How To Develop Good Habits, Kick Bad Habits & Create A Daily Routine That Works




The benefits of building good habits and integrating them into a daily routine are significant. In this article I'm going to provide a list of top tips for developing different types of habits and making a daily routine that works for you.

Habits and routines are automated behaviours that are undertaken without a requirement for thought or consideration. They're performed without the need for any significant decision-making, willpower or effort. 


In other words, a habit is a behaviour that has been repeated so frequently that it's become automatic. Different types of habits are developed when our brains know how to respond in a particular situation without needing to go through a learning process of trial and error.


Unfortunately, the benefits of new habits and daily routines are not always felt immediately.  For example, exercising for 20 minutes on a single day won’t deliver any noticeable results,  whereas a 90 day commitment to daily exercise is pretty much guaranteed to leave you feeling fitter and healthier.

And therein lies the major challenge of developing good habits, kicking bad habits and creating new routines. The benefits are often only realised cumulatively over an extended period of time.


Unfortunately we tend not to pay much attention to minor changes that we make in our lives, as the immediate effects are often not very noticeable. 

Choosing to eat a burger rather than salad or add a side of fries to a meal isn’t going to translate into a weight issue the next day. However, if get into the habit of repeatedly making those same choices, then it won't be long before the cumulative effect the piling on of pounds.



Tip 01 | Commit To The Long Haul & Be Patient


Making positive changes in your life and career also requires patience. The reality is that it will take time before you start seeing results from the actions that you take today. 


If you're frustrated that your new behaviours are not immediately delivering results, then focus on the sense of achievement that comes from consistently making progress and taking small steps in the right direction. 

For example, if you want to develop the good habit of saving money and kick the bad habit of overspending, then celebrate the increase in your bank balance each month. In the short term the benefit may not seem to be that great, but over time the extra wealth you amass will be significant. Conversely, if you get stuck in the bad habit of overspending each month, then it will be your debt that ends being significant in the long run.



Tip 02 | Start With Micro-Commitments


So, importantly, it's possible to make major changes to your life in the long-run by practicing small shifts in behaviour today. Repeat those behaviours consistently over time and the results will be extraordinary. 

One of the major reasons that so many people fail to maintain their New Year's Resolutions is that the types of habit and targets they set themselves are too ambitious. If you set yourself a goal of going to the gym five times per week and only go three times, then you may end up telling yourself that you've failed and not bother going at all the following week. 

It's therefore better to start off by setting a goal that's achievable and gradually increase the level of commitment over time. For example, if you decide to commit to developing a new skill or learning a new language, the act of investing a small amount of time to practicing each day will enable you to achieve significant results without having to fundamentally revolutionise your life or fundamentally change your behaviour patterns.


Consider what small changes you can start making in your life and career to start developing different types of habits and daily routines today. What micro-commitments will serve you positively in the long-term? For example, what would be the cumulative impact and benefit of getting into the habit and routine of adding one new connection on LinkedIn each day?



Tip 03 | Don't Wait - Get Started Today


It's easy to fall into the trap of procrastinating about adopting a new behaviour, starting a new routine or developing a new habit. It's always possible to find a reason why it's not the perfect time to start. It might be that you have a big project on at work, or that you're going on holiday soon or that the weather isn't very good today. 

The reality if that it's always going to be possible to find an excuse to delay getting started. But, consider how much you could have already achieved during the time that you've been thinking, talking or procrastinating about getting started. 

How much could you have already achieved, if you'd put that energy into building the habit or creating the routine itself? More importantly, how much better would you feel right now if you'd actually taken some action?




Tip 04 | Reward Yourself


People are motivated by rewards, so ensure that you're habits create a positive sense of anticipation of the rewards that you’ll receive if you maintain your commitment to them.

When we encounter pleasurable things, our brains release a feel-good hormone called dopamine. As well as being stimulated through physical stimuli, the release of dopamine can also be triggered by the anticipation a pleasurable activity or reward. This helps encourage and motivate us to take action in our lives. It’s the reason why we derive so much pleasure from looking forward to a special occasion or holiday.

We can tap into this reward system when developing new habits and routines. If we can ensure that the new habit is something that we actually look forward to and positively anticipate, then it becomes much easier for it become part of our daily routine.

Unfortunately, sometimes it's difficult to look forward to certain actions and behaviours. One way to overcome this challenge is to associate the less desirable behaviour with one that is more appealing and likely to encourage that powerful dopamine hit. 

For example, it may be that you decide to link the less desirable activities of running on a treadmill or doing a stint on the exercise bike, with the opportunity to watch your favourite TV series on your iPad whilst you’re doing them. Or it may be that you promise to reward yourself with your favourite food every time you consistently hit a key work target.

By linking these positive rewards with less desirable tasks, you'll soon begin to positive association with the new habits and daily routines that you're developing.




Tip 04 | Recognise The Trigger - Action - Reward Pattern


Good habits and bad habits all follow a similar pattern of Trigger - Action - Reward. Habits start with a trigger or cue to act. For example, when your phone pings, it triggers you to want to find out who's contacting you or what notification you’ve received. Without thinking, your response is to pick up your phone and check your messages. Your reward is reading the message and receiving the associated dopamine hit. You can think of that red new notification icon as a little dopamine dot!

Often these habits become hard-wired into us without us even realising. For example, another phone related trigger can be when someone else takes out their phone and checks their messages or social media in front of you. This triggers a craving to see if you have any messages or notifications of your own, which leads to the action of you pulling out your own phone and the potential reward of some dopamine dots.


You can test this for yourself by noticing your urge to pull out your phone next time someone checks theirs. Or you can even see what happens if you choose to instigate the trigger by checking you phone when you're with a group of friends or colleagues.


So, why is this important? Well, it's only by understanding how the Trigger - Action - Reward system works that we can start understanding our good habits and bad habits and, by doing so, start creating new, positive habits and routines that serve our life and career goals.



Tip 05 | Create An Encouraging Environment


One of the best ways to help yourself develop positive habits and good routines is to create an environment that presents you with cues and triggers that encourage positive habits and discourages any less desirable behaviours. 


For example, if you want to get into the good habit of eating more healthily, try leaving a bowl of fruit out in the kitchen and placing the biscuits, chocolate and other junk food at the back of the cupboard. 


If you want to get into the habit of reading more, keep a book on the bedside table and leave electronic devices outside the bedroom. 


If you want to practice yoga everyday, leave your mat in plain sight, rather than putting it away in the cupboard. If you want to go for a run, leave your trainers out. These simple cues will help you respond and make it more likely that you'll take action.




Tip 06 | Commit To Specific Actions


Unfortunately it can be quite easy to fall into the trap of being too vague when setting intentions around creating new habits or daily routines. For example, it's great to set an intention to exercise more. However, unfortunately, such a statement lacks a firm commitment to a specific action. 


When setting out to establish new habits, it's important to create a clear plan of action that identifies what it is that you're committing to do and when. 


For example, if you want to get into the habit of learning a new language, start by deciding what method you are committing to using (e.g. an online course on Udemy) and on which days you’ll study and for how long. Getting clear about these commitments will help ensure that your good intentions translate into quantifiable actions, that in turn translate into good new habits.



Tip 07 | Make It As Easy As Possible


A  question that people often ask is how long does it take to develop a new habit? And the rather unhelpful, but truthful, answer is  that it depends on the habit. Some good habits are much easier to develop than others, usually if they are easy to adopt and enjoyable. And some bad habits take longer to kick than others. Behaviours that require a significant amount of effort to undertake and repeat are likely to take much longer to become firmly established as new habits.



Tip 08 | Create A Minimum Enjoyable Action


Once you've committed to developing a new habit, create what Nir Eyal calls a Minimum Enjoyable Action (MEA) to help you get you moving and make the process of getting started more manageable. 


The idea is to simply get into the habit of undertaking a simple action that's associated with building your new habit. For example, if you want to get into the habit of practicing yoga everyday, then get your mat out everyday. If you want to get into habit of reading everyday, then start by reading three pages per day. If you want to start exercising everyday then start by doing one sit-up or a single press-up and no more.


Once you've established your Minimum Enjoyable Action for each habit, then it becomes much easier to start building on them. For example, if you've read three pages of your book then it's likely that at some point you'll start developing the habit of reading more. The most important thing is to get to the Action stage of the Trigger - Action - Reward process - even if the actual action is very small to begin with.


Whilst making it as easy as possible to engage in your Minimum Enjoyable Action, simultaneously try to increase the barriers and friction between you and the distractions that are going to prevent you from developing your good new habits and routines. For example, if you're tempted to watch television rather than read a book, unplug the TV from the wall, so you can't just flick it on. If there's a food that you might be tempted to eat that doesn't fit with your new eating habits, then freeze it, so you have to defrost it before you can eat it.



Tip 09 | Make It Satisfying


We now live in a society that’s accustomed to instant gratification. We have an infinite amount of information immediately available to us online, we're able to stream any movie or music track on-demand and have shopping delivered directly to our homes within hours. 


As a result, wherever possible, it's important to try to attach some form of instant gratification to the new habits that you’re attempting to establish. 

For example, if you're creating new habits to save money for something specific, then put the money that you're saving into a separate account and give it a name that represents what you're saving up for, e.g. the model of the car or holiday destination. The short term satisfaction of seeing the balance of the account increase each month should help meet the need for short term gratification, whilst waiting to realise the benefits of the long-term reward.



Tip 10 | Track Your Progress


Putting systems and structures in place to track and manage your progress is incredibly beneficial when trying to establish new habits and daily routines. Creating a simple spreadsheet which can be used to set targets and track your progress is a highly effective way to assess your progress. 

It also has the added benefit of giving you a small reward and dopamine hit every time you tick off an action as complete or you hit your daily, weekly or monthly target. It's even been shown that adding an already completed item to a to-do-list and then ticking it off actually elicits the same dopamine reward response.



Tip 11 | Establish Accountability


In addition to tracking your own progress, being held accountable for the commitments that you've made to a new personal habit or daily routine and the actions that you're taking is a powerful way to ensure that behaviours actually turn into good habits and established routines. 

Consider asking a friend or colleague to hold you accountable for your new habit and routine commitments. You may also want to agree a penalty or negative consequence that you will face if you fail to follow through on your commitments. For example, you could be required to make a significant donation to a charity or political party that you find extremely objectionable.



Tip 12 | Associate A New Behaviour With An Existing Habit


Start by layering a new behaviour onto an existing personal habit that's already part of your daily routine. 

For example, if you want to start journaling, but are struggling to find the time, why not link or associate the practice with something else that is already part of your morning routine, such as having a cup of tea or coffee before you start work. By doing so, you can take advantage of the your coffee habit by layering the journaling practice on top of it.


Summary


Making small changes to your daily behaviours will not immediately transform your life. However, if you commit to taking action to transform that behaviour into a new habit that becomes part of your daily routine, then it can definitely result in significant changes. By creating positive systems of habits that work in synergy with each other, it's possible to make small changes that deliver big results, without needing to revolutionise your entire life.



Further Reading



Atomic Habits - James Clear


In his innovative book, ‘Atomic Habits’ James Clear unveils exactly how these tiny changes can evolve into life-altering habits. He reveals a couple of straightforward life hacks, the powerful art of Habit Stacking, the impact of the 2 Minute Rule and the ability to enter the Goldilocks Zone.


He also utilises cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience to explain how and why these life hacks still remain so relevant. Throughout the book, he recounts inspiring stories of Olympic athletes, business leaders, and respected scientists who have harnessed the power of small habits to increase motivation, productivity and even happiness.


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