Habits Make You Or Break You
Our daily lives are full of habits for a reason. Picture a world in which brushing our teeth or tying our shoelaces would require the same effort as memorizing a twenty-digit number. We would be mentally drained before leaving the house to start the day. Thus, our brains use habits to conserve energy. Once a behavior turns into a habit, we can tackle other mentally demanding tasks without feeling overwhelmed.
While it is good to be aware of our habit's usefulness, knowing how to manage them effectively is even more critical. A close examination of our behaviors against our values and goals would most likely produce a list of habits we would like to start and stop. For example, we decide to start exercising every day to become healthier. Unfortunately, many of us fail in the process because we do not know how to do it properly. Managing habits effectively helps us achieve our goals.
First, let's define habits. They are the mental shortcuts learned from experience and externalized through behaviors we do at a specific point in time. There is a simple process that governs habits. Every habit starts with a cue, also known as a prompt or trigger. Next, the cue elicits a response or action. Finally, the response produces a neurological reward that encourages the response's repetition the next time the cue occurs. This three-step process is called the habit loop.
Second, let's review the most critical facts about habits based on the latest behavioral science research.
I. Habits are not goals. Habits are behaviors. Think about the goal of being healthy vs.
the habit of eating a portion of vegetables with every meal.
II. Habits are unique to every person. What works for one person may not work for
you or vice versa.
III. Habits always start with a cue. The response does not take place without a cue.
IV. Rewards develop habits. A positive reward engrains the behavior in our brains.
V. Our brains cannot differentiate between good habits and bad habits. For example,
nicotine delivers a positive reward, neurologically speaking, that develops a bad
VI. Habits can emerge without our permission. As long as the reward is positive, the
behavior loop completes, and a habit develops.
VII. The response occurs at the intersection of motivation and ability, but one could
outweigh the other.
VIII. Time and frequency do not influence the development of habits. It is all about the
positive emotion associated with the reward. For instance, think about the short
time a teenager needs to develop the habit of using his or her first smartphone.
IX. Information alone does not change habits. Changing behavior requires action and
X. Habits are not destiny. Habits can be changed, ignored, or replaced.
XI. Habits never really disappear. Habits become dormant when we manage them out
of our lives, but they never go away.
XII. It is easier to maintain habits than to develop them. Starting new behaviors
requires a lot of energy and willpower.
XIII. Consistency is better than magnitude. Small habits compound to deliver significant
Armed with what we now know about habits, let's focus on turning this information into best practices to modify behavior.
I. Choose a habit you want to start or stop. Ignore behaviors that you or others
believe you should change.
II. Be specific about the habit you are trying to start or stop. Keep in mind that habits
are not goals. Habits are actions that take place at a particular moment in time.
III. Habit development requires willpower. Be mindful of your willpower level when you
plan to work on habit management.
IV. Celebrate immediately and with authenticity. The celebration is crucial to engrain
any new behavior in our brains.
V. Troubleshoot if needed. If things are not working, reduce the scope of the behavior
you are trying to modify, try a different approach, or evaluate your actual desire to
change your behavior.
VI. Practice self-compassion. Modifying behavior is hard work. Learn from failures and
VII. Do not break the habit chain you are trying to create. If you do, practice self-
compassion and make your next goal not to miss twice in a row.
VIII. Make the habit so small that you cannot fail. Small habits enable the feeling of
success needed to introduce the habit into the daily routine.
Next, let's explore best practices specific to starting habits.
I. Make the cue visible. The easier it is to access the cue, the easier it will be to repeat
II. Make the response required by the habit easy to do. Proactively remove the
constraints that could prevent the response from taking place.
III. Use an existing habit as the cue to the new habit you are trying to start. For example,
after you brush your teeth in the morning, you can change into workout clothes to
start exercising daily.
Finally, let's look at the best tips specific to stopping habits.
I. Try to remove, avoid, or ignore the habit cue first. Working with the cue is the most
straightforward approach to stop a behavior, but it is not always practical.
II. Try the following approaches ordered from easy to hard: make the habit harder to
do, decrease the habit's appeal, apply a consequence, or swap the bad habit with a
You are now equipped with the most current knowledge about habits and the best practices to manage habits. The journey of managing your habits requires effort and patience, but it is worth the try. After all, as the seventeenth-century British poet John Dryden said, "We first make our habits and then our habits make us." Let your habits make you the person you want to be!
I. BJ Fogg, Tiny Habits (New York, Mariner Books, 2020)
II. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit (New York, Random House, 2014)
III. James Clear, Atomic Habits (New York, Penguin Random House LLC, 2018)