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Good Habit Formation: A Step by Step Guide

Usually, we think of habits as negative things to be avoided. However, good habit formation is one of the most important parts of living a productive life. That’s because habits are subconscious. By making healthy or productive behaviors habitual, you avoid the need to put energy and effort into them.

However, good habit formation is easier said than done. Making a good behavior habitual will require concerted effort across a long period of time, and a lot of willpower. Fortunately, you can make the process a little bit easier by following a few basic steps.

Step 1: Analyze Your Life

The first step in good habit formation is figuring out what’s motivating you. What do you want to change about your life? What do you want to get better at?

Try to find the one single behavior that will help you the most. That’ll be the habit that you’re looking to form.

Remember to look for behaviors that you can perform regularly. If you can’t engage in the behavior at least a few times a week, it’ll be hard to make it truly habitual. Here are some examples of good habits that other highly successful people have formed through this method:

  • Regular Exercise. Exercise relieves stress, which functions as a psychological reward. Because the reward is built into the activity, exercise is a (relatively) easy habit to build.
  • Reading. Another enjoyable habit, research has shown that even light reading is good for your brain.
  • Staying Organized. While less pleasurable than many habits, daily organization can hugely boost your productivity. It’s also an area in which you can make measurable progress on a daily basis—even spending five minutes organizing your office desk at the end of the day can make a huge difference.

This is also a good time to look at what bad habits you have. Good habit formation is easier if, in doing so, you replace a bad habit. Look for minor things that you can change over time by performing good behaviors instead.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, think about how you could replace the urge to snack with regular exercise. We’ll talk about how to actually do so later—for now, all you need to do is think about what you want to change.

Step 2: Set (One) Goal

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Once you know what habit you want to form, it’s time to set your first goal. This should be something simple that lasts about a week.

It’s important to be as specific as possible. For example, if you want to exercise more, your first goal should be something like spending twenty minutes exercising on three specific days over the next week. What’s important is that you don’t give yourself the opportunity to procrastinate or change your mind.

Once you’re comfortable with that first goal, you can ramp up the commitment. So after you get comfortable exercising for twenty minutes three days a week, you might switch to exercising every other day.

It’s key that you focus on one goal at a time and wait until you feel completely comfortable with the previous goal before setting a new one. That way, you’ll make progress on your goal while avoiding burnout.

Step 3: Make a Commitment

After you’ve been practicing good habit formation for a few weeks, its time to employ a commitment strategy. This means making a social commitment to achieve a long-term goal.

This can be as involved as laying out your plan to a friend, or it can be as easy as mentioning that you’ve started a new hobby.

Of course, the best commitment strategy is to find an organization based on the habit. Fortunately, these are pretty easy to come by: think of running meetups, dog-walking groups, and book clubs. By making a commitment to meet your gym buddies or book club on a regular basis, you’ll add a social component to your habit-forming routine.

Not only is this a fun way to meet new friends, but it can also provide positive pressure to keep up your routine. Best of all, social groups offer a safe, fun environment in which to experiment with hobbies or interests that you might not be sure about yet.

Even if your new habit is largely anti-social, you can still gently encourage others to do the same. For example, you might casually mention to your coworkers that you’ve begun reading a new book.

While you can’t expect them to pick up the same hobby, you can certainly imply that you’d like them to ask you about it. By doing so, they’ll provide you the same social pressure that a formal book club does, effectively encouraging you to continue to read.

Step 4: Automate Your Habit

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More than anything else, the key to good habit formation is automation. In other words, you need to make your habit so routine that you do it without thinking about it.

Typically, the best way to do this is to select a trigger that occurs throughout the day. Whenever that trigger occurs, you’ll make some small progress towards forming your new habit.

What you choose for a trigger should be based on the habit in question. The best triggers are those that occur without any special effort on your part (this means no alarms or timers!).

For example, you might go jogging every day as soon as you get home from work. Alternatively, you might read a few pages whenever you take lunch. In both cases, you’re setting an organic trigger that you can’t really miss.

Over time, the habit will become so automatic that it forms a comfortable part of your daily routine.

Step 5: Track Your Progress

One of the best ways to ensure that your new habits last is to track your progress consistently.

Humans love patterns, and your brain is inherently resistant to breaking established chains of behavior. Writing it down whenever you achieve a daily goal will cement that pattern, making it more difficult to break.

For this purpose, I keep a journal specifically to record my daily and weekly goal progress. However, many people feel more comfortable with making notes on a calendar, or an app with the same purpose.

For a real-life example, the comedian Jerry Seinfeld famously became better at writing jokes by writing a new joke every day. Whenever he did so, he would put an “x” on his calendar for that day. After just a few days of doing so, he started feeling highly uncomfortable with the idea of breaking that chain.

Although tracking his daily progress only took a couple of seconds, it still played a huge part in making him better at coming up with punchlines. That’s because it tied the habit to an obvious visual pattern, cementing its reality.

As a final note, you should also keep track of the days where you don’t meet your goals. In the short term, writing a note in your journal explaining how you messed up feels pretty bad. In the long term, however, you’ll start to see these failures decrease.

That’s good—it means you’re making progress! This will create a greater sense of satisfaction that outweighs your short-term disappointment.

Step 6: Dealing with Failure

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Nobody is perfect, and neither is any specific method of good habit formation. While being consistent is key, it’s also important to accept that you won’t keep your commitments perfectly.

When you do, don’t be too hard on yourself. Instead, focus on preventing the circumstances that caused you to miss a day. This is another place where keeping a detailed journal can be helpful.

In general, negative enforcement isn’t a good way to encourage good habit formation. While a staple of ending bad habits, punishing yourself for failure tends to create a sense of hopelessness and negativity. This is directly contrary to the can-do attitude that helps you form good habits.

On a more practical level, it’s simply very difficult to convince yourself to engage in negative reinforcement.

Step 7: Reward Yourself

So what should you do? Instead of punishing yourself for failures, find ways to reward your successes. By creating a reward system, you encourage yourself to keep up your habit on both a conscious and subconscious level.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to plan an end to this system—as long as you’re keeping up the good habit, you can keep rewarding yourself.

For example, consider the “swear jar” that many parents keep, and turn it on its head. Instead of putting money in the jar whenever you act badly, do so whenever you reinforce your good habit. Then, at the end of the month, you can spend that money on something to reward yourself.

In this way, you create a low-maintenance way to reinforce good behaviors on a daily basis. As an added bonus, it feels really good to buy yourself things and not feel guilty about it. Who knew?

Step 8: Evaluate and Adapt

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As you make progress in forming your new habit, you’ll be able to start making judgments about it.

Pay attention to what seems not to be working—when are you missing days? Are there certain challenges that you just can’t meet? At the same time, make notes of the places where you’ve been most successful. Are there ways you could be applying those methods to the rest of your plan?

Once you’ve made these determinations, its time to go back and adapt your original plan. Too often, people attempt to solve challenges by trying the same method over and over again. Sometimes that works, but it’ll save you time and frustration if you look for creative solutions instead.

Don’t be afraid to make extensive changes to your original plan, even if it means dropping goals that have proven unrealistic. Never forget that the goal of creating new habits is to live a happier life. If any part of your plan is, after the first few weeks, making you miserable, it’s time to change it.

For me, evaluating my progress is probably the most important habit I’ve ever made. I regularly go back to the drawing board to set and reset my goals. I don’t ever want to give up. This is why it’s important to stop, think, read, learn, and get back on your feet. This process of setting and resetting goals is how I’ve started businesses, learned a language, graduated from law school, increased my deadlift weight, and pretty much everything else. Run as fast as you can to failure, take a look around, and then pick yourself back up.

Conclusion

Ultimately, good habit formation is a matter of patience and process. Start by making small goals that gradually become larger, and don’t be afraid to seek outside help.

Remember that you’re not looking for short-term gains. Instead, you want to achieve long-term success by making your habit an automatic part of your everyday routine.

Finally, don’t forget to reward yourself. Good habit formation isn’t easy, and you have every right to be proud of yourself for even trying. Take the time to enjoy your accomplishments. By doing so, you’ll not only motivate yourself to succeed in the future, but you’ll live a happier and more fulfilled life.

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    After graduating from law school and passing the bar, I struggled to find work, pay my bills, and make ends meet. That's when I decided to take control of my future and start working for myself. Now, several years and a handful of companies later, I'm sharing how I launched a successful business, and how you can do it too.

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