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This page pulls together my most essential information about habits. I'll share how habits work, how to start and stick with good habits, and how to break bad habits. I've tried to present the basics of everything you need to know to start transforming your habits, even if you don't have much time. If a particular topic or discussion interests you and you'd like to learn more, click around the site via the links I share throughout the article.
Everything I write about – from procrastination and productivity to strength and nutrition – starts with better habits. When you learn to transform your habits, you can transform your life.
I. How to Change Your Habits (and Your Life)
- What Are Habits?
- Why Is It So Hard to Stick to Good Habits?
- Common Misconceptions About Why Habits Fail
- How Habits Work: The Hidden Systems That Drive Your Habits
- What a Habit Looks Like When Broken Down
- How Long Does It Take to Build a New Habit?
II. How to Start Good Habits
- Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals
- A Simple Plan to Overhaul Your Habits
- Keystone Habits: How One Small Habit Can Change Your Entire Life
III. Sticking With Good Habits
- A Simple Strategy to Help Your Stick With Good Habits Every Day
- How to Hold Yourself Accountable
- How to Get Out of a Rut and Get Addicted to Taking Action
- How to Fit New Habits Into Your Life (Even If You Don't Have Much Time)
- How to Make a Habit Stick in the Long-Term
- How to Get Back on Track After Slipping Up
IV. How to Break Bad Habits
- How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One
- What Causes Bad Habits?
- How to Break Bad Habits
- Ready to Start Breaking Bad Habits? Here's the First Step
I. How to Change Your Habits (and Your Life)
What Are Habits?
Let's define habits. Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day.
According to researchers at Duke University, habits account for about 40 percent of our behaviors on any given day.
Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.
How in shape or out of shape you are? A result of your habits. How happy or unhappy you are? A result of your habits.
How successful or unsuccessful you are? A result of your habits.
What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.
Why Is It So Hard to Stick to Good Habits?
How can we have the best intentions to become better, and yet still see so little progress?
We all have goals. Overall, this is a good thing. It’s nice to know what you want and having goals gives you a sense of direction and purpose. However, there is one way that your hopes and dreams actually sabotage you from becoming better: your desires can easily lure you into biting off more than you can chew.
Too often, we let our motivations and desires drive us into a frenzy as we try to solve our entire problem at once instead of starting a small, new routine.
Life goals are good to have because they provide direction, but they can also trick you into taking on more than you can handle. Daily habits — tiny routines that are repeatable — are what make big dreams a reality.
Common Misconceptions About Why Habits Fail
Depending on where you get your numbers, somewhere between 81 percent and 92 percent of New Years Resolutions fail. 1
Translation: At least 8 times out of 10, you are more likely to fall back into your old habits and patterns than you are to stick with a new behavior.
The Top 5 Reasons Habits Fail
- You try to change everything at once. It’s too much, too soon.
- You start with a habit that’s too big. You get overwhelmed and frustrated that you aren’t making progress.
- You’re seeking a result, not establishing a ritual you can stick with. You’re focusing on the outcome, not the actual behavior.
- You don’t change your environment. We rarely admit it (or even realize it), but our behaviors are often a simple response to the environment we find ourselves in.
- You assume small changes don’t add. The underlying assumption is that your achievements need to be big to make a difference. Because of this, we always talk ourselves into chasing a big habit.
How Habits Work: The Hidden Systems That Drive Your Habits
Every habit you have — good or bad — follows the same 3–step pattern.
- Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behavior)
- Routine (the behavior itself; the action you take)
- Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behavior)
I call this framework “The 3 R’s of Habit Change,” but I didn’t come up with this pattern on my own. It’s been proven over and over again by behavioral psychology researchers.2
What a Habit Looks Like When Broken Down
What does a habit look like? Let’s use the 3 R’s to break down a typical habit. For example, answering a phone call…
- Your phone rings (reminder). This is the reminder that initiates the behavior. The ring acts as a trigger or cue to tell you to answer the phone. It is the prompt that starts the behavior.
- You answer your phone (routine). This is the actual behavior. When your phone rings, you answer the phone.
- You find out who is calling (reward). This is the reward (or punishment, depending on who is calling). The reward is the benefit gained from doing the behavior. You wanted to find out why the person on the other end was calling you and discovering that piece of information is the reward for completing the habit.
If the reward is positive, then you’ll want to repeat the routine again the next time the reminder happens. Repeat the same action enough times and it becomes a habit. Every habit follows this basic 3–step structure.
How Long Does It Take to Build a New Habit?
In the 1950s, plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz observed that it would take a patient about 21 days to get used to seeing changes made by plastic surgery. Maltz’s observation of what was going on around him quickly spread, creating the myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.
Myth: It takes 21 days to form a new habit.
What the research says about how many days it takes to change a habit: On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact (according to this study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology).
And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In the study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 3
In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life and start a new habit — not 21 days.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.
Before we talk about how to start good habits, let's pause for just a second. If you're enjoying this article on habits, then you'll probably find my other writing on performance and human behavior useful. Each week, I share self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research through my free email newsletter.
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II. How to Start Good Habits
Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals
The key to starting a habit that will last is focusing on creating a new identity first. Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity.
To change your behavior for good, you need to start believing new things about yourself.
Imagine how we typically set goals. We might start by saying “I want to lose weight.” If you’re lucky, someone might say, “That’s great, but you should be more specific.”
So then you say, “I want to lose 20 pounds.”
These goals are centered around our performance or our appearance.
Performance and appearance goals are great, but they aren’t the same as habits. If you’re already doing a behavior, then these types of goals can help drive you forward. But if you’re trying to start a new behavior, then I think it would be far better to start with an identity–based goal.
The image below shows the difference between identity–based goals and performance and appearance–based goals.
Changing your beliefs isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. There are two steps.
- Decide the type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
For example: Want to lose weight?
Identity: Become the type of person who moves more every day.
Small win: Buy a pedometer. Walk 50 steps when you get home from work. Tomorrow, walk 100 steps. The day after that, 150 steps. If you do this 5 days per week and add 50 steps each day, then by the end of the year, you’ll be walking over 10,000 steps per day.
A Simple Plan to Overhaul Your Habits
Here's a step-by-step plan to change your habits.
1. Start with an incredibly small habit.
When most people struggle to stick with a new habit, they say something like, “I just need more motivation.” Or, “I wish I had as much willpower as you do.”
This is the wrong approach. Research shows that willpower is like a muscle. It gets fatigued as you use it throughout the day. Another way to think of this is that your motivation ebbs and flows. It rises and falls. Stanford professor BJ Fogg calls this the “motivation wave.”
Solve this problem by picking a new habit that is easy enough that you don’t need motivation to do it. Rather than starting with 50 pushups per day, start with 5 pushups per day. Rather than trying to meditate for 10 minutes per day, start by meditating for one minute per day. Make it easy enough that you can get it done without motivation.
2. Increase your habit in very small ways.
One percent improvements add up surprisingly fast. So do one percent declines.
Rather than trying to do something amazing from the beginning, start small and gradually improve. Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.
3. As you build up, break habits into chunks.
If you continue adding one percent each day, then you’ll find yourself increasing very quickly within two or three months. It is important to keep each habit reasonable, so that you can maintain momentum and make the behavior as easy as possible to accomplish.
Building up to 20 minutes of meditation? Split it into two segments of 10 minutes at first.
Trying to do 50 pushups per day? Five sets of 10 might be much easier as you make your way there.
4. When you slip, get back on track quickly.
Top performers make mistakes, commit errors, and get off track just like everyone else. The difference is that they get back on track as quickly as possible.
Research has shown that missing your habit once, no matter when it occurs, has no measurable impact on your long-term progress. Rather than trying to be perfect, abandon your all-or-nothing mentality.
You shouldn’t expect to fail, but you should plan for failure. Take some time to consider what will prevent your habit from happening. What are some things that are likely to get in your way? What are some daily emergencies that are likely to pull you off course? How can you plan to work around these issues? Or, at least, how you can bounce back quickly from them and get back on track?
5. Be patient. Stick to a pace you can sustain.
Learning to be patient is perhaps the most critical skill of all. You can make incredible progress if you are consistent and patient.
If you are adding weight in the gym, you should probably go slower than you think. If you are adding daily sales calls to your business strategy, you should probably start with fewer than you expect to handle. Patience is everything. Do things you can sustain.
New habits should feel easy, especially in the beginning. If you stay consistent and continue increasing your habit it will get hard enough, fast enough. It always does.4
Keystone Habits: How One Small Habit Can Change Your Entire Life
We have habits everywhere in our lives, but certain routines — keystone habits — lead to a cascade of other actions because of them.
A few months ago, I started to notice a funny thing.
When I worked out, I wanted to eat better. Even though I could have rewarded myself with chocolate bars and ice cream, I felt like eating real, healthy foods.
I also slept better. And when I was awake, I seemed more productive. Especially in the hour or two after working out, when my mind seemed to think clearer and my writing was crisper. Thoughts flowed easily.
When I didn’t exercise, however, I was more prone to eating junk food. I would stay up later working on unimportant tasks. I started to feel tension in my back. I didn’t check it, but my guess is that my blood pressure raised as a result of additional stress and no place to release it.
In other words, fitness is the keystone habit the puts the rest of my life in place. When I workout, other things naturally fall into place. I don’t have to think about eating better. I don’t have to force myself to focus on getting things done. Exercise naturally pushes me towards my best self.
What Are Your Keystone Habits?
I’m not always on top of my game, but on the days that I work out everything seems to come a little bit easier. And I’ll take all the help I can get as I continue my quest to become better.
Imagine how much easier and more fulfilling your lifestyle could be if you discovered one or two keystone habits that naturally put the rest of your life in place.
III. Sticking With Good Habits
A Simple Strategy to Help You Stick With Good Habits Every Day
On his desk, 23-year-old stock broker Trent Dyrsmid placed two jars. One was filled with 120 paper clips. The other was empty.
“Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.”
And that was it. 120 calls per day. One paper clip at a time.
Within 18 months, Dyrsmid’s book of business grew to $5 million in assets. By age 24, he was making $75,000. Within a few years, outside firms began recruiting him because of his success and he landed a $200,000 job with another company.
The Power of a Visual Cue
Here are a few reasons visual cues work well for building new habits…
- Visual cues remind you to start a behavior. It is much easier to stick with good habits when your environment nudges you in the right direction.
- Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Few people actually measure how consistent they are in real life.
- Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation.
- Visual cues can be used to drive short-term and long-term motivation. The Paper Clip Strategy can provide daily motivation, but you start from scratch each day. However, another type of visual cue, like the “Don’t Break the Chain” Calendar that I described in my article on the Seinfeld Strategy can be used to showcase your consistency over longer periods of time.
How to Hold Yourself Accountable: Create Your Own Paper Clip Strategy
There are all sorts of ways to use the paper clip habit for your own goals.
- Hoping to do 100 pushups each day? Start with 10 paper clips and move one over each time you drop down and do a set of 10 throughout the day.
- Need to send 25 sales emails every day? Start with 25 paper clips and toss one to the other side each time you press Send.
- Want to drink 8 glasses of water each day? Start with 8 paper clips and slide one over each time you finish a glass.
- Not sure if you’re taking your medication three times per day? Set 3 paper clips out and flip one into the bin each time you swallow your pills.
Best of all, the entire strategy will cost you less than $10.
- Grab a box of standard paper clips (here is a cheap set).
- Get two standard paper clip holders (here you go).
- Pick your habit and start moving those bad boys from one side to the other.
Trent Dyrsmid decided that success in his field came down to one core task: making more sales calls. He discovered that mastering the fundamentals is what makes the difference.
The same is true for your goals. There is no secret sauce. There is no magic bullet. Good habits are the magic bullet.
How to Get Out of a Rut and Get Addicted to Taking Action
The Domino Effect holds for negative habits as well. You may find that the habit of checking your phone leads to the habit of clicking social media notifications which leads to the habit of browsing social media mindlessly which leads to another 20 minutes of procrastination.
In the words of Stanford professor BJ Fogg, “You can never change just one behavior. Our behaviors are interconnected, so when you change one behavior, other behaviors also shift.” 6
The Rules of the Domino Effect
The Domino Effect is not merely a phenomenon that happens to you, but something you can create. It is within your power to spark a chain reaction of good habits by building new behaviors that naturally lead to the next successful action.
There are three keys to making this work in real life. Here are the three rules of the Domino Effect:
- Start with the thing you are most motivated to do. Start with a small behavior and do it consistently. This will not only feel satisfying, but also open your eyes to the type of person you can become. It does not matter which domino falls first, as long as one falls.
- Maintain momentum and immediately move to the next task you are motivated to finish. Let the momentum of finishing one task carry you directly into the next behavior. With each repetition, you will become more committed to your new self-image.
- When in doubt, break things down into smaller chunks. As you try new habits, focus on keeping them small and manageable. The Domino Effect is about progress, not results. Simply maintain the momentum. Let the process repeat as one domino automatically knocks down the next.
When one habit fails to lead to the next behavior, it is often because the behavior does not adhere to these three rules. There are many different paths to getting dominoes to fall. Focus on the behavior you are excited about and let it cascade throughout your life.
How to Fit New Habits Into Your Life ( Even If You Don't Have Much Time)
You probably have very strong habits and connections that you take for granted each day. For example, your brain is probably very efficient at remembering to take a shower each morning or to brew your morning cup of coffee or to open the blinds when the sun rises … or thousands of other daily habits. You can take advantage of these strong connections to build new habits.
The quickest way to build a new habit into your life is to stack it on top of a current habit.
This is a concept called “habit stacking” because you stack your new habit on top of a current habit. Because the current habit is strongly wired into your brain already, you can add a new habit into this fast and efficient network of neurons more quickly than if you tried to build a new path from scratch. (Note: I’m not the first person to figure this out. 7)
Habit Stacking Examples
To use habit stacking, just fill out this sentence…
After/Before [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].
Here are some habit stacking examples…
- Meditation Habit: After I brew my morning coffee, I will meditate for one minute.
- Pushup Habit: Before I take my morning shower, I will do 10 pushups.
- Flossing Habit: After I brush my teeth, I will floss my teeth.
- Gratitude Habit: Before I eat my first bite of dinner, I will say one thing I am grateful for that day.
- Networking Habit: After I get back from my lunch break, I will send one email to someone I want to meet.
- Stretching Habit: After I finish my last set of squats, I will stretch my hamstrings.
Again, the reason habit stacking works so well is that your current habits are already built into your brain. You have patterns and behaviors that have been strengthened over years. By linking your new habits to a cycle that is already built into your brain, you make it more likely that you’ll stick to the new behavior.
To get started, simply write out a list of the current habits that you do each day. (Don’t forget about all the boring everyday routines.) Then, write out a second list of the habits you want to start. Finally, pick one habit and look for the appropriate place to stack it.
How to Make a Habit Stick in the Long-Term
Plan for Chaos
Let’s say that you have a goal that you want to stick to consistently. For example, working out three times per week or meditating for five minutes each morning.
If everything goes as planned, then sticking to your goal isn’t too difficult. If you wake up on time, then you should have the extra five minutes to meditate in the morning. If rush hour traffic isn’t bad, then you should be able to make it to the gym before going to your kid’s performance tonight.
Basically, if there aren’t any unexpected interruptions, then it just comes down to getting started.
But when life gets busy and chaos starts to happen, that’s when we start to come up with excuses. How can you stay consistent when day-to-day life is so unpredictable?
The If-Then Technique
The If-Then Technique is the perfect way to plan for chaos and stick to your goals even when life gets crazy. Why? Because it forces you to create a strategy for reducing the scope, but sticking to the schedule before you actually need to do so.
All you need to do is complete this phrase: “If [something unexpected], then [your response].”
- If I don’t wake up in time to run tomorrow morning, then I’ll run after work.
- If I can’t make it to yoga during my lunch break, then I’ll take a stretching break this afternoon.
- If I buy something unhealthy for lunch, then I’ll cook a healthy meal for dinner.
The If-Then Technique forces you to consider the unpredictable circumstances that so often enter our daily lives. And that means you have fewer excuses for doing nothing and more options for sticking to your goals.
You can also use this technique as a way to plan for poor performances as well. For example, a basketball player could say, “If I miss 10 free throws at practice, then I’ll visualize myself making 20 free throws before I fall asleep tonight.”
It’s a useful way of forcing yourself to consider how you will practice deliberately rather than just putting your time.
How to Get Back on Track After Slipping Up
Here are seven strategies that you can use to get back on track right now…
1. Schedule your habits into your life. Give your habits a specific space in your life. This might mean putting your habit on the calendar, or tying the habit to a current behavior. For more on how to develop a sequence for your habits, read this.
2. Stick to your schedule, even in small ways. It’s not the individual impact of missing your schedule that’s a big deal. It’s the cumulative impact of never getting back on track. For that reason, it’s critical to stick to your schedule, even if it’s only in a very small way. Don’t have enough time to do a full workout? Just squat. Don’t have enough time to write an article? Write a paragraph. Find a way to stick to the schedule, no matter how small it is.
3. Have someone who expects something of you. I’ve been on many teams throughout my athletic career and you know what happens when you have friends, teammates, and coaches expecting you to be at practice? You show up. The good news is that you don’t have to be on a team to make this work. Simply knowing that a familiar face expects to see you can be enough to get you to show up.
4. Focus on what you can work with. Anytime we don’t do the things we want to do — start a business, eat healthy, go to the gym — we come up with excuses. Here’s what I want you to think instead: “I can work with this.” Because you can. The truth is that most of us start in the same place — no money, no resources, no contacts, no experience — but some people (the winners) choose to get started anyway.
5. Just because it’s not optimal, doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial. Just because you can’t stick to the optimal schedule, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stick to it at all. Good habits are built gradually. Start slow, live your life, and get better along the way. Progress is a spectrum, not a specific place.
6. Design your environment for success. Most of us acknowledge that the people who surround us influence our behaviors, but the items that surround us have an impact as well. The signs we see, the things that are on your desk at work, the pictures hanging on your wall at home … these are all pieces of our environment that can trigger us to take different actions.
7. Care. It sounds so simple, but make sure that the habits that you’re trying to stick to are actually important to you.
IV. How to Break Bad Habits
How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One
Bad habits interrupt your life and prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They jeopardize your health — both mentally and physically. And they waste your time and energy.
So why do we still do them? And most importantly, is there anything you can do about it?
I’ve previously written about the science of how habits start, so now let’s focus on the practice of making changes in the real world. How can you break bad habits and stick to good ones instead?
What Causes Bad Habits?
Most of your bad habits are caused by two things…
Stress and boredom.
Everything from biting your nails to overspending on a shopping spree to drinking every weekend to wasting time on the internet can be a simple response to stress and boredom.8
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can teach yourself new and healthy ways to deal with stress and boredom, which you can then substitute in place of your bad habits.
Of course, sometimes the stress or boredom that is on the surface is actually caused by deeper issues. These issues can be tough to think about, but if you’re serious about making changes then you have to be honest with yourself.
Are there certain beliefs or reasons that are behind the bad habit? Is there something deeper — a fear, an event, or a limiting belief — that is causing you to hold on to something that is bad for you?
Recognizing the causes of your bad habits is crucial to overcoming them.
You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.
All of the habits that you have right now — good or bad — are in your life for a reason. In some way, these behaviors provide a benefit to you, even if they are bad for you in other ways.
Sometimes the benefit is biological like it is with smoking or drugs. Sometimes it’s emotional like it is when you stay in a relationship that is bad for you. And in many cases, your bad habit is a simple way to cope with stress. For example, biting your nails, pulling your hair, tapping your foot, or clenching your jaw.
These “benefits” or reasons extend to smaller bad habits as well.
For example, opening your email inbox as soon as you turn on your computer might make you feel connected. At the same time looking at all of those emails destroys your productivity, divides your attention, and overwhelms you with stress. But, it prevents you from feeling like you’re “missing out” … and so you do it again.
Because bad habits provide some type of benefit in your life, it’s very difficult to simply eliminate them. (This is why simplistic advice like “just stop doing it” rarely works.)
Instead, you need to replace a bad habit with a new habit that provides a similar benefit.
For example, if you smoke when you get stressed, then it’s a bad plan to “just stop smoking” when that happens. Instead, you should come up with a different way to deal with stress and insert that new behavior instead of having a cigarette.
In other words, bad habits address certain needs in your life. And for that reason, it’s better to replace your bad habits with a healthier behavior that addresses that same need. If you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you’ll have certain needs that will be unmet and it’s going to be hard to stick to a routine of “just don’t do it” for very long.
How to Break Bad Habits
Here are some additional ideas for breaking your bad habits and thinking about the process in a new way.
Choose a substitute for your bad habit. You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the stress or boredom that prompts your bad habit. What are you going to do when you get the urge to smoke? (Example: breathing exercises instead.) What are you going to do when Facebook is calling to you to procrastinate? (Example: write one sentence for work.) Whatever it is and whatever you’re dealing with, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit.
Cut out as many triggers as possible. If you smoke when you drink, then don’t go to the bar. If you eat cookies when they are in the house, then throw them all away. If the first thing you do when you sit on the couch is pick up the TV remote, then hide the remote in a closet in a different room. Make it easier on yourself to break bad habits by avoiding the things that cause them.
Right now, your environment makes your bad habit easier and good habits harder. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.
Join forces with somebody. How often do you try to diet in private? Or maybe you “quit smoking” … but you kept it to yourself? (That way no one will see you fail, right?)
Instead, pair up with someone and quit together. The two of you can hold each other accountable and celebrate your victories together. Knowing that someone else expects you to be better is a powerful motivator.
Surround yourself with people who live the way you want to live. You don’t need to ditch your old friends, but don’t underestimate the power of finding some new ones.
Visualize yourself succeeding. See yourself throwing away the cigarettes or buying healthy food or waking up early. Whatever the bad habit is that you are looking to break, visualize yourself crushing it, smiling, and enjoying your success. See yourself building a new identity.
You don’t need to be someone else, you just need to return to the old you. So often we think that to break our bad habits, we need to become an entirely new person. The truth is that you already have it in you to be someone without your bad habits. In fact, it’s very unlikely that you had these bad habits all of your life. You don’t need to quit smoking, you just need to return to being a non–smoker. You don’t need to transform into a healthy person, you just need to return to being healthy. Even if it was years ago, you have already lived without this bad habit, which means you can most definitely do it again.
Use the word “but” to overcome negative self–talk. One thing about battling bad habits is that it’s easy to judge yourself for not acting better. Every time you slip up or make a mistake, it’s easy to tell yourself how much you suck.9
Whenever that happens, finish the sentence with “but”…
- “I’m fat and out of shape, but I could be in shape a few months from now.”
- “I’m stupid and nobody respects me, but I’m working to develop a valuable skill.”
- “I’m a failure, but everybody fails sometimes.”
Plan for failure. We all slip up every now and then.
As my main man Steve Kamb says, “When you screw up, skip a workout, eat bad foods, or sleep in, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you human. Welcome to the club.”
So rather than beating yourself up over a mistake, plan for it. We all get off track, what separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track very quickly. For a handful of strategies that can help you bounce back when you make a mistake, read this article.
Ready to Start Breaking Bad Habits? Here's the First Step
If you’re looking for the first step to breaking your bad habits, I’d suggest starting with awareness.
It’s easy to get caught up in how you feel about your bad habits. You can make yourself feel guilty or spend your time dreaming about how you wish things were … but these thoughts take you away from what’s actually happening.
Instead, it’s awareness that will show you how to actually make change.
- When does your bad habit actually happen?
- How many times do you do it each day?
- Where are you?
- Who are you with?
- What triggers the behavior and causes it to start?
Simply tracking these issues will make you more aware of the behavior and give you dozens of ideas for stopping it.
Here’s a simple way to start: just track how many times per day your bad habit happens. Put a piece of paper in your pocket and a pen. Each time your bad habit happens, mark it down on your paper. At the end of the day, count up all of the tally marks and see what your total is.
In the beginning your goal isn’t to judge yourself or feel guilty about doing something unhealthy or unproductive. The only goal is to be aware of when it happens and how often it happens. Wrap your head around the problem by being aware of it. Then, you can start to implement the ideas in this article and break your bad habit.
Breaking bad habits takes time and effort, but mostly it takes perseverance. Most people who end up breaking their bad habits try and fail multiple times before they make it work. You might not have success right away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have it at all.
Best Habits Books
- The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
- Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
- Hooked by Nir Eyal
- The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson
Where to Go From Here
I hope you found this short guide on habits useful. If you're looking for more ideas on how to build good habits and break bad ones, then check out my full list of habits articles below.
All Habits Articles
This is a complete list of articles I have written on habits. Enjoy!
- The Paradox of Behavior Change
- How Innovative Ideas Arise
- How to Create a Chain Reaction of Good Habits
- The Scientific Argument for Mastering One Thing at a Time
- Motivation is Overvalued. Environment Often Matters More.
- How to Use Military Strategy to Build Better Habits
- Free Download: Transform Your Habits (3rd Edition)
- The Chemistry of Building Better Habits
- How to Stop Lying to Ourselves: A Call for Self-Awareness
- The Proven, Reasonable and Totally Unsexy Secret to Success
- How to Stop Procrastinating and Boost Your Willpower by Using “Temptation Bundling”
- How to Fall in Love With Boredom and Unlock Your Mental Toughness
- How to Optimize Your Daily Decisions
- How to Declutter Your Mind and Unleash Your Willpower by Using “Bright-Line” Rules
- How to Stick With Good Habits Every Day by Using the “Paper Clip Strategy”
- Use This Simple Daily Habit to Add More Gratitude to Your Life
- The One Word That Drives Senseless and Irrational Habits
- The 5 Triggers That Make New Habits Stick
- Why Stores Place Candy by the Checkout Counter (And Why New Habits Fail)
- 5 Common Mistakes That Cause New Habits to Fail
- Avoid the Second Mistake
- Minimalism, Success, and the Curious Writing Habit of George R.R. Martin
- 4 Reasonable Ways to Achieve Overnight Success
- 3 Simple Ways to Make Exercise a Habit
- How to Build Muscle: Strength Lessons from Milo of Croton
- This Simple Equation Reveals How Habits Shape Your Health, Happiness, and Wealth
- How Vietnam War Veterans Broke Their Heroin Addictions
- How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones
- How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide
- How to Be Motivated Every Day: Lessons Learned from Twyla Tharp
- Masters of Habit: The Wisdom and Writing of Maya Angelou
- How to Change the Habits of 107,000 People
- Plan For Failure: Being Consistent Is Not the Same as Being Perfect
- How the World Around You Shapes Your Thoughts and Actions
- Masters of Habit: The Deliberate Practice and Training of Jerry Rice
- How to Change Your Beliefs and Stick to Your Goals for Good
- I’m Using These 3 Simple Steps to Actually Stick with Good Habits
- How Long Does it Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science)
- Masters of Habit: Rituals, Lessons, and Quotes from Marcus Aurelius
- Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, But They Were Laying Bricks Every Hour
- How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone
- Why Trying to Be Perfect Won’t Help You Achieve Your Goals (And What Will)
- Forget About Setting Goals. Focus on This Instead.
- Do the Painful Things First
- 3 Simple Things You Can Do Right Now to Build Better Habits
- How Willpower Works: How to Avoid Bad Decisions
- How to Stick to Your Goals When Life Gets Crazy
- How to Stay Focused When You Get Bored Working Toward Your Goals
- What to Do When You Want to Build Better Habits But Can't Get Started
- The Crime Your Brain Commits Against You
- The Daily Routines of 12 Famous Writers
- How to Stop Procrastinating on Your Goals by Using the “Seinfeld Strategy”
- How to Improve Your Health and Productivity Without Thinking
- You Get 25,000 Mornings as an Adult: Here are 8 Ways to Not Waste Them
- What is Your “Average Speed” in Your Life, Your Health, and Your Work?
- Achieve Your Goals: Research Reveals a Simple Trick That Doubles Your Chances for Success
- How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One
- Get Back on Track: 7 Strategies to Help You Bounce Back After Slipping Up
- How to Say No, Resist Temptation, and Stick to Your Health Goals
- How to Get Motivated When You Don't Feel Like It
- How to Achieve Your Goals Easily
- The 3 R's of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick
- 5 Simple Ways to Be Happy
- How to Stick to Little Healthy Habits (Like Flossing) Without Thinking
- Why is it So Hard to Stick to Good Habits?
- The Difference Between Professionals and Amateurs
- Identity-Based Habits: How to Actually Stick to Your Goals This Year
- Keystone Habits: The Simple Way to Improve All Aspects of Your Life
- Feeling Fat? Use These 2 Easy Ways to Lose Weight
Habits Research Studies
If you are interested in geeking out on the latest habits research, then I recommend looking at studies from these top researchers: BJ Fogg, Leo Babauta, and Kelly McGonigal.
Best Articles on Topics Related to Habits
There are several studies and articles quoting either a 90 percent or 92 percent failure rate. I’ll go with the 81 percent failure rate, which comes from a research study by psychology professor John Norcross. He tracked the success rate of New Year’s resolutions over a two-year span.
Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, is a good summary of a lot of habit formation research.
Even though the study only ran for 12 weeks, the researchers were able to use the data to estimate the longer timelines (like 254 days) to form habits. Again, the exact time depends on a variety of factors and isn’t nearly as important as the overall message: habits can take a long time to form.
Special thanks to BJ Fogg, Leo Babauta, and Kelly McGonigal for their research and work on habit formation and willpower. I have learned a lot from each of you.
The phrase, the Domino Effect, comes from the common game people play by setting up a long line of dominoes, gently tapping the first one, and watching as a delightful chain reason proceeds to knock down each domino in the chain. I thought up this particular use of the phrase, but I’ve seen others say similar things like “snowball effect” or “chain reaction.”
Quote from “BJ’s note” posted on September 21, 2015. It is worth noting that BJ has some fantastic ideas on behavior change on his site, many of which have influenced my thoughts including his idea that “behaviors travel in packs,” which is similar to the core argument of Domino Effect.
BJ Fogg recommends a similar strategy to habit stacking in his Tiny Habits program and Courtney Carver, Julien Smith, and others have mentioned the idea of habit stacking before.
Hat tip to Leo Babauta for originally talking about stress and boredom driving bad habits.
Hat tip to Scott Young for sharing the great idea about using the word “but” to overcome negative self–talk.