The purpose of building habits is to solve problems in our life by expending as little energy as possible. Most people approach habit-building the wrong way by only focusing on outcome-based habits (goal setting) instead of building identity-based habits. Developing good habits in your life is a matter of following four simple steps: make the cue obvious, the craving attractive, the response easy to follow, and the reward satisfying.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Your habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. What you do daily, while seeming insignificant at the time, can have a profound impact on your life in as little as two, five, or perhaps ten years.
The outcomes you achieve in life are the lagging measures of your habits. Your net worth is a lagging measure of your financial habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. Your clutter is a lagging measure of your cleaning habits. You are what you repeatedly do.
Time will multiple whatever you continue to feed it. Good habits will improve your chances of success. Bad habits will increase your odds of failure. Your choices will determine the difference between who you are and who you could be.
All significant changes come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. Only through repetition will the habit grow strong enough to become an integral part of your life. But how do you stick with a habit long enough to survive the developmental phase?
Setting a goal for your habit is not enough; your success is determined by the systems you follow.
Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Goals are useful for setting your direction, but it is your systems that are best for helping you make progress. You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Learn to fall in love with the process, not the result.
The Three Layers of Behavior Change
- A change in your outcomes – Consider this to be the outermost layer concerned with changing your results: earning a promotion, losing weight, publishing a book, etc. This layer is concerned with your goals.
- A change in your processes – The next layer is concerned with changing your habits and systems: making “X” number of sales calls per day, sticking with a diet and exercise routine, writing for an hour every day, etc.
- A change in your identity – The final layer is concerned with changing your beliefs: your worldview, your self-image, your expectations, etc.
Most people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on their outcomes, or what they want to achieve. This approach proves to be challenging since it only focuses on the outermost layer of behavior change.
The alternative would start by building identity-based habits. Instead, start by focusing on who you wish to become. Once you begin building identity-based habits, the process for sticking with your habits become a simple two-step process:
- Decide what type of person you want to be.
- Prove it to yourself with small wins.
When your habits become a part of your identity, your perspective shifts from “I’m the type of person who does this” to “I’m the type of person who is this.”
Building A Habit
The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps:
- Cue – How can you make it obvious?
- Craving – How can you make it attractive?
- Response – How can you make it easy?
- Reward – How can you make it satisfying?
If you are missing any of these steps, the behavior will not become a habit. Remove the cue, and you will never be triggered to begin the habit. Reduce the craving, and you won’t stay motivated to continue to develop the habit. Make the habit too difficult to achieve, and you will stop. Make the reward unsatisfactory, and you will not be incentivized to do it again.
Many of our failures in performance are a result of a lack of awareness. The process of behavior change begins with becoming more aware of the habits already driving your life. Determine what those habits are by making a list of your current habits using a simple exercise called a Habit Scorecard.
The Habit Scorecard requires you to take out a sheet of paper or open a word doc and follow these steps:
- Make a list of your daily habits
- Determine whether each habit is good, bad, or neutral
- If the habit is good, write “+” next to it, if it is bad, write “-“ and if it is neutral, write “=“.
If you are unsure how to categorize some of your habits, it helps to ask yourself if the particular habit is helping or hurting you to become the type of person you wish to be. Another useful trick is hearing your habits spoken out loud, especially the negative ones since it will make the consequences seem more real. The Scorecard will show you which habits you need to build upon and which habits you need to eliminate.
Most people think they lack motivation when it comes to forming good habits or breaking bad ones but what they are lacking is clarity. They don’t make it obvious when or where they should be taking action. Instead, they spend weeks, months, or years waiting around for the “perfect” opportunity to take action.
Make taking action obvious by creating an implementation intention: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].” Planning for when and where you will decide to take action will make it much easier to follow through on developing a new habit.
Since you often decide what to do next based on what you have just finished doing, consider identifying the current habits you already do each day and stack new behaviors on top of them. This strategy is also known as habit stacking, and the formula is this: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
For example, if you want to be tidier you could state:
“After I wake up in the morning, I will make my bed.”
Wanting to eat healthier:
“After I get my plate to serve myself, I will put vegetables on my plate first.”
Trying to save money:
“After my paycheck goes into my checking account, I will immediately deposit $200 into my savings account.”
The more specific you can be with the relationship between your habit and cue the better the odds of success. In a similar vein, the most practical way to eliminate a bad habit is to reduce your exposure to the cue.
Your habits can be much easier to change in a new environment. This is due to breaking away from the subtle triggers and cues that push you towards your current behaviors. It is much easier to associate a new habit with a new environment than to have it compete against pre-existing cues in your routine environment. Consider going to a new place – a new coffee shop, a different park around town or even a different room in your home you never utilize – and build your new habits there.
Have a separate space to work, study, sleep, and exercise. Eventually, each space will be associated with the habit you are nurturing, thus allowing your mind to context switch into the new behavior with little friction. If you want behaviors that are stable and predictable, you need an environment that is stable and predictable.
Don’t wish you were a more disciplined person, but instead design a more disciplined environment. The secret to self-control is to make the cues of your good habits obvious and the cues of your bad habits invisible.
For example, if you watch too much TV in the evening, consider removing your TV from the bedroom.
Eating healthier can be as simple as hiding junk food in the back of the pantry and displaying fresh fruit on your countertop.
Remove the cue, and the habit will begin to fade away.
When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win.
If we can make our habits as attractive as possible, then our anticipation of future rewards will be enough to motivate us to act in the first place.
Consider joining a culture where your desired behavior is considered the norm, and you already have something in common. Surround yourself with people whose habits you want for yourself. When you are uncertain how to act, you can look to them for guidance. It is human nature to observe those around us and ask, “What is everyone else doing?”
If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection. You need to get your reps in. Don’t ask how long it takes to form a habit but rather ask yourself how often are you performing the behavior. Your habits are easier to follow if they fit into the flow of your life.
A simple rule to help establish new habits is to use The Two-Minute Rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”
A new habit should not feel difficult. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first two minutes should be easy. You want the habit to be easy enough for you to stick with it long enough to take hold. Your goal may be to read 50 books this year, but the habit starts by reading just two pages every day.
The more you can ritualize the beginning of a process, the more likely you can slip into the state of deep focus that is required to reach mastery.
The costs of your good habits are in the present. The costs of your bad habits are in the future. What is immediately rewarded is repeated. What is immediately punished is avoided. Positive emotions cultivate good habits while negative emotions destroy them.
Increase your odds of eliminating bad habits by adding an instant cost to the action. A straightforward way to add an immediate cost to your behavior is by creating a Habit Contract. Since we care deeply about what others think of us, share your contract with an accountability partner to make the costs of violating your promises both public and painful.
Increase your odds of creating good habits by immediately reinforcing them with something satisfying. Visual cues of your progress are a way to get instant feedback. The best way to track your progress is by using a Habit Tracker. Use a journal, calendar, or app to check or highlight each day right after you complete the habit. After you have built up a few consecutive days, you will be motivated to not “break the chain.” Habit tracking will also keep you honest about the progress you are making.
If you end up missing a day, it’s okay. The rule is never to miss twice. Missing once is an accident or bad day, missing twice is the start of reinforcing the wrong behavior.
Staying positive while developing a good habit often boils down to doing something you enjoy. You experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of your current abilities, also known as The Goldilocks Rule. Make it too hard, and you will quit. Make it too easy and you will get bored.
Mastery is the process of narrowing your focus to a tiny element of success, repeating it until you have internalized the skill, and then using this new habit as the foundation to advance to the next frontier of your development.
Peak performance is all a matter of getting slightly better each day.
Habits + Deliberate Practice = Mastery.
Creating a good habit is as simple as following these four steps:
1. Make it Obvious
- Fill out your Habit Scorecard
- Use your implementation intentions: “I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].”
- Use habit stacking: “After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
- Design your environment to make your good habit cues obvious
2. Make it Attractive
- Join a culture where your desired behavior is the norm
3. Make it Easy
- Focus on repetition, not perfection
- Use the Two-Minute Rule
- Ritualize the process
4. Make it Satisfying
- Immediately reward yourself when you reinforce a good habit
- Use a Habit Tracker
- Never miss twice