Habits Writing

The Ultimate Guide to Building Good Habits that Stick

By FocusMe Team on 17 October 2017

Our habits play a major role in forming our personality, mood, and achievements.

Here’s how to form good habits and hold on to them.

When praising the power of habits, life coaches, psychologists, and writers alike are fond of quoting Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The powerful (if not over-quoted) bit of wisdom is just as valid today as it was when the Greek philosopher first penned it. Whether you’re training to be a champion discus thrower or trying to launch a high-grossing blog, your habits will play a major role in determining who you are and what you accomplish.


What Are Habits and Why Do They Matter?

Habits generate an impulse to behave or act with little or no conscious thought. Like an autopilot for your brain, habits enable you to carry out vital activities without exerting huge amounts of mental energy, freeing up your mind to tackle more complex endeavors.

For example, compare the concentration you invested when you were first learning to parallel park to the level of concentration you invest in the task now. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, explains:

“This process—in which the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine—is known as “chunking,” and it’s at the root of how habits form. There are dozens—if not hundreds—of behavioral chunks that we rely on every day.”

According to Duhigg, more than 40 percent of our daily actions are the result of habits, not decision making.

Why Are Some Habits Difficult to Change?

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Thousands of years after Aristotle waxed poetic about them, our habits are still integral to happiness, health, and success—but no less challenging to break and form.

Bad habits, in particular, are difficult to break because enjoyable behaviors can trigger the release of dopamine, a pleasure-seeking chemical. Dopamine creates a craving in the brain’s reward center to perform the action again and again. In contrast, “good” activities—like eating vegetables or waking up early—aren’t always accompanied by instant gratification, and thus may not develop effortlessly.

For help battling negative behavioral patterns:

Download Our Free Guide to Breaking Bad Habits

5 Science-Backed Strategies for Building Good Habits

You know that exercising will lengthen your lifespan. You know that waking up early can increase productivity. You know that reading will foster new ideas and that meditation will combat stress.

But if it’s so obvious that adopting good habits will facilitate health, happiness, and success, why is it so tough to implement positive behaviors? While it won’t always be quick and easy, you can rewire your brain to adapt to healthy habits with actionable steps.

Here are some science-backed strategies for building good habits:

Create Micro-Habits

Staring down big dreams like learning Portuguese or starting a business can be intimidating. To conquer your large-scale goals, start by creating “micro-habits.” A micro-habit is a small, simple change that requires minimal effort and motivation. These too-tiny-to-fail habits make your goal approachable, propelling you forward step by step while keeping you from making excuses.

When introducing a micro-habit, think of something you can do once a day that can be completed in under 30 seconds. Here are some examples:

  • Eat a lighter lunch (instead of just “lose weight”).
  • Jog around your block in the morning (instead of “become a runner”).
  • Keep your iPhone out of the bedroom (instead of “improve sleep”).
  • Read one page before bed (instead of “
  • Smoke one less cigarette per day (instead of “quit smoking”).

2. Try Habit Stacking

The idea behind habit stacking is to tack a new behavior you wish to acquire onto an existing one. You can introduce a new habit more easily by piggybacking the new behavior onto an established habit that is already hardwired into your brain.

To devise a habit-stacking plan, complete the following phrase:

“After I [existing habit], I will [new habit].”

For example:

  • After I brush my teeth, I will floss.
  • After putting on the coffee to brew, I will stretch.
  • Before I eat dinner, I will list three things I’m grateful for.
  • Whenever I take a bathroom break, I will say hello to a coworker.
  • Every time I commute to work, I will listen to an audiobook.
  • After my lunch break, I will meditate for 10 minutes.


3. Introduce Rewards

Earlier, we discussed how the immediate release of dopamine makes it tempting to take on bad habits. Although good habits often lack this kind of instant gratification, you can manufacture the endorphin rush by setting up a reward system yourself. Here are some examples:

  • Go for a smoothie after working out.
  • Watch a YouTube video after studying for an hour.
  • Take a walk after practicing an instrument for an hour.

Just make sure the reward you introduce doesn’t sabotage other good habits. For instance, don’t reward exercise with a slice of cake.

4. Design Your Environment

Even more than willpower and motivation, your surroundings can have a significant impact on your behavior. Remain in your old environment, and you’re likely to stick to your old habits. Change your environment, however, and you can place obstacles in front of bad behaviors while removing barricades to positive ones. Here are some ways to design an environment that encourages positive habits:

  • Surround yourself with people who are trying to build the same habit.
  • Remove junk food from your home and office to encourage healthy eating.
  • Keep your alarm clock out of reach from your bed to encourage early rising.
  • Store your remote in a difficult-to-reach place to discourage TV watching.

5. Don’t break the chain

The key to building positive habits is consistency. Consistent, daily action accumulates into major, long-term change.

One strategy to encourage consistency was popularized by prolific comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Legend holds that Seinfeld would write a red X on his calendar for every day he wrote a new joke. As the chain of Xs grew, he found he was increasingly reluctant to break the chain by skipping a day.

The “break the chain” method serves as a visual reminder of all the energy you’ve already invested in your goal. The chain of Xs can become a psychological motivator that can spur the formation of your habit. Through the act of marking an X alone, you can trigger a rush of dopamine, setting up a reward system that propels you towards your objective.

For help battling negative behavioral patterns:

Download Our Free Guide to Breaking Bad Habits

Parting thoughts

Here’s one thing to remember as you embark on your self-improvement quest: as a human, you’re likely to slip up. Relapsing when you’re building a new habit—oversleeping when you’re want to become an early bird, skipping an entry when you’re trying to journal nightly, caving to take-out food cravings when you’re determined to become a regular cook, etc.—is merely a part of the journey. If you flub when trying to form a healthy habit, forgive yourself and get back on track immediately. By sticking stubbornly to your plan, you’ll be able to build a habit that comes naturally—little to no willpower or mental energy required.