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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 January 25, 2021

6 Reasons Why Perfectionism Kills Your Productivity

6 Reasons Why Perfectionism Kills Your Productivity

Perfectionism sounds like a first world problem, but it stifles creative minds. Having a great idea but doubting your ability to execute it can leave you afraid to just complete and publish it. Some of the most successful inventors failed, but they kept going in pursuit of perfection. On the other end of the spectrum, perfectionism can hinder people when they spend too much time seeking recognition, gathering awards and wasting time patting themselves on the back. Whatever your art, go make good art and don’t spend time worrying that your idea isn’t perfect enough and certainly don’t waste time coming up with a new idea because you’re still congratulating yourself for the last one.

1. Remember, perfection is subjective.

If you’re worried about achieving perfectionism with any single project so much that you find yourself afraid to just finish it, then you aren’t being productive. Take a hard look at your work, edit and revise, then send it our into the world. If the reviews aren’t the greatest, learn from the feedback so you can improve next time.

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2. Procrastination masquerades itself as perfectionism.

People who procrastinate aren’t always lazy or trying to get out of doing something. Many who procrastinate do so because perfectionism is killing their productivity, telling them that if they wait a better idea will come to them.

3. Recognize actions that waste time.

Artists and all creative people need time to incubate; those ideas will only grow when properly watered, but if you’re not engaging in an activity that will help foster creativity, you might just be wasting time. Remember to do everything with purpose, even relaxing.

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4. Don’t discriminate against your worth.

No one is actually perfect. We often have tremendous ideas or write things that move people emotionally, but no one attains that final state of being perfect. So, don’t get down if your second idea isn’t as good as your first—or vice versa. Perfectionists tend to be the toughest critics of their work, so don’t criticize yourself. You are not your work no matter how good or how bad.

5. Stress races your heart and freezes your innovation.

Stress is a cyclic killer that perfectionists know well because that same system that engages and causes your palms to sweat over a great idea is the same system that kicks in and worries you that you’re not good enough. Perfectionism means striving for that ultimate level, and stress can propel you forward excitedly or leave you shaking in fear of the next step.

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6. Meeting deadlines beats waiting for perfect work.

Don’t let your fear of failure prevent you from meeting your deadline. Perfection is subjective and if you’re wasting time or procrastinating, you should just finish the job and learn from any mistakes. Being productive means completing work. You shouldn’t try for months or even years to perfect one project when you can produce projects that improve over time.

Featured photo credit: morguefile via mrg.bz

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