“Man, I can’t wait to finish this workout so I can get home and eat dinner.”
I think that often in the hour-long trip from work to the gym. Lunch was six hours ago by the time I get to the locker room, and it’s going to take me two more hours to work out, sauna, shower, and walk home.
At first, it might seem like I’m complaining, or like the workout is a chore. But take a closer look; the statement is important because of what it isn’t.
It could very easily be “I’m tired and hungry. I’m just going to go straight home.”
For the most part I love working out, and being fit feels amazing. But like anyone, there are days I feel tired, hungry, grumpy, and generally lazy.
And I still work out on those days.
Here’s that first statement again: “I can’t wait to finish this workout so I can get home and eat dinner.” Even though it can seem like a complaint, it assumes that I’ll be working out. The idea of skipping the workout never even enters my mind.
I wasn’t always this way. I used to use every excuse in the book to get out of going to the gym. I was too hungry, I was too tired, or I totally, definitely, suddenly had a new debilitating injury.
The shift towards automatically working out took time, but it happened. It happened because I grew to appreciate the psychology of habits. It happened because I did more research on how to make something a habit over the long term.
And then applied it to build habits.
Before I knew it, I found myself in the gym. In this article, I want to break down the psychology of habits—using research and real-world examples that demonstrate how to make something a habit that lasts.
By the end, you’ll understand the key components of how to make something a habit. You’ll also have real, everyday examples of principles from the psychology of habits, and everything you need to build habits of your own.
Table of Contents
- “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
- Understanding the Psychology of Habits: What is a Habit?
- Choosing the Right Actions: What Habits Lead to Success
- Choosing the Cues: How to Form Habits
- Choosing the Right Rewards with the Psychology of Habits
- Conclusion: How to Make Something a Habit
“Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
Whether your habit formation is focused on exercise or anything else (business, writing, friendships, relationships etc.), excellence and success are really just the result of your deeply ingrained habits. Understanding the psychology of habits can help you change them.
You don’t need to lift for 4 hours or write 200 pages every day. If you want to use habits to change your life your ability to always do something, even something small, will move you forward.
If you want to know how to form habits, it’s important that you understand what they actually are. And what they are not. Habits are not just “something you do every day.”
When most people think of a habit, they think “something you do everyday.” If you were trying to start an exercise “habit,” you might set the goal of doing a certain number of sets/reps, running a certain distance, or exercising for a certain amount of time each day.
If you were trying to start a writing habit you might target a certain number of pages or words per day. If you were trying to network more you might send a target number of emails per day.
It’s true that habits are frequently recurring behaviors, and an “X per day” approach isn’t automatically bad, but just doing something regularly is not enough to form a habit.
Because that isn’t how the psychology of habits works.
If you want help putting together your habit-building game plan, I put together a free guide to give you a hand. Just let me know where to send it.
(You’ll also get the free eBook 51 Motivation Tips, for when you need an extra boost)
Do you ever feel like you have to “make yourself” do something? Do you ever put off your daily activity until later in the day, even if you do eventually get it done? That’s how you know you don’t actually have a habit—you have a responsibility, a nagging task.
The psychology of habits can fix that.
Understanding the Psychology of Habits: What is a Habit?
If you want to know how to form habits, you need to understand what they are. That means understanding the psychology of habits, knowing how habits are formed.
I know I risk sounding like an annoying teacher on the first day of class (e.g. “what is history?”), so if you want to skip to the end of this section go right ahead.
I think understanding the psychological definition of a habit is important to the overall psychology of habits (and how to form habits), but I’ll keep it brief.
One of the most popular studies on the psychology of habits  found that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit (more on this later). In an interview with UCL News, the researchers of that study defined habits:
“Habits are behaviours which are performed automatically because they have been performed frequently in the past. This repetition creates a mental association between the situation (cue) and action (behaviour) which means that when the cue is encountered the behaviour is performed automatically. Automaticity has a number of components, one of which is lack of thought.”
The researchers agree that habits are actions you do a lot, which is where the idea that a habit is something you do every day comes from.
But notice the other factors that need to be present to form a habit. Repetition creates a connection between the situation and the behavior.
Under this definition, you don’t necessarily need to do something every day for it to become a habit. Whenever you find yourself in a specific situation, you find yourself automatically doing specific actions. That’s a habit, as explained by the psychology of habits.
When I exercise after work, the thought of not going to the gym never enters my mind. The situation and frequency of the action makes it automatic. That’s why my thought is “I can’t wait to finish this workout so I can get home and eat dinner.”
Essentially, there are a few boxes to check before you can call something a habit, according to the psychology of habits. To be a habit, an action needs to:
- Occur regularly
- Be cued by a situation or something in your environment
- Occur without thought.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg summarizes a lot of the literature on habit formation into a similar set of steps. In Duhigg’s model, a habit has three components:
- A Cue
- An Action
- A Reward
With that understanding of how habits are formed, it’s easy to see how doing X number of push-ups per day isn’t actually that productive on its own. If you can instead set up your environment to make doing those push-ups automatic, you’ll be much more successful.
To give a one sentence definition of a habit: a habit is an action you do frequently and automatically in response to something in your environment.
With that definition, you can create an environment that triggers and rewards your habits.
I think this model is useful, so I’ll use it as the framework to guide the rest of this article. We’ll learn how to form habits by looking at what kind of cues, actions, and rewards are most effective. To do that, we’ll use personal experience and primary research on the psychology of habits to answer a question: where do habits come from?
Make no mistake: the answer of how to form habits is grounded in the psychology of habits. But first, we need to decide what those habits are.
Choosing the Right Actions: What Habits Lead to Success
Actions are where most people start and stop. Most people decide “ok, I’m going to work out X amount of times per week” or “I’ll write 3 pages per day,” and then go off and try to do those things.
But that isn’t how to form habits that make you successful.
Chances are, you already have an idea of which action you want to turn into a habit. But pause for a moment and look at your larger goal. What is your ideal endpoint? What is the grand vision you are trying to accomplish?
Without the answer to those questions, you won’t be able to figure out what habits lead to success.
Not everyone likes the idea of “goal setting.” A lot of people want to jump right into taking undirected action. Those people are likely going to burn out.
Dilbert creator Scott Adams boldly claims that “losers have goals, winners have systems,” but the key value of goal setting (in the context of building habits) is that your goals tell you which system to create.
James Clear, a writer who applies the psychology of habits to a variety of habit formation goals, puts it similarly:
“If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still get results?”
You don’t want to end up like a human Rube Goldberg machine, spending a whole lot of effort for tiny results.
That’s the reason clear goals are important if you’re wondering how to form a habit.
It’s easy to come up with a random set of actions to accomplish every day; you need to make sure that the set you choose is advancing you in the direction of your ultimate vision.
You need to know what habits make you successful.
Aside from stopping you spinning your wheels and going nowhere, research shows that goals help you achieve more  by helping you put in more effort and stay motivated over the long term .
Are you trying to build habits to help lose weight? Habits to replace drinking? Habits to help quit smoking? Habits of a thin person? Habits of a fit person? Habits to help you advance your career, or build a business?
Set your sights on a specific goal to figure out what habits lead to success.
Also note, it’s tempting to pick big, sweeping actions when you set out to change a habit. Cool your jets.
You’re just starting. You probably aren’t going to work out 2 hours a day or write 10 pages. You might be able to do 10 push-ups or write a 100 words.
Once the habit is in place, you can scale up. But start small.
Choosing the Cues: How to Form Habits
Every morning I get to the office, drop off my jacket, and head over to the coffee maker. I grab the (black) coffee, sit down, lean back (my chair reclines), and get to work.
I don’t make the decision to drink coffee every morning. Instead, because of my environment and the cues around me, I do it automatically.
In this example, there are actually a few different psychological cues that guide my behavior.
Take a moment before moving on. Think about the psychology of habits and see if you can identify the cues at play.
The first cue is walking in the door of the office, but on its own this isn’t enough to trigger the behavior. Otherwise I would have coffee every time I got back from lunch.
It needs to combine with the second cue, time of day, to execute the action.
But wait! There’s actually a third cue. Sometimes I actually don’t get coffee, but I still go through almost the same sequence of steps. On those days I drink water, because there’s a critical third cue missing: tiredness.
Internal states (exhaustion, thirst, hunger, happiness, anger, etc.) can also function as cues for habits. My action, getting coffee, is triggered by the combination of:
- Entering the office
- Time of day
- My own level of exhaustion
As another example, imagine brushing your teeth in the morning. You don’t brush your teeth every time you walk into the bathroom, and you probably don’t brush your teeth in bed just because it’s the morning.
You’ve already seen one example of the psychology of habits at play. See if you can think of the cues that might be active in this situation.
In my case, I specifically brush right after getting out of bed for work.
So the cues for brushing are:
- In the bathroom
- Just got out of bed
The idea that environmental cues trigger specific responses is a core component of research on the psychology of habits [4,5].
I’ve covered the idea of “chaining” in previous articles, and it applies here as well. In everyday life, we have sequences of behavior that we follow. If we want to add a new behavior, the easiest way is to add it into, or even better directly after, an existing chain.
That’s how habits are formed.
Sticking with dental hygiene, one study looked at habit formation in people trying to start flossing . One group was asked to floss immediately before brushing, the other immediately after.
After 8 months, people that flossed after brushing had stronger flossing habits. Having a cue made it easier to remember to floss, and after a while the association between flossing and brushing was forged (and became automatic).
(some people use cues other than brushing) via GIPHY
The researchers also found that people with more positive attitudes towards flossing established stronger habits, but I’ll talk more about that in the next section.
Great, so what does all of this mean for actually creating new habits?
If you are trying to create new habits, find or create environmental cues that trigger your new behavior.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini offers one simple way of thinking about these triggers: “if/then…when” statements .
These statements provide a simple formula for changing behaviors. You simply pick a trigger (the “if”) and an action (the “then”). Examples might be:
- If I brush my teeth, then I will floss
- If it is Wednesday after work, I will ride the bus two extra stops to the gym
- If someone offers me a dessert, I will say no thank you
Creating these plans in advance makes it easier to follow through on them. The exact cues and actions will be specific to your life, but the “if/then” structure can be quite useful.
When you do this right, working out, writing, reading, and any other habit becomes much easier. In one psychology of habits study on people trying to lose weight, participants described their new habits as “second nature” .
It takes a little effort up front, but eventually the habit you form becomes automatic.
As I’ve hinted at already, some cues are more effective than others. The authors of one review article agree:
“It seems likely however that in the flow of everyday routines, there may be certain points at which it is easier to insert a new behaviour .”
They later comment that, as with flossing and brushing, the best time to add a new behavior is immediately after an established sequence of behaviors.
After you work through a chain of behaviors, there is not an obvious “next action.” Because of that, you’re free to add one—to extend the chain.
If I want to start writing in a morning planner, I should do it immediately after I get my morning coffee. If I wanted to start meditating before leaving my apartment, I should do it immediately after my morning bathroom routine (which is what I do).
When I want to work out after work, I do it by following 95% of the steps I take to get home. I ride the same bus, and simply take it 2 stops further to the gym.
You can use your existing habits in the same way. Find chains you already have and tack a new action to the end of them. When I work on the psychology of habits with clients, this is usually the biggest game-changer.
A Quick Exercise on the Psychology of Habits
Building cues into your environment is an important step when you’re figuring out how to make something a habit. But there are also dozens, possibly hundreds, of cuing examples that you already have in your everyday life.
What are they?
Remember, using new cues is often most effective when you can build off old cues. Taking a critical look at your everyday behaviors, with your new understanding of the psychology of habits, can be incredibly helpful.
Studying your own behavior can help you identify things you didn’t realize were affecting you. It can also identify opportunities to add new actions—actions that help you work towards your ultimate goal.
Name three actions you’ve taken today. They can be as complicated as writing a report at work or as simple as washing your hands after going to the bathroom.
For each, think about the psychology of habits to figure out what cues them:
- Is there an external cue, like your boss telling you what to do?
- Is there an internal cue, like your hands feeling dry before using lotion?
- Is there a place cue, like eating because you wandered over to the break room?
- Is there an existing habit chain, like reaching for the soap when you turn on the sink?
Once I learned about the psychology of habits, it was like I understood a whole deeper level of my own behavior.
Thinking about your actions, even everyday actions, in this context can teach you a lot about how to make something a habit.
Why Habits Are Hard to Change—And How to Change a Habit
The psychology of habits research agrees that habits are automatic actions cued by environments. But what if the environment changes?
A lot of people find it harder to work out on the weekends, even though there is so much more time. Without the structure of existing chains, there’s nothing to cue you to get moving.
Similarly, if you go on vacation, you find that you leave a lot of habits behind. When you move to a new apartment, you have to settle yourself into a new routine because your old one has been uprooted.
(A routine like this doesn’t happen right away) via GIPHY
Of course, the automatic nature of habits means that if the cue appears again you’ll go right back into your old routine.
This is why it only takes a few days to get back into a routine after vacation, and also (to use an extreme example) why environmental cues are a major factor in addiction research and relapses among addicts .
That’s why habits are hard to change, but it’s also how to change a habit.
If you want to establish a habit, create environmental cues. If you want to break a habit, remove them.
Choosing the Right Rewards with the Psychology of Habits
Rewards are one idea from habit psychology that have made it into popular culture. Most fitness experts or personalities will recommend rewarding yourselves for your workouts.
Most of them do it wrong.
Rewards have been studied almost to death by behavioral psychologists, and the most common examples of rewards fly in the face of the science.
Used correctly, rewards are a huge part of how to make something a habit. But you have to use them correctly.
Giving yourself a reward at the end of a day, week, or month doesn’t work. Most of the time, people talking about “rewarding themselves” are picking rewards that are too large and too infrequent to make a difference.
Not only are big rewards like new clothes, new games, a vacation, or a big night out not effective, they can be actively harmful to developing habits.
A reward is not a prize that you set out to win in the end; it is a quick boost, received immediately after you do something, that makes you feel good about doing it. Somewhere along the line, the way we understand rewards got warped.
The habit psychology research agrees:
“Extrinsic rewards are likely to facilitate habit formation only where attainment of the reward does not become the goal of performance” .
If you are doing an action just for the reward, you are much less likely to follow through. What happens when you reach that reward, and there is no next one? What happens when you decide that being miserable on a daily basis is not worth the reward?
Research on rewards shows that providing rewards that are too large, or for actions you already enjoy, actually makes you less motivated .
If you are going to develop an exercise routine, or a writing routine, or any routine that you want to build into your life, you need to actually like it. You will never last long doing things you hate.
Doing things you hate is a terrible way to make something a habit.
The traditional methods of reward don’t help you actually like anything. They may even do the opposite; using fitness as an example, if exercise is something you “suffer through” to get a reward, you are not very likely to like exercise.
If you use rewards the right way, to make you like things you’re already doing instead of trying to force yourself to do things you hate, they can be extremely effective.
Good rewards have three key characteristics. They:
- Occur immediately after the action
- Are actually related to the action
- Are small
Good Rewards Occur Immediately After the Action
A reward at the end of the day is not how to make something a habit. Rewards do not motivate behavior; they reinforce it. To reinforce a behavior, the reward needs to occur immediately.
Put another way, a reward doesn’t help habit formation by giving you something to work towards; it helps you form habits by making you feel good about actions after you do them.
Some non-psychologists have uncovered this truth as well. In the leadership book Turn Your Ship Around, Lieutenant David Marquet argues that recognizing accomplishments is critical:
“Immediate recognition means just that, immediate. Not thirty days. Not thirty minutes. It should be immediate.”
Your brain responds to rewards rapidly, in several ways. The reward systems of the brain include a long list of brain areas related to processing rewards, emotions, risk taking, decision making, movement, and others.
To give you a sense of how complicated these systems are, the cortico-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop is one of the major pathways of the overall reward system.
But, because of the multiple functions of every part of the brain, it also plays a role in Parkinson’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, ADHD, and OCD. In fact, many drugs for Parkinson’s Disease are specifically aimed at increasing dopamine levels in this loop.
Finally, the brain areas activated by a reward can actually change based on your motivation! I’ll go further into internal and external motivation in a moment, but different areas of the brain activate depending on what drives you to complete an action .
The point of all this is: the brain is complicated.
But it is also, in some ways, simple. When your brain responds to a reward, it does so almost instantaneously. If you are going to associate a reward with an action, the two need to be really close together.
Good Rewards are Directly Related to the Action
This is a critical part of how to make something a habit, and something most people miss. Your reward needs to be something you can’t get without doing the action.
If you use a nap as a reward for working out, what’s stopping you from just taking a nap and skipping the gym altogether? If you buy new clothes as a reward for writing or eating well, why can’t you just buy the clothes right now?
When the reward doesn’t have anything to do with the action, you don’t need to actually do the action. What do new clothes have to do with forming habits about…anything?
That, and the action doesn’t become associated with the warm fuzzies you get from the reward. Remember, rewards are useful because they make actions feel good.
The connection between the reward and action doesn’t need to be particularly large either. Is there a coffee shop near your gym? A book store you can browse after workouts? Those are enough for habit formation.
In college, I had friends that would meet up in the athletic building to hang out at night. I scheduled my workouts so that I could lift, then immediately head downstairs. Social time was my reward for lifting.
In a sillier example, I fucking love grape juice. But I never buy it because I know I would go through a bottle of the stuff a day.
So when I needed to stretch a ton for physical therapy (something I definitely do not love), I’d follow it up with a shot of grape juice—and that was literally the only time I drank it.
Your rewards will be specific to you. What do you enjoy that’s near your gym? How can you reward yourself with things you wouldn’t be able to get otherwise?
Creating relevant rewards will help you stay consistent while developing habits.
Good Rewards Are Small
Finally, your reward should be small.
Wait, how does that make sense? Wouldn’t a larger reward make you more motivated to work towards something?
Yes, it would. At least, until you actually receive the reward, at which point your habit will disappear.
Again, rewards shouldn’t be used to motivate behavior. They reinforce it.
What happens when you use rewards to motivate behavior? You disconnect from the actual habit. You can tell yourself that you are just doing it for the reward.
In a classic psychological study, Festinger and Carlsmith paid participants to do a boring task, then lie to the next participant and tell them it was entertaining.
The fascinating result is that some participants were paid $20 and some were only paid $1. Participants paid $1 actually liked the task more; in their minds $1 isn’t enough money to buy them into a lie, so they resolved the cognitive dissonance by deciding they like the task.
The participants paid $20 said they just did it for the money. The reward was large enough that it justified the small lie .
What does this mean for the psychology of habits? Nearly 50 years later, researchers Ryan and Deci established Self-Determination Theory .
At the core of SDT is the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
Are you doing something because you like it? You’re intrinsically motivated.
Are you doing something for a reward? You’re extrinsically motivated.
But here’s the kicker: if you get a big external reward for doing something that you are already doing because you like it, you start to shift over to external motivation .
And you do it less.
If you want exercise, or writing, or strong relationships, or flossing or literally anything to become a long-term habit, you want to stick with intrinsic motivation.
If you want to know how to make something a habit, intrinsic motivation is key.
Again, If you are doing things you hate, you won’t be doing them for long. “Forcing yourself” to make something a habit or “suffering through” habits is a recipe for disaster.
That’s why the rewards have to be small. They need to be small enough to avoid shifting your motivation, and just large enough to create an extra boost of good feelings that you associate with your action.
Combine rewards with environmental cues and carefully selected actions, and you have a recipe for strong and successful habits.
Conclusion: How to Make Something a Habit
We’ve covered three steps to creating habits so far, according to the psychology of habits:
- Identify your goal. This will help you decide on the specific actions that move you in the right direction. Start with small actions.
- Create environmental triggers. Connect the actions of your habits to activities you already do regularly.
- Use small, regular, related rewards. Don’t motivate yourself with rewards; use them to help you enjoy your habits.
If you manage to complete each of these steps, how long will it take to form a habit?
How Long Does it Take for Habits to Form?
Google that question and you’ll come up with one of two answers: 21 days or 66 days. Neither answer is correct.
To be honest, I have no idea where the number 21 comes from; exactly three weeks makes it seem like someone pulled it out of thin air. It doesn’t seem to be based on the psychology of habits.
But 66 days come from the study I cited previously . All signs point to this being a fine study, but there’s a problem; it doesn’t actually say “it takes 66 days to form a habit.”
It says that in this study with this habit with these participants it took an average of 66 days to form a habit. The psychology of habits is more nuanced than that.
The real answer, as usual, is that it depends.
How long does it take to form a habit?
It depends on the habit you are creating. It depends on your ability to control your immediate environment. And even then, participants in that study took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to establish their habits.
It may be possible for you to build a habit in just 18 days, or it may not.
If you focus on choosing the right small actions, building the right environment, and using the right small rewards, the habit you build will be stronger and develop faster.
If you want help putting together your habit-building game plan, I put together a free guide to give you a hand. Just let me know where to send it.
(You’ll also get the free eBook 51 Motivation Tips, for when you need an extra boost)
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