your new habit (See Step 1), and then identify the smallest change you could make starting on Day 1. For example, if your goal is to work out every day, then your first incremental step might be to walk for five minutes. The next day, you might walk for seven minutes. Each day, you can increase the length or the intensity of the task to build up to your goal slowly. 

When you start slowly and integrate these slight changes, you quickly learn to accept them and realize they are not drastic changes to your life, which your brain will try to reject. They become just another part of your day and serve as the stepping stone to later incremental changes. Your first steps should be so easy that you can’t possibly skip it or talk yourself out of it, and you can build from there. 

Step 5. Prepare for the Stumbling Blocks Ahead

You know what they say about the best-laid plans, right? No matter what you anticipate or plan for, there will be challenges, temptations, and even setbacks on your road to a new habit. But you can minimize these and prepare yourself for getting back on track faster when you think ahead and prepare yourself for the possible roadblocks you might encounter. 

There are all kinds of factors that might get in your way of performing your new habit regularly. For example, if your goal is to walk every day, then the weather may be a factor if you plan to walk outside. 

Developing an “If, then” plan will help you mitigate these factors and know ahead of time what you will do in case of these outcomes. In the case of our walking goal, your plan may be, “If check the weather and it is too cold or raining, I will walk around the track at the gym instead of outside.” 

Time is often the most pressing obstacle that most people find it hard to get past. Not having time to work out, prep healthy meals, write in the journal, etc. is the number one excuse for people not engaging in their new habits. 

You must come up with a plan for what you will do if you do not have enough time. For example, if you get off work late, your plan may be, “If I do not have enough time for a full workout before I have to pick up the kids, then I will walk briskly for 20 minutes.” This ensures you are making incremental steps toward your goal and still engaging in some activity that is increasing your activity. 

Step 6. Figure Out How to Hold Yourself Accountable for Your New Actions

Being held accountable is an essential measure for ensuring that you do what you say you are going to do. Some people find that telling others about their plans is helpful because you are more likely to follow through if others are watching you. Some people like to share their efforts on social media to benefit from the encouragement of friends. Others prefer a medium that is specific to changing habits. You can partner with someone else who is also trying to change a habit to hold each other accountable. 

You should be tracking your progress every day and recording your efforts somewhere. This tracking will help you reflect on what is working well for you and what needs changing and can be a reliable source of information when creating plans for potential future obstacles. 

Step 7. Reward Your Progress

It is essential to identify important milestones for your progress and to create a reward system for meeting these targets. This will make it more likely that you will stick with it and achieve your goal while also develop your new habit. Rewards should be significant or meaningful for you and should not offset the value of your new habit. For example, if your goal is to eat healthier, your reward should not be to splurge on unhealthy food. 

Rewards that focus on enjoyment and experiences that are fun are often the best and more influential. Rewards that include tangible objects often have short-lived implications for your motivation, but when the prize creates a fun or enjoyable memory, it is more likely to continue to influence your behavior for some time. 

Step 8. Integrate Your New Habit into Your Identity 

If you want to really make lasting change and have your new habit stick around longer than the first 30 days, then you have to eventually believe that this new person, the one who does this particular thing, is you. And you must value this new behavior as part of what makes you special and unique. This step is more of a mind shift than a behavior or action, and it will take time. But, if you do not decide that you ARE a healthy person who eats vegetables every day, then you will never adopt this habit full time. You will be the person who reverts to old habits after a few months or even a few years. This happens when you do not own the practice and decide that it is part of who you are now, always and forever. 

Tips for Successfully Forming New Habits

Now that we have discussed how to develop a new habit is these simple steps, it is time for you to get started. Below are some helpful hints and tips that can be combined with the steps above to keep you on track, motivated, and successful. 

Remember Your “Why”

No matter what happens on your road to developing new habits, it is essential always to keep your purpose in mind. Why is this new habit important to you? How will this change in behavior benefit your life? What will it mean to you to create this new habit? 

Keeping your focus on this purpose, rather than just the behavior itself, will help to enhance your chances of successfully adopting a new practice because you are linking it to what is essential in your life. 

Focus on Building Your Resolve

Your brain is really skilled at coming up with all kinds of reasons why you do not need to do something it is not used to doing. The power of justification is strong in all of us, and to resist this, you need resolve. 

This is the mental resilience that will keep you giving it to temptations or distractions, that will accept responsibility for your actions, that you will not blame others, and that you will be able to put your efforts into perspective. Resolve keeps you from focusing on the past or worrying about the future. Before you begin to change a habit, it might be a good idea to focus on building these skills. 

Learn to Live with Fear

Remember how we talked about how much the brain likes patterns and routines? When your mind senses that you are trying to stray from these norms, it produces a fear response, signaling to you that something is amiss and that you could be in danger. 

Now, you logically know what eating vegetables instead of chips is not something to fear, but that emotional response from the body can be extraordinarily strong and hard to ignore. 

Learning to ignore that fear response and live with the feeling of being uncomfortable and unsure for a while is important when you are trying to change your habits. Acknowledge the feeling but focus on why you are making this vital change, and you will learn to push it aside over time. 

Build a Support Network

Making changes to your life is hard, and you need support from lots of diverse sources. Build a group of people that you can rely on for advice, support, encouragement, and even a little tough love. This support network will be those you turn to during your transformation, and you may need different types of support at various times. Be sure that you are then there for your friends and loved ones when they need your support, as well. 

Keep a Journal

There are many reasons to keep a journal and writing in one each day while you are trying to change your habits is an excellent time to use this habit. Journaling can help you record your progress and write about the problems you are experiencing. Your journal can serve as a record of your efforts and help you identify patterns for behavior or obstacles that are interfering with your plans. It can also help remind you of your progress and enable you to celebrate your successes. 

Final Thoughts

Changing habits may be difficult, but it is well worth the effort. Your habits play a significant role in your overall happiness and well-being, so ensuring that these routines and rituals are healthy and create balance in your life is critical to living a well-lived life. 

If you are ready to change your life, start by examining your habits and determining where you can make changes for the better. 

Stay well and take care!