How To Form A Habit: Developing Habits That Stick

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We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. – Will Durant

The power and ability to change your life is rooted in your willingness to create new habits.

Quality, positive habits are a solid foundation for your success and happiness.


Because habits are an ingrained part of your everyday life.

They are things you simply do.

If the things you do every day are positive and lead you toward meaningful goals, they become the foundation of a happy life.

On the other hand, negative habits that you partake in every day will undermine that happiness and progress until you decide to confront and unmake them.

Eliminating negative habits and fostering positive habits should be a priority for anyone who wants to build a happier life.

But how do you form a habit?

That’s what we’ll explore in this article.

What A Habit Is And Is Not

There is a common misperception that a habit is just a repetitive action that you stick to.

It’s not.

A repetitive action that you must do may be more of a responsibility than a habit.

A habit is an automatic action that happens in response to particular criteria that provides some type of benefit.

The term psychology uses to describe this behavior is “automaticity.”

The psychological definition of a habit features three components: a cue, an action, and a reward.

The cue is a trigger that kicks off the action. The most common types of cues can be a time of day, a location, an action, a person, an emotion, or a combination of these things.

Experiencing that cue causes the brain to go into an automatic processing mode where it just follows a predetermined course of action that is associated with that particular cue.

The action is whatever process follows a cue. These are the behaviors that you will either want to change if it’s negative or reinforce if it’s positive.

The reward is the reason the brain decides to form a habit in the first place.

A reward may be something tangible, like getting paid for doing a job or a piece of candy on completion of a task.

It may also be something more intangible, like a sense of satisfaction or fulfilling a purpose.

The reward will trigger the release of dopamine and/or serotonin in the brain. These ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters are pleasant – even pleasurable – and make us want to repeat the action.

Positive reinforcement may also be used as a reward to foster healthier habits.

Example 1

After a long day, Scott gets into bed (cue) and reads some fantasy fiction (action) to unwind, de-stress, and lose himself in an imaginary world (reward).

Scott doesn’t even have to think about this process. His cue is sitting in bed and he automatically reaches for the book on his side table.

He doesn’t require any encouragement to do it. In fact, he actively looks forward to this part of his day.

Example 2

Amber gets out of bed every morning at 6 A.M. (cue) so that she can do part of her exercise routine (action) because it makes her feel good about herself and more mentally clear (reward.)

The cue for Amber’s habit is getting up in the morning. She doesn’t view her exercise routine as something she must force herself to do, but rather, it’s just what she does every morning.

How To Choose The Right Habits To Build

The best habits to choose and develop are those that fit two particular criteria.

The first is that they will take you closer to predefined, long-term goals.

Habits are about changing long-term behaviors, so they may not be as appropriate or meaningful in trying to meet your short-term goals, though they can certainly help.

Perhaps your goal is to be a healthier person. What habits can take you to that goal? Weekly meal planning, healthier eating, and exercise are all solid habits that will help you reach that goal.

The second is that they make sense for you as a person.

It will be much easier to be successful in fostering good habits if you swim with the current instead of against it.

For example, let’s say that Amber wants to start her exercise routine, but she’s not a morning person.

It may be better for Amber to schedule her exercise routine in the afternoon or evening if that is when she is most active and energetic.

She may give up on developing her habit if she tries to stick to her commitment of an exercise routine while half-asleep and irritable from waking up early.

The morning routine is not likely to work out and it isn’t Amber’s fault for the effort not succeeding.

Trying to build habits that don’t fit you as a person or that you find deeply unpleasant generally isn’t going to work.

The Process Of Forming A New Habit

Let’s look at a simple, step-by-step process that will help you develop a new habit.

1. Identify your goal.

What is the overall goal for this habit?

A solid goal should be something that you can tangibly describe, track your progress toward, and know when you’ve accomplished it.

It’s helpful to look for smaller goals that will help guide your progress on the way to meeting your larger goal.

As an example, consider the overall goal of developing and living a healthier lifestyle. The large goal of a healthy lifestyle is composed of several smaller goals and habits.

A good foundation of sleep is a place to start. Fixed times for going to bed and getting out of bed in the morning help create predictability, which fosters deeper sleep, which helps with the recovery and production of mood balancing chemicals that your brain replenishes in deep sleep cycles.

Diet is important for good health. Food is fuel for the body and mind. Habits to develop would be to cook healthier, home cooked meals, eat less processed junk food and more vegetables, plan meals ahead of time, and grocery shop for the week.

Exercise is going to be another important habit to reach a goal of a healthier lifestyle. Activity and exercise provide many benefits to one’s mental and physical health that should not be overlooked.

2. Choose one habit to develop.

Breaking a large goal down into many smaller goals makes it more attainable.

In the case of reaching a large goal, like living a healthier life, it helps to focus on building one habit at a time.

Let’s focus on the development of a healthier diet as a habit.

What components constitute a healthier diet? We need to plan healthier meals and eliminate junk foods, drinks, and excessive calories.

3. Choose a cue for the action of the habit.

What kind of cue is appropriate for a meal planning habit?

There’s a few options you can look at. Do you do your grocery shopping on a set schedule, like one day a week?

If you do your grocery shopping Sunday morning, you can say that you’ll do your meal planning at 8 P.M. the night before so you can have your shopping list ready to go for the next morning.

What if you don’t have a set day for grocery shopping?

It’s a good idea to have a set specific day to go grocery shopping when meal planning.

You’ll more easily figure out what exactly you need through the course of your week and you’ll minimize the opportunity for impulse spending or stopping for takeout.

It also makes bulk meal-prepping an easier thing to do.

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4. Define the action within the habit.

In this case, it’s actually sitting down and focusing on developing a meal plan for the week.

Pretty simple and straight forward.

One could make this process easier by locating or knowing recipes that they want to draw from to help create their meal plan.

It may also help to use a specific notebook so that you can look back through it to see how well you’ve stuck to your plans, make notes for things that worked well, or note when the plan didn’t meet your needs for the week.

5. Reward the action upon completion.

The best rewards are going to be large enough to leave some kind of mental or emotional impact on you immediately, whether tangible or intangible.

Different habits can have all types of rewards, from obscure to glaringly obvious.

But when forming a new habit, a tangible, immediate reward is the most effective way to help cement that process in your mind.

In the case of meal planning for a healthier lifestyle, this might be the time to reward yourself with an eaten treat.

A treat, healthy or not, may be an appropriate, immediate reward for developing and sticking to your meal plan throughout the week.

You could also consider an episode of a favorite show or something that makes you feel bright and positive to help reinforce the feeling of accomplishment and progress.

Associating Cues And Actions

The association of a cue and action is the bridge that makes forming a habit possible.

Repeating a cue into an action and reward is going to ingrain that habit into your mind.

It becomes less about thinking what you need to do and more about this just being a thing that you do.

Saturday night is meal planning night, Sunday morning is for grocery shopping for the week.

It’s not something you dread or don’t want to do; it’s just a normal part of the schedule, a habit that you now have that is taking you closer to your goal.

Understanding that this association exists can not only help you develop new habits, but it can help you identify and dismantle unhealthy habits that are having a negative effect on your life and well-being.

Identifying these cues and triggers comes down to really dissecting why you are doing the things that you are doing in your life.

Why do you make the choices that you do?

Why do you take the actions that you do?

Why do you feel particular ways about the things that you do?

Asking why helps to get to the root of both positive and negative habits as well as providing a road map to success.

Why do you want to meal plan to help develop a healthier lifestyle? Maybe because impulse spending and eating is a common way people pack in additional calories.

Run out of food in the middle of the week? Well, then might as well order a pizza or stop at a fast food restaurant on the way home!

By meal planning, you map out your calories in a predictable way and know exactly what you’re going to be eating on what days and in what quantity, which will help you control your weight and be healthier.

Identifying Your Habitual Cues

The identification of cues that invoke habits is an essential part of combating negative habits or forming positive ones.

The problem is that we are bombarded with so much information, so much activity day to day that it can be hard to tell what cues are playing a role in your habits.

As an example, let’s say that you go to work 15 minutes early every day to have a cup of coffee and socialize with your coworkers before your shift.

That repeated action turns into a habit because you have a cue, which is knowing you need to go into work, actions in the form of a cup of coffee and socialization with your coworkers, and then the reward of whatever pleasure and satisfaction you derive from that interaction.

But what if you want to change it up?

Maybe you want to cut coffee out of the equation or the coworker you like to socialize with changes shifts.

You may find yourself still showing up at the office 15 minutes early and just sitting there until you realize what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

Identifying these cues is helpful not only for changing negative habits, but fostering more positive ones.

You can instead choose to use that 15 minutes for something else. Maybe you can clock in early and get ahead of your work day or take a few minutes to meditate before you start your work day.

A good way to isolate cues is to answer the questions: who, what, when, where, and why?

Then you can take that information and compare it to what makes up the habit.

Rewarding Habits And Positive Reinforcement

The context surrounding rewards can be a convoluted.

In goal setting, many people look at a reward as a goal, something to work toward.

That doesn’t work when you’re trying to foster a new, long-term habit that can help improve your life.

What happens when you get tired of the reward?

What happens when you stop viewing the reward as a worthy thing to work toward?

Your long term goal should not be your reward. A reward should be more of an incidental addition to your life.

Finding the right reward for your particular habit can take a bit of tweaking and testing. It needs to make sense for you.

A good reward is generally going to be somehow related to the action.

The closer they are, the more effectively they will link together in your mind as something worth pursuing.

Don’t neglect short-term, immediate rewards.

It’s difficult to form long-term habits because the payoff for that habit is going to be far in the future.

Use immediate rewards as a means to keep yourself motivated. They will reinforce positive feelings for your goals and habits while you are walking the longer path.

A reward is not likely to offset the emotional and mental weight of an unpleasant task.

Exercise is a good example. There’s a common sentiment in healthcare and exercise circles to find an exercise you like doing, no matter what it is.

If you hate doing it, you’re going to have a difficult time motivating yourself to get up and do the task you detest and suffer through it.

On the other hand, exercise can be fun and exciting if you pick physical activities that you actually enjoy.

That doesn’t mean they will always be fun or good. You’ll have bad days, but those bad days are much easier when you are doing something you can enjoy.

How Long Does It Really Take To Form A Habit?

The self-help space is filled with repeated and sometimes contradictory claims on how long it takes to form a habit.

The most common claims you’ll find are 21 and 66 days.

But is that correct?

The truth is that it depends on the individual as to how long it will take to form a habit. And it will depend on the type of habit you wish to form.

One important study found that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a habit.

So don’t be discouraged if your new habit doesn’t sink in immediately. Stay the course and understand that it might take you longer to ingrain your new habit into an automatic process.

You’re probably not going to form your new habit in 21 days.

The Long Path Of Progress

The long path of progress is fraught with twists and turns.

Everyone wants to live a happy and fulfilling life, but getting to that point can be a complicated journey.

A large part of that journey is fostering healthier relationships with other people, hammering out the negative qualities we carry, and fostering good habits that will carry us toward our goals.

It’s a journey where we need to be patient with ourselves as we strive to find who we are behind the hand that life has dealt to us.

Be kind to yourself on the journey. You’ll make mistakes, you’ll slip up, you’ll have bad days. These things are all a part of that journey.

About The Author

Jack Nollan is a person who has lived with Bipolar Disorder and Bipolar-depression for almost 30 years now. Jack is a mental health writer of 10 years who pairs lived experience with evidence-based information to provide perspective from the side of the mental health consumer. With hands-on experience as the facilitator of a mental health support group, Jack has a firm grasp of the wide range of struggles people face when their mind is not in the healthiest of places. Jack is an activist who is passionate about helping disadvantaged people find a better path.