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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 March 23, 2021

Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

Manage Your Energy so You Can Manage Your Time

One of the greatest ironies of this age is that while various gadgets like smartphones and netbooks allow you to multitask, it seems that you never manage to get things done. You are caught in the busyness trap. There’s just too much work to do in one day that sometimes you end up exhausted with half-finished tasks.

The problem lies in how to keep our energy level high to ensure that you finish at least one of your most important tasks for the day. There’s just not enough hours in a day and it’s not possible to be productive the whole time.

You need more than time management. You need energy management

1. Dispel the idea that you need to be a “morning person” to be productive

How many times have you heard (or read) this advice – wake up early so that you can do all the tasks at hand. There’s nothing wrong with that advice. It’s actually reeks of good common sense – start early, finish early. The thing is that technique alone won’t work with everyone. Especially not with people who are not morning larks.

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I should know because I was once deluded with the idea that I will be more productive if I get out of bed by 6 a.m. Like most of you Lifehackers, I’m always on the lookout for productivity hacks because I have a lot of things in my plate. I’m working full time as an editor for a news agency, while at the same time tending to my side business as a content marketing strategist. I’m also a travel blogger and oh yeah, I forgot, I also have a life.

I read a lot of productivity books and blogs looking for ways to make the most of my 24 hours. Most stories on productivity stress waking up early. So I did – and I was a major failure in that department – both in waking up early and finishing early.

2. Determine your “peak hours”

Energy management begins with looking for your most productive hours in a day. Getting attuned to your body clock won’t happen instantly but there’s a way around it.

Monitor your working habits for one week and list down the time when you managed to do the most work. Take note also of what you feel during those hours – do you feel energized or lethargic? Monitor this and you will find a pattern later on.

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My experiment with being a morning lark proved that ignoring my body clock and just doing it by disciplining myself to wake up before 8 a.m. will push me to be more productive. I thought that by writing blog posts and other reports in the morning that I would be finished by noon and use my lunch break for a quick gym session. That never happened. I was sleepy, distracted and couldn’t write jack before 10 a.m.

In fact that was one experiment that I shouldn’t have tried because I should know better. After all, I’ve been writing for a living for the last 15 years, and I have observed time and again that I write more –and better – in the afternoon and in evenings after supper. I’m a night owl. I might as well, accept it and work around it.

Just recently, I was so fired up by a certain idea that – even if I’m back home tired from work – I took out my netbook, wrote and published a 600-word blog post by 11 p.m. This is a bit extreme and one of my rare outbursts of energy, but it works for me.

3. Block those high-energy hours

Once you have a sense of that high-energy time, you can then mold your schedule so that your other less important tasks will be scheduled either before or after this designated productive time.

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Block them out in your calendar and use the high-energy hours for your high priority tasks – especially those that require more of your mental energy and focus. You also need to use these hours to any task that will bring you closer to you life’s goal.

If you are a morning person, you might want to schedule most business meetings before lunch time as it’s important to keep your mind sharp and focused. But nothing is set in stone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice those productive hours to attend to other personal stuff – like if you or your family members are sick or if you have to attend your son’s graduation.

That said, just remember to keep those productive times on your calendar. You may allow for some exemptions but stick to that schedule as much as possible.

There’s no right or wrong way of using this energy management technique because everything depends on your own personal circumstances. What you need to remember is that you have to accept what works for you – and not what other productivity gurus say you should do.

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Understanding your own body clock is the key to time management. Without it, you end up exhausted chasing a never-ending cycle of tasks and frustrations.

Featured photo credit: Collin Hardy via unsplash.com

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