The DEFINITIVE GUIDE:
how to replace bad habits and
build good ones that stick for life
By Tauras Sinkus
I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
We all would love to have a great morning routine, exercise regularly, eat healthy and read 1-2 books a month. How about adding meditation to the mix and spending less time in front of screens?
Yes, having these habits would be incredible. If only it was easier done than said…
But what if it’s only hard in our heads and change is easier than we think?
Well, it turns out you can dramatically increase your chances of successfully developing habits by learning how habits are formed and then using it to build or break any habit.
In today’s post, I will show you exactly how you can build healthy habits and make them stick for life.
All backed by science.
Definition of habit
There are many different definitions of habits.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines habit as:
The American Journal of Psychology defines a habit as “a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.”
James Clear, throughout his newest book ‘Atomic Habits‘, provides at least 4 different definitions and here are 3 I’ve highlighted myself:
- Habits are compound interest of self-improvement.
- A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly – and, in many cases, automatically.
- A habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.
And if you’re really asking me to come up with my own definition, here it is: habit is a behavior pattern that we perform automatically, without thinking.
Benefits of Habits
Undoubtedly, habits are way cooler than we think. It saves us mental energy we would otherwise spend on making every single decision.
Just imagine, each time you wake up having to think which eye to open first or which leg to use to step out of the bed…Luckily, we don’t have to and it’s all thanks to habits.
It’s literally an internal mechanism our brains developed to optimize our day-to-day operations.
Our lives consist of various small and big habits we do throughout the day. Hence ultimately, habits are what forms our personality, lifestyle, health, and even our beliefs.
Luckily, habits are not some sort of software that gets installed in our internal computers and cannot be updated, reinstalled or removed altogether.
Habits form after we do or think something repeatedly, so we have the power to change and create them if we understand how are they formed.
“ We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit. “
It is quite simple:
ACTION + REPETITION = HABIT
We are what we repeatedly do. When we perform a certain action our brain performs thousands of different calculations and connections to make sense of it. When we repeat the same action over and over, this human computer in our heads recognizes it and looks for ways to optimize the connections, in order to preserve energy for the ‘unknown’, while marking something as ‘known’.
This is exactly how you develop a routine and a habit.
The more times you repeat a certain action, the stronger your habit becomes and the easier it gets to perform that certain activity associated with it.
The good news is, that with each action performed it gets a little easier. As long as you do it regularly.
The Habit Loop Model
The concept of a habit loop was first introduced back in 1937 by B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist in his paper ‘The Behavior of Organisms’ and described as stimulus + response.
Later, Charles Duhigg popularized this concept in his NY Times bestseller ‘The Power of Habit’.
In that awesome book, he presents a habit loop formula, that consists of CUE + ROUTINE + REWARD.
WHAT IS A CUE?
A cue is something that triggers a certain action or thought in your brain.
Something that tells you that “now is time to do this and that”.
It could be anything – a place, time of the day, location, smell, sound, emotion.
For example, A CUE could be the smell of a bakery, which makes you think of that delicious croissant.
Or a certain hour of the day, sending a signal to your brain that it is lunchtime and you should be hungry by now.
WHAT IS A ROUTINE?
A Routine is an actual behavior, ritual, action you perform.
A routine could be physical, emotional or mental.
This is the action that will turn into the habit once performed frequently enough.
For example, your ROUTINE will be meditating, exercising, reading a book, drinking a glass of water.
WHAT IS A REWARD?
A Reward is a treat you give yourself whenever you successfully finish the routine. It sends a positive signal to your brain saying ‘Doing this feels good, we should do more of it!’.
A reward could be anything that makes you feel good. Ideally, something that is related to our primal needs of relaxing, socializing, food or playing.
Or, it could also be a simple (but powerful!) celebratory action you do immediately after completing the habit.
Behavior Scientist BJ Fogg recommends celebrating your achievement (“reward”) with a physical movement such as clapping your hands, celebratory dance, yelling something out loud like “You nailed it”, “Good job!” and/or imagining a roaring crowd rooting for you.
If the reward is bigger, for example, a new book, you could establish a token economy technique, as developed by B.F. Skinner. Here you reward yourself for each completed action (e.g., each meditation session).
Once you have collected a set amount of tokens (say 15 tokens), you can redeem them with a new book.
ADDING VISUALIZATION TO THE LOOP
Ever since I learned about the science of developing habits, I started to pay more attention to how I approach certain things and started to experiment with the habit loop formula.
What had a tremendous impact on developing habits, was visualizing myself already being a person with a certain habit.
The practice of visualization helps you to direct your thoughts toward your goals and in doing so, accelerates your achievements.
So in the case of morning routines, visualize yourself already performing that ultimate morning routine you want to establish.
Let’s say imagining yourself meditating or picturing yourself opening your eyes after meditation, grabbing a phone to close the meditation app, feeling grounded and determined to have an awesome day.
With visualization added to the equation, the upgraded habit loop formula looks like this:
BONUS TIP #1: BUILD UPON EXISTING ROUTINE
To succeed, you should focus on your existing habit and routines you already have.
It will be much easier to develop new habits when you build them upon existing routines. That way you will be more certain not to miss your “cue”.
Say you brush your teeth every morning. This is a habit you have formed over years and you do it almost automatically.
Let’s take this habit and build upon it – let’s use “teeth brushing” as a cue for your daily morning meditation practice. Meaning, as soon you brush your teeth, it will send a signal to your brain to meditate.
And since you brush your teeth every morning, you will naturally get a daily reminder to meditate.
BONUS TIP #2: Implementation Intentions
Another way to think about it is by establishing a personal “If-then” plan (implementation intentions) for your actions. This concept was introduced by psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer, who in his research found out that people who have a clear plan of how and when they intend to perform certain actions are much more likely to succeed.
The “if” represents the cue that triggers you to do a certain action, and “then” is your routine – the particular routine/habit you are trying to build up.
In the example of meditation, your statement would be the following:
“If I’m brushing my teeth in the morning, then I will meditate for x minutes”.
A STEP-BY-STEP APPROACH TO DEVELOPING HABITS
1. Think of the habit you want to add to your life.
- waking up early
- daily stretching
- daily reading
- regular exercise.
2. Find a cue, that happens every day, that is unavoidable and triggers you to take action immediately.
Some examples could be:
- Stepping out of your bed
- Taking a shower
- Dressing up for the day
- Going to the bathroom
- Opening the doors when you get home from work
- Taking your shoes off.
3. Add a routine you want to have as a habit.
Meaning, define how you will actually be performing your new habit.
For example, “every time I step out of the bed, I will stretch for a few minutes”.
4. Think of how you will reward yourself. Focus on small celebratory rituals and/or your primal needs such as:
- Yelling something out loud: “Good job”, “You nailed it!”
- Performing a small celebratory movement: clapping hands, dancing
- Relaxation: hot bath, 1 episode of your favorite series
- Food: breakfast, nourishing smoothie, healthy snack like hummus with veggies
- Socializing with friends or family
5. Rinse and repeat.
how long does it take to form a habit?
BELIEF #1: 21 Days to Form a Habit
There is a common misconception that it takes 21 days to form a habit. This comes from the work of Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon, who in the 1950s noticed a pattern within his patients: it would take them about 21 days on average to get used to their new face after a plastic surgery.
Dr. Maltz later published a book where he quoted that: “It requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
⇒ It takes a MINIMUM of 21 days to form a habit.
BELIEF #2: 66 Days to Form a Habit
Another number you’ll see floating around is that it takes 66 days to form a habit.
This comes from a study performed by prof. Phillippa Lally, which showed that on average it takes 66 days to form a habit, with a very broad range (!) of 18 – 254 days. It’s worth noticing though that the sample size of the study was rather small – 96 volunteers.
The study also showed that missing one opportunity did not materially affect the process of habit building.
⇒ The time range of forming a habit is pretty wide. And your efforts do not go to waste if you miss a day now and then.
Truth is, there is no “one size fits all” approach to forming new habits. It is very personal and depends on the habit, on your current lifestyle and existing habits.
For example, it might take you 18 days to get used to drinking more water, while it might take you 6 months to get into a habit of exercising if you are a complete newbie.
At 21 Day Hero, we offer you a chance to learn 4 keystone habits, that will completely transform not only your physical health but also your productivity and ability to focus. Check out our 12-Week Habit Upgrade program we’ve put all our work and knowledge in.
With our guidance and support, you will learn how to form a routine and find time for it in your busy schedule.
All so that at the end of the 12 weeks you’ll have the means required and feel confident in continuing fostering the habits on your own.
how to break a bad habit?
I’m sorry to reveal this, but… you can’t really erase a habit.
Remember the example of reading? It’s almost impossible for your brain to forget how to read.
But here comes the good news – you can replace a bad habit with a good one.
how to replace bad habits?
- Identify your cues and rewards.
- Change the routine part of your bad habit with a new positive routine that gives you the same level of feeling good.
For example, if you have a habit of checking your phone for “‘few minutes” before falling asleep all you need to do is identify the cue, routine and a reward. So in this case, you cue or trigger could be you feeling tired and stepping into bed. After this, the routine follows, which is the actual browsing. And the reward is most likely you feeling ‘ready to fall asleep’ and sort of winding down.
So simply replace the habit of browsing with grabbing a book instead. I know, it might not feel the same at the beginning, but it’s your old habits speaking. Simply do it for 3-4 nights in a row and before you know it, you’ll get into momentum that will make things 10x easier.
ENVIRONMENT DESIGN TO BREAK BAD HABITS
Another amazing “trick” is redesigning your environment by removing or minimizing the number of triggers for bad habits. Simply leave your phone to charge outside of your bedroom and have nothing but a book and a glass of water by your bed. This will help rewire your brain and replace a bad habit with a good one.
It works amazingly for those who try to improve their nutrition too. Remove all sugary stuff, soft drinks and bad carbs like pasta from your cupboards and donate it to a homeless shelter. Stuff all that vacant space with healthy stuff like legumes, nuts, fruits, veggies, dark chocolate (70% and up). Trust me, you’ll find yourself eating healthier immediately.
And don’t worry, it takes time to develop a healthy good habit but the more you practice it, the more automatic the action of doing it becomes.
Prepare for difficult situations in advance
There will be times when you are not able to complete your daily goals or not able to resist the desire for bad habits.
Times when your brain starts looking for excuses and searching for habit loopholes, such as: “I’ve been so good at sticking to the new diet, I deserve a glass of wine” or “I’d go for a walk but it’s too cold outside”. Read more
It’s OK, and in fact, you should expect such moments.
The best thing you can do is to prepare how you will deal with difficult situations. Follow some simple steps below to define your plan.
DEFINE YOUR DIFFICULT MOMENTS
Think of 3-4 moments that might get in your way with your goals and answer the following questions:
- When is the most likely for you to get into this difficult situation?
- What usually goes on in your head when you are having this situation?
- How do you tend to react to such a situation?
Prepare your if-then plan
Remember the “If-then” plan we briefly covered earlier?
The same technique can be applied for defining your plan for dealing with difficult situations and preventing mental loopholes of looking for excuses.
Define your difficult moments and think of some potential actions you could do to prevent your bad behavior.
Your ‘if” here would be the difficult situation and “then” your plan how to deal with them.
Now write it all down and pre-commit to it – studies find that people who write down exactly what and when they will be doing are much more likely to succeed.
EXAMPLES OF DIFFICULT SITUATIONS and how to deal with them
ATTENDING A SOCIAL EVENT AND DRINKING (TOO MUCH) ALCOHOL
Determine in advance how much you allow yourself to drink during an evening out and stick to it. Also, it could be a good idea to inform people around you of your limits to make you feel more accountable.
Your “if-then” plan would look like this: “If I go to an after-work event, then I will only drink 1 beer”.
HAVING A BUSY PERIOD
Expect a busy period at work? Know you might have it difficult to find time to eat?
Prepare a few meals in advance you can easily grab with you to work or have them ready in your fridge for the nights when you get home exhausted and cooking is the last thing you can think of.
A good idea is to cook more at once, to ensure you have enough food for several days.
Also, make sure to always have some healthy snacks at work, or in your bag, so you are not tempted to take that cookie your colleague offers you, or grab something unhealthy in the café.
I know you are excited to start changing your life and implementing new good habits. But before you do so, let me introduce you to a concept of “keystone habits”.
Even if all good habits are good, certain habits are slightly better than the others.
Why? Because they tend to have a positive ripple effect on other areas of your life.
what are keystone habits?
I have reviewed a bunch of articles referring to keystone habits, and surprisingly, most of them talk about the same habits.
And I can see why – both me, my wife, and even people I asked around when writing this agreed on the below three keystone habits being one of the most important ones.
Also, all these three habits are frequently practiced by the most successful people. Read more about the morning routines of 60 top successful people.
So let’s dig into the list of keystone habits.
KEYSTONE HABIT #1: READING
Reading opens up your mind, broadens your vocabulary, exposes you to new opportunities, and even can reduce your stress!
Reading helps you to gain knowledge and different perspective on things. The more you read, the more educated you get.
Ideally, it’s educational books, biographies or self-help books that provides you most value (these are also favored by the most successful people in the world!).
However, even a fiction novel can be of terrific value, as they usually provide good reflection on real life and some subtle action calls to learn from.
KEYSTONE HABIT #2: Fitness
Have you ever run on a treadmill that shows you the calories burned or used any other device tracking your calories? Then I bet you are familiar with the effort it takes to burn 100 kcal.
If not, let me remind you: you might need to run about 1 mile to burn 100 calories.
Now compare it with the effort required to eat 1 chocolate chip cookie (same 100 kcal). See where I’m going?
The more you exercise, the more motivated you are to also eat healthier.
Because you do not want to ruin all your hard work at the gym by eating few not so innocent cookies.
Because you want to provide your body with nutrients it needs to restore itself and allow you to come back to the gym a day after.
You see, once you get into the habit of exercising regularly, you also start adjusting your eating habits. You tend to add more greens, eat less junk food, nourish your body with more proteins to build up the muscle, etc.
And once you start eating healthier, you notice how much more energy you get and how better you actually feel!
KEYSTONE HABIT #3: meditation
Meditation is another keystone habit.
It teaches us to be more aware of ourselves and our surroundings, i.e. of what’s happening here and now. By doing so, we start seeing things more clearly and learn to act better on things we see.
The more you meditate the more self-control you gain. Your brain learns to focus better on different tasks and you become more productive.
Also, meditation teaches you gratitude. The more aware you become of the current moment, the more grateful you become for all that you have in your life. And learning this can be extremely powerful!
1. Define your motivation
To achieve your own personal success you must clearly define and understand your goals. Setting goals will drive your motivation and help to build sustainable habits.
What is the main reason you want to make healthy changes? What impact will it have to the rest of your day/week? How will it change your life?
E.g., if you want to start exercising, think of why do you want to do this. Build up the strength and endurance so you can finally run that marathon? Feel more energized and productive so you can easier achieve your business goals? Get a toned body so you feel confident during your upcoming holiday?
2. DONT SHOOT FOR THE STARS
Another important thing you need to learn when it comes to habit building is the definition of the low bar and the high bar.
LOW BAR is the last time you can invest in a certain action/habit.
Think, what is the minimum amount of time that you will for sure have to perform that certain task even if life gets super busy, even if you face stressful situations or go on holiday? The amount of time that makes the habit so easy, it’s hard NOT to do it?
Is it 3 min, 5 min, more? This is your low bar.
HIGH BAR, on contrary, is for the better days.
This is the most time you can invest in the new activity during one session. For example, if you try to establish a habit of meditating, your high bar will be the amount of time you can meditate the most for (maybe 10 min or even 15 min?).
Don’t set unrealistic goals and expectations.
Be true to yourself and what you can actually achieve knowing your lifestyle and personality.
Starting really small helps you to actually keep performing new action regularly, which lets you establish a new routine.
And sometimes doing 10 pushups in the morning will actually make you add more to your workout!
3. Focus on building one habit at a time
Decided to start waking up early, exercising for 1 hour, meditating, writing a journal and eating healthy from tomorrow?
Wait a moment…
By attempting to do too much too soon you are most probably setting yourself up for failure!
Only stick to one habit at a time and gradually add more as you go, as we are not capable of multitasking.
In psychology, there is a term called ego depletion, which implies that your willpower has a limited amount of energy every day. When it’s overexerted, it becomes hard to control your impulses.
In a way, willpower is like a muscle. It can get tired and worn out from too much use. If your days are filled with stress and constant battles to control your emotions or thinking, you often won’t have the capacity to resist temptations.
Most people don’t have the “willpower energy” to focus on multiple habits. So when they’re in a depleted state, they tend to give up on all of them, instead of just one habit.
Have you ever find yourself in a situation where you missed a training and ended up eating a pizza, thinking “screw it, I already skipped my training, I might as well eat unhealthy..”? You see why.
4. Focus on showing up, not on working hard
There is a common misconception that if you skip one day, all your effort goes to waste.
Remember the study done by prof Phillippa Lally about the amount of time it takes to form a habit?
The study confirmed that missing one day now and then did not have a material impact on the results of habit formation.
Meaning, if you relapse, you should not give up and think you now have to start from scratch. Pick up your new habit and continue the next day.
Focus on consistency over intensity. Stop obsessing about the results and start obsessing about showing up, day after day.
5. Stop telling YOURSELF you have no time
I get it, your life is busy and I am not going to tell you that you should “find time”.
Instead, I simply want you to forget this notion of that taking care of yourself is something that requires a lot of time. We tend to wait for some sort magical period of life, when there is less stress, less things to take care off or less holidays planned. Guess what, life will never be predictable, so it’s just wrong to base your actions on the belief that it is.
Even 3 minutes of exercise is better than no exercise, and you can easily find that much time if you carefully review your time and how you spend it.
Improving 1% at a time is always better than not improving at all.
6. Eliminate choices and MAKE IT EASY
The fewer choices you have, the more likely you are to succeed with your new habits.
For example, I tend to eat way more healthier when I bring my own lunch compared to when I eat out. Why?
Because at the restaurant I am faced with more choices. I can choose a salad, but I can also choose a delicious pasta dish, order extra fries or grab an extra piece of freshly baked bread.
And trust me, it can get really difficult to resist those things when I’m hungry!
This phenomenon can be explained by a study conducted by Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues on self-control. The study found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant.
Meaning, when we have to make choices such as what to eat, what exercises to do, when to do it, how long to run for, etc., we deplete our mental strain and individual willpower limits.
7. Set a schedule
Identifying the cue to trigger your new healthy routine is key. But… understanding and knowing when exactly you will perform that task is as important.
Your life is busy enough already, and many times unpredictable. Hence, to make sure you find time for your new routine (even if it’s only 5 min!), you need to schedule it in your calendar.
Finding time to schedule your new habit and actually putting it in your calendar shows you are as serious about your new routine as you are about important business meetings.
Also, it forces you to think about the time it will actually take you to perform the certain action and reduces the risk of being overly optimistic about the time needed (so-called “planning fallacy“).
Trying to meditate every morning for 5 min? Set your alarm 10 min earlier so you have enough time for it.
Want to exercise during your lunch break? Block those appointments in your calendar so your colleagues know not to set up important calls during that time.
Decided to read 10 pg every time you get home from work? Tell your partner to postpone dinner by 10 minutes.
8. Adapt your environment
Your environment plays an important role in achieving success. And so does the people that surround you.
To help you with your new resolutions, adapt your environment in a way that it will be as easy as possible for you to perform a new habit.
9. FInd accountability partner / a community to support you
An accountability partner is someone who helps you to stay committed to your goals, by regularly checking in with you and motivating you to keep going.
It could be your close friend or a family number, or ideally, someone that is going through a similar experience himself.
What if your friends are not up to this? You don’t necessarily need to know your accountability partner.
In fact, it is even advisable not to have a friend as your accountability partner, because you risk him/her being subjective.
Instead, partner up with that guy/girl you keep seeing at your gym or find an online community of like-minded people.
10. Examine your new habit and find exactly where things start to break down
After you have been sticking to the new habit for a while, analyze your habit and find out why it is difficult for you to stick to it.
Trying to wake up early?
Think about why you are not able to wake up early and define what needs to be changed in your life for you to achieve it.
Maybe you need to go to sleep earlier, don’t drink any caffeine after 2 pm, reduce exposure to your phone 1 hour before sleep etc.
LAST (AND PROBABLY MOST IMPORTANT)
START… SMALL… BUT START!
I said this already a couple of times throughout this post – start with a few minutes every day.
Focus on tiny changes, like adding more greens to your diet, exercising daily for 5 min, reading 5 pages a day…
That way you will be sure you can keep it up even if your life gets busy, even if you are running out of time to complete a very important project you are working on, or decide to go on holiday.
Rome wasn’t built in one day. And so you should not expect to drastically change your life within a few days, or even weeks.
Try it for at least 3 weeks and see how it feels.
You might need longer to develop a habit – and it’s OK.
Don’t force and enjoy the process.
More on Habit Building
Below is the list of other related articles we wrote and/or interviews we had about Habit Building and Behavioural Change:
- Building Healthy Habits: 100 resources for your Habit Forming Journey
- Morning routines of 60 highly successful people and 8 steps how you can build your own ultimate morning ritual for success
- Interview with Ed Rush on how to change anything in 3 weeks
- Interview with Alexander Hey on how to get into the habit of feeling good
WANT TO BUILD HEALTHY HABITS BUT NEED MORE GUIDANCE?
It all sounds great but you are feeling overwhelmed with all this information?
Looking for an easy way to transform your life and replace bad habits, and would love for someone to tell you exactly what you need to do every day?
We got your back. We condensed the leading habit building science and personal experience into an 8-week Morning Routine Upgrade Program. As part of the program, you will get to develop a perfect 15 min morning routine that will allow you to start your mornings strong, focused and with intention every day.
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