Habits have been described as repeated actions that arise from some kind of internal or external trigger (Robbins & Costa, 2017). Often, these habits exist in particular contexts. For example, Billy might have a habit of smoking a cigarette when he drinks alcohol. Sharon might have a habit of brushing her teeth before bed. And Mark might have a habit of biting his nails when he’s nervous.
Habits—both good and bad—are closely related to our goals. Since habits are just things we do regularly, they can contribute to —or deter us from—achieving the things we want to achieve. That’s why building good habits—and perhaps getting rid of some bad ones—is so important for building the lives we want to lead. So what are some good habits to build?
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is perhaps one of the most popular self-help books of all time. It suggests that there are 7 key habits that we should all strive to build. The habits are the key to being successful. According to the author, these are the the things we need to do:
- Be proactive. Take action and initiative to improve your situation. Don’t sit and wait for things to happen.
- Begin with the end in mind. Think before acting. Know your long-term goals so that you can effectively work towards them.
- First things first. Focus on what is important. Try not to get caught up doing unimportant things.
- Think win-win. Look for mutually beneficial solutions that are good for everyone because they have a high-chance for success.
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Use empathy to better understand others and create a culture of caring.
- Synergize. Combining the strengths of different people so that the group can achieve more than any one person could achieve alone.
- Sharpen the saw (keep growing). Remember that self-renewal and rest are essential for optimal functioning and success.
The book, Atomic Habits, suggests even more tips for building good habits. Here are a few:
- Make it obvious. Create cues in your environment to remind you to do your new habit.
- Make it attractive. Try to make the habit something fun or enjoyable.
- Make it easy. Try to make then habit simple, so you can do it more easily.
- Make it satisfying. Find a way to reward yourself for doing you habit.
- Never miss a habit twice in a row. This will keep you on track.
- Stick to a sustainable pace. That way you won’t burnout.
- Think about your habit as a way to grow 1% per day. Improving just a little bit each day results in big changes over time.
BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, Offers us a few more tips.
- Attach a new habit to an existing habit. For example, if you want to build a habit to floss, then you can attach it to brushing your teeth. You can use this approach for anything by saying, After I do X, I’ll do Y.
- Make the habit tiny. For example, rather than saying you’re going to meditate for 5 minutes, start with something like 1 deep breath. He says this makes it easier to accomplish.
- Physically celebrate when you execute your tiny habit. For example, throw your hands up into the air and say “Yes!” This helps your body feel good about the habit.
Good habits tend to be good for the mind and body. Habits of the mind are what help us successfully engage in effective behaviors that lead to success over the long term (Costa & Kallick, 2009). Habits of the body can help keep us strong and healthy. Here are some examples:
Habits of the mind include:
- Striving for accuracy
- Questioning and problem posing
- Applying past knowledge to new situations
- Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
- Gathering data through all senses
- Creating, imaging, and innovating
- Taking responsible risks
- Finding humor
- Remaining open to continuous learning
Habits of the body include:
- Daily exercise
- Good nutrition habits
- Drinking 8 glasses of water per day
- Getting 8 hours of sleep per night
The good (and bad) thing about habits is that after repeatedly engaging in them, they become automatic. That makes it somewhat easier to build good habits, but also harder to break bad ones.
Learning how to break a habit like smoking, drinking, gambling, overeating, or overspending is likely more difficult than starting a new habit. It requires more than building new patterns of behavior—it requires understanding how your existing patterns of behavior benefit you and finding other ways to get those benefits. For example, maybe smoking helps us calm down or drinking helps us feel more social or binging on cookies feels good. So we have to ask ourselves, how do we get these positive outcomes without the habit?
To start, it can be helpful to:
- identify your triggers
- keep yourself away from anything that might make you engage in the habit, and
- be more mindful of your thoughts and actions
Be careful that you don’t end up swapping one bad habit for another. You might ask yourself these questions to better understand what helps and hurts your ability to stick to habits:
- Who makes it easier/harder for you to build good habits?
- Who makes it easier/harder for you to break bad habits?
- What situations make it easier/harder for you to build good habits?
- What situations make it easier/harder for you to break bad habits?
- Do you have any traits that make it easier/harder for you to build good habits?
- Do you have any traits that make it easier/harder for you to break bad habits?
Once you know the things that stand in your way and the things that help you, see if you can make changes in your life that help you create better support structures for the habits you want to build.
- Costa, A. L., & Kallick, B. (2009). Habits of mind across the curriculum: Practical and creative strategies for teachers. ASCD.
- Robbins, T. W., & Costa, R. M. (2017). Habits. Current biology, 27(22), R1200-R1206.