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The science of forming good habits and how to build them

a woman is harnessing her brain power in creating good habits by doing daily actions

If you’ve ever tried to learn the flute, start a meditation practice or eat more salads and less pizza but found that you couldn’t make the habit stick, you’re far from alone.

If we know that building and maintaining good habits is the key to building the career or lifestyle that we want, why does it seem so hard?

A study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology has shown that around 40% of our daily actions and behaviors are habitual. In other words, we do them on autopilot without planning or effort. If nearly half the things we do are done out of habit, it follows that building good habits will be a decisive advantage, whatever our goals are.

The good news is that the process of building good habits and breaking bad habits is simple, straightforward, and very well understood.

Decades of research on the subject show that we're hard-wired to form new habits, and with the right tools, support, and coaching at our disposal, we can build habits that work for us, and break habits that work against us.

The bad news? Attempting to change our habits on our own, without the right support can be exceedingly difficult.

In this guide to building good habits, we’ll be discussing the science of habit formation and sharing some important tools and strategies you can use to build and maintain the habits you need to kick your career, fitness, or life goals.

But before we dive into it, let's first zoom out and look at some definitions.

Table of contents
What exactly is a habit?
Why do we form habits?
Good habits versus bad habits
How are habits formed?
The problem with willpower
How to build good habits
Building good habits is simple, but very difficult
Introducing Marlee, the world's first artificially intelligent coach

What exactly is a habit?

A habit can be defined as a behavior that we engage in autonomously, with minimal friction, thought, or planning. Take brushing your teeth, for example. If you're reading this article, there's a good chance that you didn't plan on brushing your teeth this morning, you just did it. You most likely didn't stare at your toothbrush for 5 minutes trying to work up the motivation to do it, as you might do with a work report or your gym bag.

A habit can be distinguished from a non-habit by how easily it comes to you. If you had to overcome some amount of resistance, or plan and consciously commit to doing something, it isn't a habit. At least, not yet. If it happened effortlessly, and without any kind of planning or forethought, then the behavior can be described as a habit.

Why do we form habits?

Habit formation is your brain's ingenious solution to the problem of decision fatigue.

If we think of our mental energy as a kind of currency, the ability to make decisions is an immensely expensive, and precious commodity. Research has shown that as the number of decisions we make on a given day increases, the quality of those decisions decline.

In a famous study by The National Academy of Sciences, judges deciding over parole hearings were nearly 65% less likely to give a favorable hearing by the end of the day than they were in the morning. With each decision made, their ability to make subsequent decisions is diminished, which leads to progressively worse decisions being made.

The same principle applies to anyone trying to make a positive change, whether it's eating a more healthy diet, or improving their sleep hygiene knowing the feeling of falling back on old habits after a long and stressful day, all too well.

To combat decision fatigue, our brains form habits so that we can save mental energy and reduce the costs involved with decision making. We essentially automate the tasks we do regularly enough so that we can do them without conscious effort.

This feature is both a blessing and a curse. It doesn't discriminate between habits that we want, or not, it simply bundles sets of behavior for given situations and triggers them whenever we're in those situations.

If you're wondering why you can't seem to stop doom-scrolling, or biting your nails, even though you know it's detrimental to your mental health, it's because your brain doesn't make a distinction between good and bad habits. If we do something repeatedly, our brains will begin to automate it regardless of whether it serves us or not.

Good habits versus bad habits

Objectively speaking, there's no such thing as a good or bad habit. What constitutes a good habit really boils down to whether or not a habit is in service of your personal goals, or values.

Many people would label regular use of social media a bad habit, but if being highly engaged on social media is a core part of your marketing strategy, then for you, this is a good habit.

It pays to take inventory of what is truly important to you, decide which behaviors are going to help you, and create a plan to transform those behaviors into habits.

Once you have a clear idea of the habits you want to cultivate, it's time to delve into what science tells us about how habits are formed.

How are habits formed?

In the psychiatrist Judson Brewer's New York Times best-seller The Craving Mind, he outlines the three elements of what is known as a habit loop. Cue, Routine and Reward.

To explain each of these, consider the following scenario:

Alex walks into her office in the morning, opens up her laptop, and immediately checks Facebook.

  • Cue: The cue is the context that prompts a habit. In Alex's case, the sight of her laptop acts as a cue to check Facebook.
  • Routine: The routine is the behavior triggered by the cue. For Alex, the act of opening her laptop prompts her to execute the routine of checking Facebook.
  • Reward: The reward is the expected positive outcome of the routine. Alex's reward is the buzz she gets from seeing how many likes her recent posts got, responding to messages from friends, or simply scrolling through her feed.

Habits like these are formed by repetition. If Alex gets a reward each time opens her Facebook in the morning, it's likely that she'll form a routine around checking every time she gets the cue to do so.

When this behavior first started, the decision to check Facebook before she started work in the morning may have been deliberate, or conscious. Alex may have thought "hmm.. I might check how that post is going". Though with each repetition that results in a reward, it becomes more and more automatic until it becomes a habit.

If Alex wanted to break this habit loop, the received wisdom is that it will take willpower to resist the urge to check Facebook, but as you'll see, relying on willpower simply doesn't work.

The problem with willpower

We often struggle to get our habits right, largely because of outdated ideas about grit, perseverance, and determination being the deciding factors in sticking to good habits. If we're struggling to make a behavior habitual, we might criticize ourselves for 'not having the motivation' or that we 'lack willpower', and therefore we can't do it. This can lead to feelings of shame or a negative self-image that can hold us back from reaching our goals.

However, science shows us that willpower is fickle and can't be relied upon if we want to break bad habits or build new ones.

Rather than something we do or don’t have, willpower is a finite resource that ebbs and flows. Our willpower reserves may start the day high, but they are depleted by stress, having to make decisions, and ironically, by, the act of exercising willpower itself. This means that the more temptations you've resisted and stressful situations you've faced in a day, the less able you'll be to continue doing so.

In one study, participants were presented with a choice between eating radishes or chocolates. Following this choice, they were asked to solve a difficult puzzle. While you might guess that those who opted for the radish had more overall willpower and would therefore persevere at solving the puzzle for longer. But in fact, the opposite was true.

Those who didn't resist the chocolates were running on a fuller tank of willpower, unlike those who depleted their reserves and resisted the temptation. The chocolate-eaters unlike the radish-eaters willpower hadn't been depleted, and so they performed better on the puzzle task.

From here, we can imagine how this tendency plays out when trying to build new habits. Let’s say we want to start evening jogs after work, as well as eating salads for lunch. If we are already depleted from trying to build our salad-eating habit, we’re less likely to feel like going for our jog.

We may look to somebody who manages to eat salad and run consistently as somebody who has a lot of willpower, but this person has likely already made these behaviors a habit, so they don’t require any willpower to do.

Instead of taking a ‘white-knuckle’ approach, it pays to get strategic about the habits we want to build. To do this we need to understand how the process of habit formation works.

How to build good habits

Building good habits is about working with the grain of how we actually form habits, and not against it.

New York Times best-selling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear lays out the following simple, evidence-based steps to building a new habit.

1. Start very small

We tend to overshoot and aim too high when we're starting out, and this is often where we go wrong. When beginning to turn the desired behavior into a habit, we want it to be as tiny as possible, in order to minimize the willpower it takes to perform.

The smaller the action, the less motivation you need, and the more likely it is you'll do it. Tiny habits, and not exhausting efforts are the best way to get started.

If your goal is to start a blog, for example, instead of aiming at 1,000 words a day, start with one sentence. Of course, once you start you can write more, and once you sit down to it, you most likely will. But at this stage, your requirement is simply one line.

It won't feel like you're accomplishing too much, but at this stage, your aim is simply to get the ball rolling. By starting with a small habit you'll be laying solid foundations that you can add to, later.

2. Slowly but steadily increase your habit

At the point where your habit is coming more naturally and with less resistance, you can slowly begin to increase it.

You don't want to leap from a little to a lot. The idea is to slowly, one small step at a time, build upon your habit.

If you've been able to consistently write one sentence a day for some time, you may want to step it up a notch to 2-3 sentences, then to a paragraph, then to 2 paragraphs.

Of course, it would be impossible to keep growing a habit at the same rate, and so at a certain point you'll need to break your habits into chunks.

3. Chunking your habit

Once your habit has grown to a certain point, you will need to start breaking the habit up into manageable chunks.

If you're approaching the stage where you're writing 1,000 words per sitting, you may want to introduce a break every 500 words to make it easier for you to get there.

It's important to not grow your habit to a point where it's unmanageable. A fledgling habit that grows too big without being effectively chunked can lead to an obligation that we can't meet, which will lead to slip-ups, or even the abandonment of the habit altogether.

4. Quickly get back on track after slip-ups

Inevitably, you will slip up. Life gets in the way, and some days it just doesn't happen. This is fine and to be expected, but when this happens, it's very important that we get back on track as soon as possible.

We don't want part of our new habit to be placed in the "that thing I want to but don't do" box, and this is exactly what consistently missing our habits does.

If you miss your 500 words a day benchmark, don't stress, simply make sure that you reach your goal the next day. If you need to, you can lower your requirements again, and work towards building it back up in the future. The most important thing is to be consistent and stick with a pace you can maintain.

Even better is planning for setbacks by creating some external structure and accountability around your habits. Perhaps having a buddy who is working towards a habit themselves, or working with a coach who can help you recalibrate after a stumble.

5. Be patient, keep a steady pace

The hardest thing about this process is squaring your desire to succeed at your goal, with what your brain actually needs to build your desired habit.

For this reason, the tendency can be to try to grow your habit too quickly, which can lead to big, cumbersome daily requirements that you're likely to avoid after a rough day.

You've got big plans for your blog, and you're itching to make it happen. That's great! If that's the case, you'll want to take it slow. The success of your blog will be the result of methodically and strategically building a writing habit that you can sustain.

You want to be able to write as effortlessly as you make your morning coffee. But trying to push yourself to the brink on the days you have willpower, and slumping on the couch on days that you don't is a recipe for burnout.

These steps may be intuitive and simple enough, but if you really want to succeed in building good habits, you’ll want to give yourself the right tools and support.

Building good habits is simple, but very difficult

While the above steps are straightforward and intuitive, implementing them on your own can be surprisingly hard. You will inevitably stumble along the way, and without feedback and accountability, sticking to positive changes is hard.

To make it easier to build and stick with new habits, here are two essential tools that will make turning that good behavior into a good habit much easier.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of our moment-to-moment experiences. This could be our breath, what we see or hear, or our emotions. Studies show that mindfulness improves decision making, and increases our ability to act in ways that are in congress with our goals and values.

By learning to pay attention to your emotions and behaviors, we are better able to break bad habits and choose to pick up new habits more easily.

If you want to get out of the habit of compulsive social media checking, being able to catch yourself before reaching for your phone, and pivot toward a more positive habit can often make all the difference.

Coaching

Having a coach to work with you to clarify your values, and goals to set up a plan of action to build good habits is an invaluable asset.

Whether you hire a healthy eating coach, a coach to help you build good work habits, or any other positive change you want to make, having a coach can take the stress out of trying to change your habits on your own and help you stay on track.

Of course, hiring a coach isn't within everybody's budget, and that's why Fingerprint for Success has developed the world's first-ever artificially intelligent coach with a range of programs designed to help you reach your goals.

Introducing Marlee, the world's first artificially intelligent coach

Coach Marlee offers a range of programs that are based on 20 years of evidence-based research in neuroscience, self-actualization, cognitive-behavioral coaching psychology, and a range of other disciplines within the sphere of human development.

Some of the programs that can help with habit building include:

  • Attention to Detail
  • Goal Catcher
  • Multiply Your Impact
  • Personal Power
  • Reflection & Patience

Each program runs for 8 weeks, includes 2x 5-15 sessions per week and can be completed on your schedule. Even completing a program and investing in yourself twice a week will allow you to build a habit of self-improvement.

No matter the goal, better habits are easier to form with the help of an experienced professional coach, and Marlee has helped countless teams and individuals build and maintain the habits they need for success.

Create your free F4S account now and join the 90% of users who achieve their goals in 4-9 weeks.

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