How to Create Good Habits That Stick

how to build habits that stick

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit. – Aristotle

The high never lasts.

Like a summer fling, moments of inspiration are simply strokes of passion brought about by the allures of lust. Perhaps you wanted to lose the extra weight you packed on after you left college. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to pick up an instrument. Perhaps you really wanted to finish that novel you’ve had in your head for ages.

But there lies yet another unfinished project. Another dead end. Willpower is a fickle spouse. As John Tierney, coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength puts it:

People with the best self-control aren’t the ones who use it all day long. They’re people who structure their lives so they conserve it.

The relationships that last are the ones that are hard to leave. Then the solution isn’t to create more willpower, it’s to structure your life such that your goals are easier to accomplish.

How?

Through the creation of habits. Through automating the process, we take control of how we change rather than throwing it up to chance. Here are the steps you need to take in order to successfully incorporate habits into your life.

Use The “If…then…” Technique

With every new experience comes the wave of anxiety. The reverence of the unknown. But sometimes even the staunchest of people cannot overcome that fear. That’s when you say:

I’ll go, then you go.

Willpower is fickle, but by giving something to anchor their efforts to, the chances of them following through skyrockets. Apply this the creation of new habits and you’ll be unstoppable.

From one study, they found that 91% of people who used if-then planning stuck to an exercise program opposed to 39% who didn’t. But it’s not just for fitness, it works for every change you are looking to incorporate into your life.

The technique is simple. Choose an event and then choose an action to take after that event.

For example:

  • When I get off work, I’ll go to the gym.
  • If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I’ll write a little bit.
  • If there are doughnuts in the break room, I won’t take one.

The technique works because it taps into our subconscious. When we plant an if-then statement into our brain, it’ll unconsciously scan our environment for the “if” such that when it happens, the “then” will trigger automatically without spending any willpower.

The more specific the event, the more likely you are to follow through.

Make The First Step As Easy As Possible

Life is a box of Pringles. Once you eat the first, the more likely you are to eat the second and so on. Eventually, you’ll reach down and come up with crumbs.

Habits are the same way, the more you progress, the harder it becomes to put the box down.

By making the first step as easy as possible, you minimize the obstacles between you and your goal. Here’s how I’ve used it and what resulted from it:

  • Put a book in the bathroom — read a book a week instead of a book a month
  • Put my basketball/gym equipment in a duffel bag in the trunk of my car — increased my days of exercise from 0-3 to consistently active 5 days a week
  • Made Quora my home page — increased the days I write from once a week to 3 times a week

And likewise to resist temptations, make it as hard as possible to even open the box.

Associate Good Feelings With The Task

Towards the end of her pregnancy, a mother becomes highly sensitive to the presence of oxytocin, the bonding chemical. This sensitivity promotes maternal behavior and as the child feeds, elevated levels of oxytocin are released, strengthening their bond and providing a sense of calmness and well-being.

This is how mothers bear the sleepless nights while taking care of her newborn.

Your initial attempts at change are going to be uncomfortable which is why you need to find your “oxytocin” or something that makes the pain pleasurable.

Let’s say you want to start going to the gym. Here are a list of “oxytocins” I’ve used with success:

  • Mental Affirmations

Don’t laugh. But after every set, I tell myself how awesome I am for finishing the set and not giving up.

  • My favorite music

I have a playlist of certain music that I can only listen to if I’m in the gym. Sometimes I put in new music that I’ve never heard of so I’m excited to go the gym.

  • Gym buddy

I don’t use this as much anymore, but having a supportive friend go with you can do wonders. And not only because it’s another reason to get to the gym, but because there’ll be an unspoken competition between the both of you that breeds progress.

Reward Yourself After Completion

It’s important to celebrate. So after every completion, treat yourself. Eventually you’ll come to associate the dopamine rush you get from celebrating with the feeling of having completed the task which will encourage you to do it over and over again.

Habits take time to create so be sure to reward yourself handsomely.

For example, I’ll treat myself to a movie after every blog post I write. Or steak after a gym session.

Live a little!

Set Yourself Up for Success

Try structuring your life such that the habit comes easily rather than rely on willpower and motivation for a while. These steps will help for every habit you can think of. The specifics, however, will need be tailored to your needs.

You might find that actions work better time for your if-then statement.  You might have to experiment to figure out the specifics behind making that first step as easy as possible.

From there it’s a matter of having fun.

How can you have fun doing the task?

Then, don’t forget to reward yourself.

It’s all a process my friend.

The good news?

We’re in this together. If you ever have any questions on starting new habits, let me know and I’ll do my best to help you.


  • Sarah

    Great post. I agree that structuring your life to support desired habits works a treat. This strategy has enabled me to incorporate regular exercise into my life and maintain it for over a year. However, im having trouble with eliminating certain habits. My meals are very healthy and nutritious, but i cant break my habit or cravings for sweet foods in decent quantities. How do you suggest getting rid of such long-term habits?

    • Hey Sarah, under what circumstances do you find yourself craving sweet treats? Do you have sweets around your house? The simplest advice I can offer is to make it harder to do your bad habit than it is to do the good one. A simple trick, for example, is to put a lid on a candy jar. Research has shown something as simple as this reduces the amount of mindless snacking because it adds effort.

      I would also recommend figuring out what the reward is with your sweet tooth habit, and hack the habit loop. I write about it on my blog here http://bit.ly/1ZEUS1Y

      Good luck on your habit change!

    • Alex Liang

      That’s awesome that you’ve already dedicated yourself to a consistent exercise regime. That helps with curbing diet “sins” because in your brain you’ve implanted this idea that you value your health.

      As for the cravings, they’ll never go away. But what you can do is get better at ignoring them.

      What I do is two things:

      A) Meditation
      Being able to acknowledge the craving and not acting upon it is like a fucking superpower. And that’s exactly what meditation pounds into you. You realize your cravings and your thoughts aren’t you and that you choose which thoughts you act upon.
      When the cravings come, just take deep breaths and acknowledge that some buffalo wings or whatever would be so good right now and just move on. As you meditate more, it gets easier. It’ll be like an itch you don’t need to scratch.

      B) Distraction
      Shift your focus onto something else. Another vice so to speak. Something like music, television, books, anything that’ll give you more pleasure than the foods you crave.

      But obviously, you don’t want to be a monk or anything and just deny yourself of any pleasure.

      Use pleasure foods as a reward for good habits. This way you’ll keep your diet in check and you continue to implement better habits into your life. And when you find yourself crossing the line, give yourself another accomplishment before you can continue eating. More often than not you’ll find that your cravings would have disappeared.

      Good luck!