Why you need habits to achieve your goals
Ever feel like you’re spinning your wheels and can’t gain any traction with your goals?
It’s possible you’ve never learned how to create lasting habits that will help you be successful.
Your life is essentially a sum of your habits. Which is why you typically forget about your New Year’s resolutions by Valentine’s Day.
Let me explain.
A habit is something you do without thinking. It’s deep in your subconscious mind, and when you’re presented with a specific “cue”, your brain automatically triggers a habit tied to that cue. Sometimes you’re aware of this reaction, but many times not.
That habit is also connected to some kind of reward: a feeling of accomplishment, a sense of relief, a desire for comfort, or even a bowl of ice cream.
A resolution is only an intention or decision to do or not do something. It’s not yet tied to a trigger or a reward in your brain. So, when you “resolve” to save more money, you’re basically relying on pure willpower (which, can be a habit, but most people haven’t developed it).
So, it’s important to know what cues and rewards will be effective in developing a new habit that you’ll stick with. Otherwise, your resolutions may die a quick death.
But, what if you want to replace a bad habit with a better one? For example, maybe you want to stop eating sugar and start eating more vegetables.
If eating sugar has become a subconscious habit (with its own triggers and rewards), then this will be a major barrier to eating more salads. The bad habit can’t simply be ignored, because it won’t just go away on its own. This is because old habits cannot be eradicated – they can only be changed.
In this post, I’ll go over how you can build lasting habits that will support you in your goals. Whether it’s a new habit or a replacement habit, you can learn to develop behaviors that allow you to be more effective and productive.
Why is it so hard to develop lasting habits?
As humans, it’s actually not difficult for us to create habits. Especially when there is a negative and immediate consequence if we don’t.
For example, you probably brush your teeth in the morning without thinking too much about it. It’s become a habit, mostly because you don’t want to be rude and melt people’s eyeballs with your morning breath.
Or, maybe you drink coffee every morning because you need your brain to wake up before you go into the office and talk to your boss.
Your habits help you be more efficient with small, daily tasks like tying your shoes, driving to the store, or making dinner. They help you save time and mental energy and become automatic behaviors.
So, why does it seem hard to build habits like eating healthy or exercising?
Many times it’s a barrier that keeps you from developing more productive behaviors. It could be a bad habit, limiting beliefs, your environment, or just a lack of motivation.
To develop a good habit, you must find the barriers that keep you from strengthening that behavior in your daily life. Then, you need to be intentional about setting up your thoughts and surroundings to support your efforts to build better habits.
Thankfully, recent research has taught us a lot about how you can train your brain to respond positively to building a lasting habit.
Building your habit loop
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains the 3-step process all habits use. These steps create a habit loop, that strengthens a habit until it becomes second nature.
Here are the 3-steps of a habit loop:
- Cue – what triggers the routine
- Routine – the behavior that defines the habit
- Reward – the benefit you experience after you complete the routine
First, your brain responds to a cue, or a trigger. This could be something you do intentionally, or it can come from an external source (like, a TV commercial).
The cue then triggers a reaction, which Duhigg calls a routine. When creating a new habit, the routine is the desired behavior that you want to adopt.
Finally, the “loop” is closed when the routine is rewarded with something that encourages your brain to “like” the new behavior.
Over time, you begin to crave the reward, so the new habit strengthens every time you anticipate getting it. It’s the craving that drives the behavior and solidifies the habit.
Knowing how a habit loop is formed gives us the key to creating lasting habits. All you have to do is determine a new behavior you want to establish (the routine), and then identify the craving that this habit wants to fulfill. By creating a cue that will trigger the routine, your anticipation of the reward will drive your behavior, rather than relying on willpower to get you through.
How to use your habit loop
Let’s go through an example of creating and using a habit loop for a brand new habit you want to adopt.
The first step is to identify a new habit you want to create. Maybe you get enough sleep every night, are an early riser, but you’re just not very productive in the mornings. You decide you want to start jogging before you eat breakfast. This is the routine, or habit, that you want to implement.
Next, identify a reward. At first, it might be something tangible, like a fruit smoothie or logging your miles. But over time the reward might change to the high you get after a 30-minute run. The reward must be something that you’ll actually anticipate receiving, so pick something that’s desirable to you.
Finally, determine a cue that will trigger your new habit loop. That could be as simple as lacing up your sneakers or putting your earbuds in. One common suggestion is to either lay out your workout clothes the night before or even sleep in them.
These three steps are enough to get you started, but not enough to sustain the new behavior. In order to make this new routine a strong habit, your brain needs to crave the reward. Remember, it’s the craving that drives the behavior.
To build this craving, think about and anticipate the reward. Visualize yourself experiencing the reward, and build a sense of anticipation. In this way, you’re developing a craving that will become so strong, willpower isn’t even needed.
Anyone can use this formula to develop new habits. Once your brain is programmed to crave a certain reward, the behavior to get that reward will be automatic.
And that’s when those New Year’s resolutions will be like second nature.
How to change a bad habit into a good one
Duhigg explains that the key to creating lasting habits is self-awareness. Once you understand the trigger and reward of a specific habit, you’re already halfway to changing it.
This also applies to bad habits that you’d like to replace with more productive ones. These negative behaviors serve as barriers to more positive patterns and need to be addressed. As previously mentioned, old habits can’t simply be eliminated. They must be replaced with a new habit.
The good news is, the same trigger and reward can be just as effective for a replacement habit. All you have to do is replace the routine with something that gives you more positive results.
Since every habit is triggered by a cue, the first step to create change is to determine what causes the negative habit to activate.
For example, saving money is a good financial habit to master. But the habit of spending money can be a barrier. What triggers you to spend money?
Maybe it’s TV commercials, or having cash in your wallet, or getting a coupon in the mail. Any (or all) of these could send a cue to your brain that it’s time to spend money.
Once you receive this cue, you automatically want to go online or to the store and buy something. Why is that?
Because your brain has gotten used to the reward you receive when you carry out this routine. In fact, as soon as you experience a trigger, your brain automatically starts craving that reward.
The tricky thing can be figuring out exactly what reward you’re craving. In this example, the reward is not actually the item you’re buying. Rather, it’s more likely the feeling you get when you buy something new. A rush of dopamine, a surge of excitement, a sense of anticipation, etc.
It’s the craving that drives the behavior between the cue and the reward. And if you can swap out a different behavior, but keep the same cue and reward, then you’ve essentially “rebuilt” your habit.
For example, every time you’re triggered to spend money, you could transfer a certain dollar amount into your savings account instead. Over time, you’ll see your balance go up, and your brain will crave the excitement that comes with seeing your savings grow and the anticipation of paying cash for your dream vacation.
This strategy can be used for any habit you want to change. By learning to recognize the cues, cravings, and rewards of your current habits, you can transform them into ones that are more productive.
How to create lasting habits that you’ll stick with
Now that you know how to create a habit loop, you can start changing your behaviors so they support your goals. But first, there are a few things you can do to boost your efforts and increase your chances of success.
Here are 5 smart steps you can take to sharpen your focus and strengthen your commitment to creating more positive habits in your life.
#1 Make specific goals
Habits are the daily building blocks you use to achieve your biggest goals. If you want to create the habits that return the greatest benefits, you’ll need to be clear about the goals you’re setting.
A *smart* way to define your goals is by using the SMART method:
- S – Specific
- M – Measurable
- A – Achievable
- R – Relevant
- T – Time-bound
When your goals include all 5 of these attributes, you’ll be more focused and motivated to achieve them. This will greatly help you to stay on track with creating those new habits that will give you the discipline to keep moving forward.
#2 Know your why
One of the most important things you can do as a goal achiever is to clearly identify the reasons behind the goals you’ve set for yourself.
It’s easy to imagine how your life would be better if you had more savings, lost some weight, stopped being codependent, etc. But, the strongest motivator is that deep emotional connection you have to the results you want in your life. Knowing your deepest “why” will help you push through even when adversity strikes.
I encourage you to take your time with this step. Don’t settle for quick, shallow explanations. Really dig deep into how this new habit will affect your life, your relationships, your mental health, your future self, etc.
Visualize yourself carrying out the habit, and experiencing its benefits. Get specific, and write down those reasons that create a strong emotional commitment to creating the new habit.
Then – read it daily. Not just when you’re unmotivated. Remind yourself often how this new habit will improve your life and why it will help you become the best version of you.
#3 Try habit stacking
One strategy to make a new habit stick is by using habit stacking.
Because the human brain likes shortcuts, you can develop a habit easier by “stacking” new and old behaviors on top of each other. In this way, you leverage old habits to create new habits, with each behavior triggering the next.
For example, maybe you have a goal to save more money. One routine (habit) that would support this goal is to decrease your monthly utilities. You could “stack” the new habit of turning off all the house lights and electronics on top of your existing habit to lock all the doors before you leave the house. This will help lower your power bill.
Perhaps another goal is paying off your debt. You could use your current habit of checking your bank account on payday to trigger a payment to one of your credit cards.
By stacking behaviors that are related to each other, you create sequential patterns that your brain naturally wants to complete. This simple hack helps your new habits become second nature faster.
#4 Make adjustments to your environment
You’ll find it easier to stay focused and carry through with your new habit if you minimize temptations and distractions. The goal is to make your path as clear and direct as possible.
This means removing or avoiding those things that tempt you to take an action (or inaction) that doesn’t align with your new habit.
If you want to save more money, you may need to unsubscribe from your favorite store’s email promotions. Or, take a different route home so you can’t hear Target calling your name.
And, how often have you been distracted by something you *never* look at, listen to, pick up, read, or eat, on the way to carrying out a behavior you’re not used to doing? Mmhmm.
Remove whatever is going to get in your way. This might mean turning off your cell phone, unplugging the computer, not passing by the TV, and avoiding the kitchen altogether.
#5 Track your progress
Bad habits are usually created out of an unwillingness to delay gratification. We all want to feel good *now*, so we give in to the sugar cravings, another glass of wine, or the emotional spending.
If you haven’t strengthened your ability to resist impulses, you may have extra difficulty sticking to a new habit.
A good way to see immediate results is by tracking your progress. Just checking another box on your habit tracker may be the reward that propels you forward, before you actually start experiencing tangible results.
You can either use a printed habit tracker or download one to your mobile phone.
Better habits, better life
Being intentional with your daily habits is one of the most effective ways to achieve your goals and create the future you envision for yourself.
Once a good habit has become a natural behavior for you, the benefits will be evident in your everyday life. You’ll enjoy the fruits of your good choices without having to put in a lot of effort.
The tough part is starting, and then being consistent until it’s become second nature. But, if you can get past the resistance to change and overcome the barriers, you’ll find that your life will be more productive and fulfilling.
There will be times when you want to give up – and indeed, times when you *do* give up. But, I encourage you to try again. Use the strategies in this post to help you create those habit loops that will result in real change.
You won’t regret it, I promise.