How to Change Habits – a Step-by-Step Guide

How do we successfully change habits? We’ve all had a negative habit get the better of us at one stage of another. 

And our habits basically make us (or break us). The author Mark Manson has written:

“You’re basically this walking, lumbering habit machine. And these habits — a.k.a. your identity — have been built up over the course of decades of living and breathing, laughing and loving, succeeding and failing, and through the years, they have built up a cruising speed of 40 knots or so in the freezing Atlantic. And if you want to change them — that is, change your identity, how you perceive yourself or how you adapt to the world — well you better slam that steering wheel to the side and be ready to hit a couple icebergs, because ships this big don’t turn so well. Be a little patient, fucker.” 

What Mark says is just a reformulation of the (true) old expression: our habits are either our servants or our masters.

As much as 45% of your daily activity is habit, says Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg. That means that if you don’t deliberately create your habits so that they line up with your goals, you’re going to experience a lot of frustration.

What happens at around this time every year is we resolve to change habits. But somewhere between 81-92% of new years resolutions fail. Those aren’t great odds.

The reason we fail at changing habits is that we just don’t understand the mechanics of change – we try to rely on ‘willpower’ alone (crazy!) and fail to be specific enough about goals.

The key to changing your habits lies in understanding them and working with the golden rule of habit change – replacing them.

Here is a step by step guide that applies the research and science of how to change a habit successfully. 

Step 1: Define the habits you want to create

Top new year’s resolutions of 2015:

  • Lose weight. (The diet industry makes billions out of this one every January.)
  • Being more organized.
  • Saving more and spending less. Related to that, getting out of debt.
  • Enjoying life more.
  • Being fit and healthy.
  • Learning something new.
  • Quitting smoking.
  • Inspiring others in their dreams.
  • Falling in love.
  • Spending more time with the family.
  • Relaxing more.
  • Drinking less alcohol.
  • Changing career.
  • Starting own business.
  • Travelling more. 

Clearly, the resolutions aren’t habits – they’re too wide. We know that when goals are phrased in such a way, they don’t deliver new results. Setting goals in general isn’t effective on its own.

What is successful is building better lifestyle changes and rituals. Rituals are what turn behaviors into habits.

Going through the list, better new year’s resolutions would be (for e.g.):

Lose weight:

  • Stop eating after evening meal.
  • No snacking.
  • Do not overeat at meal times.
  • Etc.

Being more organized:

  • Using 20 minutes each morning planning for the day ahead.
  • Spending one hour on Sundays planning the week ahead.
  • Etc.

Saving more and spending less. Getting out of debt:

  • Recording expenses.
  • Budgeting.
  • Etc.

You get the picture. The starting point with our resolutions is to identify the behaviors and habits that create the unwanted results. Be as precise as you can. 

‘Replace’ is better than ‘break’ and start small

If your intention is to break a bad habit, you need something to replace it with.

If all you’re doing is saying: ‘I won’t drink a glass of wine while I’m cooking,’ and you’ve got a bottle of wine in front of you, you’ll keep having to fight the impulse until at last your willpower is exhausted. Willpower, as we’ll look at below, might be a finite resource (though there is a theory that willpower is only limited by our minds). It is much better to say: ‘Instead of drinking wine whilst I am cooking I will listen to a podcast.’

Once you have a list of rituals, select one at a time to focus on. Taking on too much is one of the major reasons we fail to change habits. (More on habit selection in the ‘tips’ section below.)

Step 2: Understand how habits work

This is how habits are formed and how you can identify unwanted ones. 

Habit anatomy: Cue, routine, reward + craving

The so-called habit reward loop goes like this:
1. Cue
2. Routine 
3. Reward 

After a few repetitions of this, your brain stops fully participating in decision-making. The pattern unfolds automatically unless you fight it. It’s your brains way of saving effort (it’s called chunking).

For each unwanted habit, you need to:

1. Identify your cues/triggers

Habits are tied to triggers, and the habit-trigger bond is strengthened through repetition. For example, you get to work, you switch your computer on, you go onto the kitchen to make coffee…

Cues/triggers can be almost anything:

  • A certain time of day.
  • A certain place.
  • The presence of certain people.
  • A particular emotion.
  • A preceding behaviour that’s been ritualized.

You probably don’t pay attention to exactly what you are doing or feeling before you are about to overeat, drink, smoke, etc. Some examples are stress and anxiety. Identify the triggers and write them down.

The process of identifying triggers is enlightening and the benefits spill over into other areas of life. You learn about what motivates you, where your urges come from and how you rationalize them. 

2. Pinpoint the routine

This is the unwanted behaviour. E.g. ‘I reach for a snack’, ‘I check my Facebook’. 

3. Describe the rewards

Describe the feeling you are seeking to get from the behavior. They can be physical sensations and or emotional payoffs. For example, the reward could be a feeling of calm, happiness, numbing, catharsis or release.

4. Identify the craving

Craving is what drives the whole habit loop. Only when our brains expect a reward will a habit stick.

When we buy things we don’t need, we may be craving love or a feeling of being ‘full’. When we eat and we aren’t hungry we may be craving love or companionship. 

Get to the bottom of what your desires are that are leading you to habitually do the thing or things. 

Step 3: Use the golden rule of habit change

One of the things we know about habits is that they cannot be eradicated – they must be replaced. The reason for that is that the neural pathways that are fired up when we do things habitually are very strong.

Habits can't be eradicated - they have to be replaced Click To Tweet

Habits are the most changeable when we apply ‘the golden rule’ – we keep the same cue and rewards but we change the behaviour or routine. 

Here are three steps to using the golden rule of habit change to successfully change habits. (For creating new habits, you would work with the habit anatomy above by setting up positive triggers in your environment, and then carrying out a routine and reward, and repeating that process.)

1. Change the routine

Keep this as simple as possible. Habits writer Leo Babauta suggests starting really small.

For example, let’s say you wanted to start meditating:
Cue: I wake up
Old routine: I make coffee
Reward: I feel alert and awake.

New routine: I go straight to my meditation pillow in my set space and I sit for five minutes just becoming aware of my breath. And then I go prepare coffee. 

The cue and reward are the same, you have just inserted a new routine. 

2. Consolidating craving

Tapping into your craving at the point you go to practice your new routine helps you to stay on track with your habits. This is because the craving can ‘crowd out’ a temptation to drop a habit whilst it is still new and relatively weak (which is prior to 66 days, apparently).

Tapping into your craving at the point you go to practice your new routine helps you to stay on track Click To Tweet

In the example above, what is it about meditation that you are craving? Is it less stress, more peace of mind, more focus and productivity? Visualize yourself benefiting from your new habit.

3. Belief 

If you have failed in creating a new habit before, you might find that you lack belief in your capacity to do it.

This is challenging to overcome. Leo Babauta says: “The solution is the to build trust slowly, with small promises and small victories. This takes time. But it’s arguably the most important thing you can do.”

Many successful habit changing programs, for example AA and Weight-watchers, make belief ‘an outside job’ by drawing on the power of community. Even if the community is only as large as two people, then your odds of keeping the habit are said to increase dramatically.

The bottom line is: you need the capacity to believe in a better life for you. Connecting with a vision of a higher version of yourself (writing your book or travelling or laughing happily at a party) at the point you do your routine increases the durability of your habits. Studies suggest this can boost depleted willpower, even when your ideas aren’t connected to the habit you are trying to ingrain.

How to change habits – applying it all

So to recap:

Step 1: Analyze your resolution(s) into a collection of rituals. Select something small to change and focus on one thing at a time.  

Step 2: Analyze your cues, routines and rewards of current habits.

Step 3: Keep the same cues and rewards as far as possible, and select your new routine. At the point that you are doing the new routine, connect with your underlying craving. And back the whole process up with belief in something outside of yourself – i.e. use the support of a group or a friend.

Taking the example of losing weight:

Select one key habit:

Old habit: Snacking all evening.
New habit: Stopping eating after evening meal. 

Cue: You switch the TV on.
Routine: Grazing absent-mindedly throughout the evening. 
Reward: Temporary activation of pleasure centers in the brain.
Craving: Could be feeling of ‘fullness’, love, or numbing. 

New routine: Reading a trashy magazine that makes you feel a bit naughty. Calling a friend. Making love. 

Belief: Generated by visualizing yourself slimmer and more in control.

Other tips to successfully change habits:

Recognize that willpower might be a finite resource 

We need to build willpower gradually. That’s because it can be depleted. For example, if you are using all your willpower reserves to exercise, you might find it harder to exercise control over food. Decide what’s going to give you the most emotional freedom and allocate willpower accordingly.

Just think about Bill Clinton.

Roy Baumeister at Florida State University in Tallahassee said “While I’m not making excuses for them (politicians), spending all day making decisions is likely to deplete their willpower and then, without realizing it, they find themselves in a compromised state.”

By the way, this isn’t beyond controversy. Some recent research on willpower helps to show that we don’t need to (and shouldn’t) give in to self-imposed limits.

Plan for obstacles

This is another method of reducing the burden on your willpower. An obstacle – often easy to deal with ahead of time – can be difficult in the moment.

Say you plan to write a book. First, you need to identify good situations in which to initiate your writing: it could be first thing in the morning. But you also need to plan what to do if (say), your day job means you need to be diverted first thing. Experts refer to this as ‘if-then’ planning.

You need to anticipate obstacles to sticking with your new routine. That's an 'if-then' plan Click To Tweet

Focus on the behaviour and not the outcome

This is hard but effective at keeping you on track.

Try not to get attached to the result of your new habits. Take exercise: studies show we are likely to be more successful if we make the reward about feeling good rather than tying it to weight loss.

Some experts even say that we can only reach our goals ever by giving them up.

Don’t think big (think small)

Habit writer James Clear says “Start with something you can stick with for good. Then, once you’ve repeated it enough times, you can worry about increasing the intensity.”

Some behaviors are easier to habitualize than others. For instance, simple actions, such as drinking an extra glass of water after breakfast, seem to become habitual more quickly and more strongly than more complex ones, like doing 50 sit-ups.

Once you’ve successfully ingrained a modest new habit, you go back to square one with the next habit.

Select ‘keystone’ habits 

Changing certain key habits has the power to reprogram the rest of life. In his book The Power of Habit Charles Duhigg gives the example of the woman who quits smoking (the keystone habit) which prompts her to reset other habits related to food and exercise.

Make it so easy you can’t say no

Make your new routine ridiculously easy. Want to start flossing? Commit to flossing just one tooth. Not only are small changes easier to start but they are easier to sustain, according to habit expert Leo Babauta. Also, taking on lots of habits at once means you’ll probably fail. 

Eat right and sleep well

If you are sleep-deprived and eating a low quality diet, you’ll be tired and have little energy to change habits. That means as soon as the going gets tough (and you can guarantee that it will), you’ll skip the habit. In fact if you know you are regularly sleeping poorly or not enough, habit change in this area should go right to the top of the list (read this article for a compelling case as to why).

Use accountability mechanisms 

Accountability makes a huge difference in your habit’s feedback loops.

Blogging is a great way to get accountability. And as you’re sharing what you’ve been doing and what you’re learning, you are forced to reflect on your habit.

Short-term challenges (for e.g. 3-4 weeks) can be really motivating too, especially between two or more people. Examples of challenges: no sugar for a month, work out every day for 21 days, etc.

Make use of a ‘clean slate’ opportunity

In her book Better Than Before, happiness expert Gretchin Rubin says use the Strategy of the Clean Slate. “It turns out that the best time to form a new habit is when the slate has been wiped clean – in particular, a move to a new place.”

If you can, change your environment

Expert in brain re-wiring Dr Joe Dispenza says: “When you start upgrading and redesigning your environments, you’re going to find that everything changes. By the mere fact that we’re aligning our environments to our values and beliefs, we are tuning into the frequency of the goals and outcomes we want to achieve. This is the difference between reminding ourselves of our predictable past and alerting (and entraining) ourselves to the possibility of a new future. It’s bringing some thing from the immaterial world of thought and possibilities to the physical world of senses.”

Cultivate curiosity 

As explained by Psychiatrist Judson Brewer in this fascinating Ted Talk, you might be able to break urges simply by being curious about them: kind of mindfulness applied to habits. 

Conclusion

Understanding your habits is without doubt one of the best ways to take control over what is driving your behaviour.

If you pay attention, you can learn more about yourself through a few months of habit change than you have in your whole life. 

In a way, regardless of the outcome, habit change is an extremely rewarding process.