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Published on November 6, 2020

The Psychology of Habit Formation (And How to Hack it)

The Psychology of Habit Formation (And How to Hack it)

Our habits define our success. Yet, they seem to be out of our control. Whether you’re talking about breaking bad habits or habit formation, neither is a piece of cake.

The psychology behind habit formation is what helps us create new habits and also helps us break bad ones. If you can understand this psychology, you can fully control what you get accustomed to in life. To educate yourself more on this topic and to learn how to implement this knowledge in your life for your own good, keep reading!

How Habits Form

Habits are generally only categorized as good or bad. Most people don’t look beyond these categories and fail to recognize the true power of habits.

Our habits play a vital role in our life. From our daily routine to the rate of success, our habits determine the outcomes for the most part. Unfortunately, we tend to believe that we’re in control of our habits despite it being the other way around.

The Habit Loop

This is why it is very important to know how habits form. The process is called the habit loop.[1] It has three main components that work together for habit formation: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The cue is a trigger that encourages the following behavior. Anything around you that reminds you of the habit or makes you want to put it in action is the cue. It can be an object, a person, a feeling, an event, a scent, or anything at all.

Next, there’s the routine. Habits aren’t just one action that’s disconnected from the rest of your actions. What comes before and after the habitual behavior is part of the habit. This is what the routine is.

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Whenever a cue triggers your habit, you’ll start following the defined routine that your brain has developed. The entire series of actions will always be the same or very similar, every time the habit is unconsciously put into action.

The reward is whatever outcome you achieve. For example, if your habit helps you feel emotionally better, that is your reward. This is something that your brain considers to be a positive outcome. Hence, you unconsciously want to repeat the habit again and again to achieve the satisfaction of the reward.

How to Break Bad Habits

All habits form the same way. The habit loop is the culprit behind bad habits but also the one to credit for good ones. Either way, since you’re aware of the process now, you can work on it to achieve the outcome you desire.

Despite unconsciously happening, if you focus on the process, you can try to break bad habits. Luckily, it’s possible with a little effort so you don’t have to be stuck with toxic habits for life.

The following tips will help you break the loop of bad habit formation.

1. Take Small Steps

The motivation to break bad habits can make you want to get rid of everything negative all at once. You may think you have all the energy it takes to erase out your bad habits in one go but neither is this possible nor is it a healthy approach.

Breaking bad habits is not a one-day task or a one-go attempt. It is a process that will take time and a lot of patience. You have to start with minor steps and stay consistent. Get rid of things that lead to bad habits one by one. Adjust your lifestyle slowly. An immediate shock may rid you of one bad habit but it can trigger many more.

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2. Focus on the Cues

Your bad habits strengthen when they are repeated. To avoid doing so, the best way is to control them from the start. For this, you need to take control of the cues. If you can keep your mind from getting triggered into putting the habit in action, you can prevent the bad habit from strengthening its presence in your life.

It will take some time for you to figure out the exact triggers. Keep an eye on the circumstances where you tend to put the bad habit into action. Then, start taking steps to control these triggers or simply eradicate the possibility of these cues from your routine. This will help you prevent negative habit formation.

3. One Habit at a Time

A lot of us have numerous bad habits that we want to get rid of. It sounds almost justified to want to get rid of all of them at once.

Just like breaking one bad habit needs time and patience, getting rid of all bad habits needs even more consistency and effort. Focus on one bad habit at a time for a higher success rate. Avoid the mental strain by breaking one bad habit at a time only.

4. Use Replacements

Habits take a noticeable space in your life and mind. When you’re trying to get rid of a bad habit, do not leave behind an empty void. Instead, replace it with something better.

For example, if you’re trying to minimize your alcohol consumption, every time you avoid a glass of alcohol, replace it with a healthier drink. This works simultaneously in breaking a bad habit and developing a good one.

How to Develop Good Habits

A corollary to the idea that habits are unconscious is that trying to make new habits consciously won’t do much for you. While it is true, there are some (easy) ways you can trick your brain. These are the things that will remind you of (trigger) better habits without a direct effort which will do the job of developing new (good) habits!

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Here are some ways you can develop good habits.

1. Identify Good Habits

We all want to have good habits, but we all have a different vision of what these good habits are. Before you start struggling to develop new habits, identify your aim. Which habits do you think are good for you, will help you in your life, and you would enjoy having in the long run? This list will keep you on track as you make the effort to get used to them.

2. Strengthen Your Willpower

Simply deciding that you want to have better habits is the easiest part of the process. However, you need a way stronger willpower to continue the process till the end. Do everything you possibly can to keep your hopes and motivation high. You’ll need it to stick to your goal, build good habits, and then (the hardest part of the process) keep them.

The process is not easy. You’ll face multiple obstacles. However, your willpower will push you to try over and over again despite repetitive failures.

3. Surround Yourself With Positive People

The best conscious way to encourage your mind to get used to things unconsciously is to have a good company. The people you surround yourself with will have a major impact on your habits. This is where you develop most of your hidden good habits.

Stay around the people whose habits you want to adopt as well. These people will also encourage you to continue struggling for a better self when you’re losing motivation and hope. Naturally, a positive company will strengthen your mind, which allows you to put in more effort in the right direction and have positive habit formation.

4. Develop a Routine

If you look back on the habit loop, there are three components. The cue and reward are two components that you cannot really control. Your brain will decide what triggers it. Similarly, your mind will feel the reward on its own, too.

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The only thing in the process you can control when it comes to developing new habits is the routine. The same routine is followed every time the habit is triggered. So, allow your brain to get used to following a specific routine that reinforces the good habit/s you want to develop.[2]

For example, if you want to make it a habit to read a book before you go to sleep, you’ll have to make a conscious effort for a while. Start by putting your smartphone aside so you’re not distracted. Turn on your bedside reading lamp and turn off all the other lights. Have a book within reach so that you don’t forget to read any day.

You’ll have to follow this routine a few times before your mind gets a hang of it. Then, gradually, you’ll get so used to reading before going to bed, and after a few weeks (sometimes months). it’ll be impossible to fall asleep without reading a few pages.

Bottom Line

If you’ve been striving for success but have been failing over and over again, it’s time to shift your focus. You’ve been blaming it on external factors and working on the wrong aspects of your life. What you need to polish are your habits so that you can consistently work towards a better future, even with unconscious behaviors.

Understanding the psychology of habit formation will help you lead a healthier, more positive, and highly successful life. So, start using these tips in your everyday life to get control over your habits!

More About Habit Building

Featured photo credit: Chander R via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on November 5, 2020

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

How to Get out of a Rut: 12 Useful Ways to Get Unstuck

Have you gotten into a rut before? Or are you in a rut right now?

You know you’re in a rut when you run out of ideas and inspiration. A rut can manifest as a productivity vacuum and be a reason why you aren’t getting results. Even as you spend more time on your work, you can’t seem to get anything constructive done. Is it possible to learn how to get out of a rut?

Over time, I have tried and found several methods that are helpful to pull me out of a rut. If you experience ruts too, whether as a working professional, a writer, a blogger, or a student, you will find these useful. Here are 12 of my personal tips to get out of ruts:

1. Work on Small Tasks

When you are in a rut, tackle it by starting small. Clear away your smaller tasks that have been piling up. Reply to your emails, organize your documents, declutter your work space, and reply to private messages.

Whenever I finish doing that, I generate positive momentum, which I bring forward to my work.

If you have a large long-term goal you can’t wait to get started on, break it down into smaller objectives first. This will help each piece feel manageable and help you feel like you’re moving closer to your goal.

You can learn more about goals vs objectives here.

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2. Take a Break From Your Work Desk

When you want to learn how to get out of a rut, get yourself away from your desk and go take a walk. Go to the bathroom, walk around the office, or go out and get a snack. According to research, your productivity is best when you work for 50 minutes to an hour and then take a 15-20 minute break[1].

Your mind may be too bogged down and will need some airing. By walking away from your computer, you may create extra space for new ideas that were hiding behind high stress levels.

3. Upgrade Yourself

Take the down time to upgrade your knowledge and skills. Go to a seminar, read up on a subject of interest, or start learning a new language. Or any of the 42 ways here to improve yourself.

The modern computer uses different typefaces because Steve Jobs dropped in on a calligraphy class back in college[2]. How’s that for inspiration?

4. Talk to a Friend

Talk to someone and get your mind off work for a while. Relying on a support system is a great way to work on self-care when you’re learning how to get out of a rut.

Talk about anything, from casual chatting to a deep conversation about something you really care about. You will be surprised at how the short encounter can be rejuvenating in its own way.

5. Forget About Trying to Be Perfect

If you are in a rut, the last thing you want to do is step on your own toes with perfectionist tendencies. Perfectionism can lead you to fear failure, which can ultimate hinder you even more if you’re trying to find motivation to work on something new.

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If you allow your perfectionism to fade, soon, a little trickle of inspiration will come, and then it’ll build up with more trickles. Before you know it, you have a whole stream of ideas.

Learn more about How Not to Let Perfectionism Secretly Screw You Up.

6. Paint a Vision to Work Towards

If you are continuously getting in a rut with your work, maybe there’s no vision inspiring you to move forward.

Think about why you are doing this, and what you are doing it for. What is the ultimate goal or vision you have for your life?

Make it as vivid as possible. Make sure it’s a vision that inspires you and use that to trigger you to action. You can use the power of visualization or even create a vision board if you like to have something to physically remind you of your goals.

7. Read a Book (or Blog)

The things we read are like food for our brain. If you are out of ideas, it’s time to feed your brain with great material.

Here’s a list of 40 books you can start off with. You can also stock your browser with only the feeds of high quality blogs and follow writers who inspire and motivate you. Find something that interests you and start reading.

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8. Have a Quick Nap

If you are at home, take a quick nap for about 20-30 minutes. This clears up your mind and gives you a quick boost. Nothing quite like starting off on a fresh start after catching up on sleep[3].

Try a nap if you want to get out of a rut

    One Harvard study found that “whether they took long naps or short naps, participants showed significant improvement on three of the four tests in the study’s cognitive-assessment battery”[4].

    9. Remember Why You Are Doing This

    Sometimes we lose sight of why we do what we do, and after a while we become jaded. A quick refresher on why you even started on this project will help.

    What were you thinking when you thought of doing this? Retrace your thoughts back to that moment. Recall your inspiration, and perhaps even journal about it to make it feel more tangible.

    10. Find Some Competition

    When we are learning how to get out of a rut, there’s nothing quite like healthy competition to spur us forward. If you are out of ideas, then check up on what people are doing in your space.

    Colleagues at work, competitors in the industry, competitors’ products and websites, and networking conventions can all inspire you to get a move on. However, don’t let this throw you back into your perfectionist tendencies or low self-esteem.

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    11. Go Exercise

    Since you are not making headway at work, you might as well spend the time getting into shape and increasing dopamine levels. Sometimes we work so much that we neglect our health and fitness. Go jog, swim, cycle, or whatever type of exercise helps you start to feel better.

    As you improve your physical health, your mental health will improve, too. The different facets of ourselves are all interlinked.

    If you need ideas for a quick workout, check out the video below:

    12. Take a Few Vacation Days

    If you are stuck in a rut, it’s usually a sign that you have been working too long and too hard. It’s time to get a break.

    Beyond the quick tips above, arrange one or two days to take off from work. Don’t check your (work) emails or do anything work-related. Relax, do your favorite activities, and spend time with family members. You will return to your work recharged and ready to start.

    Contrary to popular belief, the world will not end from taking a break from your work. In fact, you will be much more ready to make an impact after proper rest.

    More Tips to Help You Get out of a Rut

    Featured photo credit: Ashkan Forouzani via unsplash.com

    Reference

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