How to Form a Habit

By Catherine Tumminello

Starting a habit sounds scary.

Everyone struggles with it at some point. One study showed that 60% of new gym memberships in January were cancelled in the next month! If you want to start something new, but are feeling frustrated that it doesn’t seem to stick, don’t blame yourself. Habit formation is a well-studied process in humans and other animals. Let me explain to you the process of how they form, their benefits, and some tips to stick with them.

Why Form a Habit?

Habits are your brain’s way of making a repeated task easier for you! They’re your secret weapon in being able to keep a behavior going. Fully formed habits:

1. Remove the contemplation, or mental effort, of deciding to perform an action
2. Removes the emotion tied to whether or not you will perform it: your body is already prepared to do the task!
3. Reward your brain. Your brain releases chemicals to make you feel pleasure when a goal has been met.

Understand How You Feel

Successfully creating a habit starts by asking yourself how you feel about the behavior. Studies have shown that the best indication that you’ll perform a behavior is your intention to perform it, and that intention depends on your attitude (aka how you feel) towards a behavior. Basically, you want to feel good about it, and tell yourself you can do it.

Attitudes can be positive, negative or both. Having positive AND negative attitudes about something at the same time is called Ambivalence. Ambivalent attitudes are common, and don’t mean that you will fail to build a habit! For instance, if you want to start working out every day and are excited about the health benefits, but worried that you won’t have the time or energy, you’re feeling ambivalent.

This brings us to the first step of forming a habit: understanding how we feel about a specific behavior and recognizing that there may be mixed attitudes. If there are, you should adjust the habit to address and minimize your ambivalence. Going back to our working out example, perhaps start with a smaller goal of working out once a week at a low intensity, to increase your confidence in performing the behavior!

Intend Success

Once you understand how you feel about the behavior, the next step to forming a habit is stating an intention. This starts by using a psychological technique called “implementation intentions”. This term describes when you prepare “if, then” scenarios for yourself! For example, if it’s 8 am, then I will do yoga. Or, if it’s time for bed, then I will take my medication. For those of you who are familiar with classical conditioning, it’s basically the same thing.

Find a Cue

Connect your habit to a cue, an event that triggers the behavior. Instead of starting from scratch, your habit should build off of something that you naturally experience every day! The most straightforward cue would be a time of day, so you would want to perform the behavior the same time each time you do it. Over time your habit will form: if it’s 8AM, I’ll start yoga. Another cue could be adding the new habit to the routine you already have, or an event you already perform. For instance, after I eat breakfast, I will do yoga.

Do the Action!

The actual performance of the habit comes next. Starting small is best: research says that habits generally form after around 21 days, but it varies person to person.

Reward Yourself

Yes, you read that right, Rewarding yourself after performing the behavior is a part of forming a habit! A reward does not have to be a physical thing like your favorite food. It could even just be a thought: if I do yoga, I’m going to feel good and thank myself for it. You can reward yourself with actions as well: I am going to take my medication, and then I will watch my favorite TV show tonight. The reward helps your brain to learn that sticking with this habit will help you in the long run!

Conclusion

1. All you need to form a habit are the following ingredients:
2. Understand how you feel about the action. Adjust your goals to match the way you feel!
3. Intend success. Develop an “if/then” scenario: this is what your habit is made of!
4. Find a cue. Find something in your everyday life that will trigger your action.
5. Do the action. Start small and stick with it for at least 3 weeks. You can do it!
6. Reward yourself. Tell your brain that this habit is good, and your brain will reward you.