How to build better habits

December 22, 2022

How to build better habits

“Successful people are simply those with successful habits.”—Brian Tracy

Habits are not something you are born with. It is something you’ve learned over time. The advantage of learned skills is that you can unlearn and relearn them as many times as necessary if you can learn them. 

According to Sean Covey, “Depending on what they are, our habits will either make us or break us. We become what we repeatedly do.”

We all develop habits that hold us back or propel us forward toward our goals. And a lot of times, it feels impossible to change the habits that don’t benefit us. If you are looking to switch up your unproductive habits for better ones, first you need to understand how they are formed.

The Behavior Chain

For many years, psychologists have researched how people behave in an effort to assist them in changing unhelpful habits and leading more fulfilling lives. According to CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), all behaviors, especially the automatic, repetitive, and subconscious ones (our habits!), follow a chain of production:

Trigger → Thought → Action → Consequence

There is always a specific context for all of our behaviors. Some of them we are conscious of (overeating when stressed), others have become so ingrained in our bodies that we barely think about it (grabbing a towel on your way to the shower), and others we are unaware of (phobias).

It starts with a trigger, which could be intrinsic (our mental and emotional state) or extrinsic (our surroundings or peers). Triggers produce thoughts that we choose to act on (or not act on, depending on the case). Our actions are then reinforced or extinguished based on the consequences.

Our habits are a result of this behavior chain being repeated and solidified over time. If we want to change our habits, we need to change one or more of the automatic triggers, thought patterns, and actions we’ve become accustomed to. 

It will take some time, and a lot of intentionality to pull off effectively.

How can we change our habits?

The easiest way to break bad habits is to replace them with good ones.

You can start by eliminating the triggers. One mistake most of us make when trying to build better habits is not taking control of our environment. If you are prone to stress-eating, and you want to eat healthier, then going out for fast food with your coworkers after a bad day at work wouldn’t help you.

Identify what places, people, situations, and activities serve as triggers for your negative habits and try to make some necessary lifestyle changes, such as suggesting going to a restaurant that serves healthy and cheap food instead of the nearest fast-food chain. Or focus on managing the stress by dealing with the stressor.

You can also focus on reducing cravings. We crave things because we want to change an internal state. That is why some people want to smoke when they feel stressed—because they want to relax. If you identify why you crave certain things, you can figure out how to replace the habit: like drinking tea to relax instead of smoking.

It helps make a negative habit more difficult, like keeping your pack of cigarettes in the locker or in another room instead of having it within reach, or keeping your bag of chips on a higher shelf instead of inside your desk drawer.

Figuring out the root of a bad habit and adopting healthier routines to replace it is also effective. Managing your stressors or, better yet, dealing with them at the source is a good idea if you find yourself overindulging in coffee when you are under pressure at work. And the next time you need a boost of energy, opt for a banana instead. Or take a nap during your lunch break. Naps are a great way to reboot our minds, much like how we restart our gadgets when they stop functioning properly.

Lastly, figure out your long-term motivation for adopting new habits. Know that you have a choice and that you are free to act on your choice. Look forward to what you can learn from new tasks and experiences. Even better, find an accountability partner to remind you when motivating yourself isn’t enough.

It takes around 18 to 254 days to build a habit. Some are easier to develop than others. Your motivation, environment, and support system all play an important role in helping you keep going.

What to avoid

Developing better habits requires a change in our lifestyle—from the environment we are constantly exposed to, to the way we think, the motivations behind our actions, and the consequences that reinforce or discourage those habits.

Avoid your triggers and be aware of your thought patterns. Try not to change too many habits at once so as not to overwhelm yourself and discourage you from making progress. Put as much emphasis as you can on sustainability, prioritizing long-term objectives over immediate results. Yes, losing weight to be beach-ready for summer is nice, but it is even better to focus on having a healthy diet and a consistent exercise routine to lead a healthier life.

And remember that sometimes it is small progress. Changing our habits doesn’t have to be something drastic. It could be small changes every day that add up over time. As the Chinese proverb goes, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." As long as you focus on moving forward one step at a time, one day at a time, you’ll get there eventually.

Try not to be too hard on yourself. We need some grace when making lifestyle changes. We will experience slip-ups along the way, but we can always get back up and continue moving forward again. As long as we focus on the bigger picture and make the effort to do the right things in the present moment, we’ll get there.

Thanks for reading “A Brilliant Tribe.”