Below you’ll find everything you need to know to develop good habits that last. This isn’t your typical barely-scratch-the-surface post but has research-backed, deep dive tips that will guide you to lasting change!
Almost everyone wants to develop better habits. Yet most people won’t do what it takes to make those habits a reality.
Many of us struggle with motivation, self-discipline, or a real direction in life. We may have a desire to achieve our goals. But we get distracted and find it difficult to let go of procrastination.
Three years ago, you couldn’t get me out of bed before 9 am. I felt aimless. That is until I started changing my habits.
It didn’t happen overnight but the change happened with consistent action. Then those actions compounded into bigger change.
Habits define us as a person and where we’re going in our future. They’re small actions our minds default to when faced with various situations.
You may be here because of lack of motivation, self-discipline, or real direction in life.
Or you may find yourself not being able to fully commit to things you want to do.
Your current habits are most likely to blame.
I’m hoping a mixture of sharing what’s worked for me and what some experts say will help you shift your own life. Even if only a little.
Benjamin Hardy says your “input creates your outlook” and your outlook influences your behaviors.
Those behaviors create the very life you have right now.
My goal is to simplify habits once and for all. Or at least update the approach to them.
Most articles I’ve found on habits stay on the surface. They suggest things like waking up early or making a list.
True habit change happens on a much deeper level and takes a lot more work. But this way is more rewarding and longer lasting.
Here’s what you’ll learn in today’s article:
- The true principle behind keeping habits that last
- How to make good habits and keep them
- The difference between goals and systems
Much of what I’m sharing with you today is inspired by James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. Click here to grab a copy.
How habits work
There are two main reasons the brain develops habits that I’ll break down below.
It’s good to know some of the mechanics behind a habit. So, when we dive into the tangible actions you can take to create your own, you’ll have a deeper understanding.
And if you’re a questioner, like me, you’ll feel more committed only when you know the why behind doing something.
For every situation or emotion we encounter, the brain craves efficient responses. It wants to be able to predict the reaction we need to have at all times.
For example, when you see a stove turned on that becomes a cue that tells your brain “We’ll get burned if we touch that”.
And so, without question, you don’t touch it.
Your brain has this reaction on speed dial based on past experience.
Habits serve a functional purpose in the brain. Our brain obsesses with optimizing and using as little energy as possible for every task we do.
In this article by Niklas Göke, he mentioned an interesting study from Charles Duhig’s book The Power of Habits.
One where “rats [were] in a maze as they searched for a piece of chocolate. If the path remained the same for a week, their brains would show minimal activity while running towards the chocolate.
Mental effort spiked only at the beginning and end of the loop, which indicated a learning experience and reinforced the behavior.”
AKA: When a behavior is new, the brain exerts extra energy.
When a behavior is familiar and learned, the brain uses hardly any energy.
Which can be a wonderful thing.
It’s when we choose a bad habit as our go-to reaction to certain emotions or situations that we get in trouble.
Some people reach for junk food, others go for a run.
Some people scroll Instagram for an hour, others play with their dog outside.
Either way, each of us has a habit we wish weren’t connected to a certain emotional or situational trigger.
The good news is we can unlearn old habits and replace them with better ones. It’s a matter of associating the same cue (emotional or situational trigger) to a new and better reward.
“The process of building a habit can be divided into four simple steps: cue, craving, response, and reward.” – James Clear
We form these habit loops where certain cues will trigger a craving. Then that craving inspires us to respond to ultimately give us the reward. Then the whole cycle starts again.
Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for ways to get rewards.
The beauty is we can create our own cues and get the rewards we want. It requires a lot of conscious awareness.
If you want to dive deeper into cue, craving, response, reward then read Atomic Habits by James Clear.
Our purpose today is to talk about the underlying ways to actually make your habits last.
1. Make it about your identity
“Identity change is the North Star of habit change.” – James Clear
Thank goodness for science…
There are many studies that reveal how much humans have a need to act congruent to their internalized identities.
Ryan Holiday says, “it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual. I also have decided that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines. That I see myself as a writer is also valuable because if I’m not writing, I’m not earning that image.”
Holiday holds a certain identity for himself and it compels him to behave in ways that “earn that image”.
Most of us won’t consider something as part of our identity unless we’re “earning that image”.
I’m less likely to call myself a writer if I’m not writing often.
You’re less likely to wake up early if you don’t have a certain identity that calls for it.
As you’ll see in the image below from Atomic Habits, identity goes much deeper than setting a goal (outcome).
Changing your outcomes concern the results you want like “losing weight, publishing a book” or starting a business. “Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change.”
Changing your process concerns “changing your habits and systems”. Like “decluttering your desk for better workflow or developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level.”
The deepest layer is changing your identity. At this level, you’re “concerned with changing your beliefs”. Like “your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level.”
This is like Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle model which caters more towards businesses but still has the same idea.
Most people focus on what they want to achieve which leads to outcome-based habits.
When we focus on who we want to become that’s when we create identity-based habits.
For example, think of the difference between two people who are offered a cigarette and refuse it. One says, “No thanks. I’m trying to quit” while the other says, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.”
The first person still identifies as a smoker. So, they’re more likely to succumb because humans don’t like to act incongruently to who they believe they are.
Whereas the person who said they weren’t a smoker will most likely never touch a cigarette. To do so would be incongruent to their identity.
“Behind every system of actions are a system of beliefs.” – James Clear
This reminded me of a short story about a grown elephant who was tied to a post with a tiny string yet didn’t try to break free. It could easily do it but the elephant chose to stay there because when it was young, the rope could hold it to the post. So, “As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.”
The elephant’s system of beliefs included not believing he could be free. So as an adult, those beliefs are what kept him bound to the post even when he was more than capable.
“It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.”
What’s the story you tell yourself?
What’s the identity you’ve created for yourself?
Take a look at your actions and go beneath their surface to see what core beliefs you hold.
If you don’t like what you see then start to focus on who you do want to become. Allow your actions to align with that new vision.
James Clear writes, “Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is [a sign] of the type of person you believe that you are – either consciously or nonconsciously. Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief.”
For example “The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to learn an instrument, the goal is to become a musician.”
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.”
The good news?
“You don’t need a unanimous vote to win an election; you just need a majority.”
So if you mess up a few times and go back to an unproductive habit or a bad one, don’t worry.
You only need the majority of your actions to vote for the person that you ultimately want to become.
WHERE DO YOU START?
Clear recommends taking these actions:
- “Decide who you want to be.” Who do you wish to become? What do you want to stand for? If you have trouble answering this question think of the results you want. Whether it’s to be a certain weight, to write a book, or have a certain amount of money. What kind of person would it take to accomplish those things? Work from there.
- “Begin taking small steps to reinforce your desired identity.”
2. Create systems, not goals
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” – James Clear
Most of us learned it’s best to be clear about our goals and create actionable steps to achieve them.
For me, I’d brainstorm the big picture, make a lengthy list, and then talk over my plans with a friend. I used to feel like I got a lot done.
But, the next day I’d find myself waking up later than I planned. I felt less motivated than the day before. Then I’d fall back into the same pattern.
Having goals aren’t what sets us apart or gets us closer to our dream reality.
Think about it…
“Every candidate wants to get the job. And if successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers.”
That’s because when you’re being challenged you always fall to the level of your systems, not your goals.
Your systems being your habits which means the way you handle situations.
My systems were non-existent.
Even though I felt motivated to tackle some goals, I didn’t have the right systems to achieve them. No morning routine, workout routine, time management system.
I was dead in the water.
What do your systems look like?
How do you start each day?
What do you do to make sure you’re moving the needle forward?
How do you set yourself up to effortlessly improve 1% each day?
“Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”
To achieve results, you have to be
Day in and day out.
Your systems help you be that person that brings the results you want as a byproduct.
Writing things down on paper and talking about them isn’t progress. That’s busy work and I’ve been down that road many times.
“Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.”
Also, when you’re goal obsessed, you aren’t as open to other opportunities that might work better or give you more joy.
But when you fall in love with the process you’re open to finding joy now. Because you’re not attached to one specific outcome.
“When you fall in love with the process rather than the product, you don’t have to wait to give yourself permission to be happy.”
The good news is your systems don’t have to be complicated or long-winded. Small, simple habits done daily are the key to changing your course.
3. Start really small
“Success is the product of daily habits – not once-in-a-lifetime transformations.” – James Clear
What’s the one habit you can start right away, that costs zero dollars, and will change your life?
If you thought morning routine then imagine me smiling and giving you a digital high five.
A morning routine is a regular practice that’s not only small and easy to do but is also a source of incredible power.
If you haven’t read my article on creating your own morning routine do it now.
This will change your life and is the easiest way to start creating good habits in your life.
Think about it…
“If you can get 1% better each day for one year, you’ll end up 37 times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1% worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero.”
A morning routine changed my life.
I was living abroad in Switzerland for three years. A dream right? Yet I used to wake up most days, bleary-eyed, at 11 am, not move from bed for an hour and felt…sad. Sad that life seemed aimless and all I wanted to do was watch Gossip Girl all day.
One day I decided I was never waking up again without a purpose. So I text a few friends about their morning routines and started there.
I created a makeshift routine and committed to two weeks. During those two weeks, I’d tweak what worked or didn’t work. By the end of those two weeks, I noticed a momentum started growing.
As Niklas Göke said, “tiny habits quickly compound once you chain them together.”
A morning routine is a grouping of small habits that when done in succession, every day, compound. They energetically build on top of one another creating momentum in your life.
This is where you start to gain confidence in yourself. Which then inspires you to take even bigger action.
But now, more on the compounding effect on habits…
4. The compounding effect
“The effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them” – James Clear
Have you heard of the airplane analogy before?
If a plane’s destination coordinates are a degree or two off it could end up on a completely different continent than intended.
Pilots have to stay diligent during the whole flight to make sure they course correct the plane throughout the journey.
Our habits have the same, small but powerful impact on the ultimate destination of our lives.
“A very small shift in direction can lead to a very meaningful change in destination”
And sometimes it feels like we do these habits and nothing is happening. That our lives feel stuck in the same rut. But I promise that’s not the case.
“Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential required to unleash a major change.”
In Atomic Habits, James Clear asks us to think of the moment an ice cube begins to melt.
Until the temperature hits 32 degrees it won’t. Even at 31 degrees nothing will happen but as soon as it’s 32 degrees the ice starts to melt.
This is how it is with habits.
We have a moment where we plateau and nothing happens for the longest time.
But once we compound enough momentum eventually we hit “32 degrees” and things start to shift.
This is what people often call an overnight success.
It’s the moment things blow up and other people start to notice. Yet what others didn’t see were the habits that built the momentum years before. Habits which did nothing until this very moment.
Don’t get discouraged. Habits take months, sometimes years, until you start seeing explosive growth.
Progress isn’t linear and most of the time isn’t quick.
Your work isn’t wasted, it’s being stored for the moment when you’re ready to shoot up to that next level.
Remember: Mind your mindset
“We think the future is something that happens, rather than something we make.” Ryan Holiday
I hope this article inspired you to think and see how these principles work (or don’t work) in your life.
- Master the identity you want to have and create the systems and habits that match the identity.
- Until you change your underlying beliefs/ identity and focus on the systems in your life, nothing else you read about habits will have a lasting impact.
And Ryan Holiday said it perfectly, “We have to choose to make every moment a moment of alive time. We have to decide to be present. To make the most of whatever is in front of us.”
What was your favorite part of today’s post? Share with us in the comments below!
Francesca Phillips is a writer who recently moved back to States after living in Switzerland. In her previous life, she worked in the music industry for six years in Los Angeles. As an avid reader and holder of a degree in Psychology, she covers topics related to self-improvement, finding your purpose, and experiences in Europe. She’s a contributor for her own blog, The Writing Cooperative, and Medium. When she’s not inspiring creatives to be a light in the world you’ll find her traveling, hanging with her husband, and obsessing over dogs on Instagram.