3 Steps to Build a New Habit that Sticks

Habit loop, start small, and create a winning environment

When it comes to accomplishing your goals and new year resolution, people are quick in thinking about motivation and willpower. The truth is, they don’t work — or at least they don’t last.

That’s why your gym is packed full every January and then back to normal starting February.

Instead of depending on your motivation and willpower, it’s way more important and effective to develop good habits that help you achieve your goals. It’s easy to see that we’re the results of our habits. The tiny step you take — hitting the gym, journaling, calling your mum — matters. These small steps quickly add up and create outcomes you could hardly imagine.

We’re what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. —Aristotle

The only problem is that it’s often difficult to build a new habit. People have tried it and failed, and then they gave up simply because they were not sure what to do next. It happens because, to many, all they know about building a new habit is to “stick to it no matter what!”

Understand the habit loop

Before you start building a new habit, you need to understand how habits work. You don’t need to be a psychologist or a neuroscientist to develop and stick to a new habit, but you need to get an idea on how habits are formed in order to approach them from the right angle in your own work and life.

In the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, there are three main elements in every habit: Cue, Routine, and Reward. These three elements make up a habit — both good and bad — and is called the Habit Loop.

Habit Loop

By understanding the Habit Loop, it’s clear that a habit is not just an action you take repetitively until it becomes automatic. Instead, a habit is the routine you take when a cue is presented. Then, the reward you gained afterward strengthens the association between the relationship between the cue and the routine.

The routine is the habit itself whether it is to work out, write an article, or floss your teeth. The cue is a trigger or signal that gets you into the routine and finally, the reward is what tells your brain to do it again in the future because it’s pleasurable.

Start small — so small that you can’t ignore it

Now you understand how a habit is formed. Before you dive right in to develop your habit, here is the biggest mistake people often make in changing their behavior: Going all-in.

Let’s go back to the habit loop for a moment: In order for a new habit to form, the presence of a reward is critical. Going all-in and changing your routine or behavior at a huge degree pose a big issue to the part of our brain that hates changes.

You may be filled with high enthusiasm and motivation to take a bold move, but often, these motivational spikes fade away quickly and what is left is the unpleasant pains you experience.

  • Running 10 km every day when you’ve never worked out for a year is a lot of pain.
  • Writing 5,000 words every single day when you’ve hardly written 100 words in the past weeks is tough.
  • Jumping straight up to public speaking when you don’t even talk much to your spouse is the recipe of failure (and will probably develop a phobia to public speaking).

It’s clear that going all-in and making enormous changes on day one is the path to failure.

Another similar, but less obvious mistake is to change everything all at once. I once have a friend who believes in starting small but instead of focusing on a few areas in his life, he has an endless list of small routines and habits he wants to add into his work and life.

tiny action needs less energy

The solution is to start small. To build a new habit that sticks and lasts, make it so small that you can’t ignore and so tiny that your Monkey Mind won’t notice it. For examples:

  • If you want to start working out, start by doing two push-ups a day.
  • If you want to start reading, start by reading one paragraph or even one single sentence.
  • If you want to start a daily journal, start by answering a simple question like “how do I feel today?” or “what have I done today?”

These small actions create small wins that keep you moving forward and when you’re ready, scale these small routines up at slight degrees. Before you know it, they become a part of your daily routine that you just do automatically.

Building a winning environment

Understanding the Habit Loop gives you a better sense of how habits are formed so you can approach them scientifically. Starting small quiet your Monkey Mind and act as a replacement to inconsistent motivational spikes. The third piece of the puzzle is building an environment that supports your new habits.

Even when most people don’t want to admit it — or unaware of it, our environment shapes our behavior more than we think. When it comes to building a new habit, the environment is one of the most critical pieces that will make or break your plans.

Habits and environment

A good environment makes taking small action easier in many folds:

  • An organized digital space with a writing tool automatically opens when you switch on your computer prompts you to write more often (what I’m doing).
  • In a research study, people who are living nearer to the gym, pools, and playing fields weigh less and have smaller waistlines.
  • Surrounding with friends who take good care of their money makes you more likely to keep an eye on your income, budget, and spending habits.

In a high-level view, your environment acts as the ultimate cue to your habits. A poor environment is where the cues are less obvious or don’t exist at all — worse, full of cues that trigger bad habits. On the other hand, a good environment puts the habit cues right in front of you and often, create multiple triggers to get you into the habits you want to develop.

Self-awareness and revisit the fundamentals

Even though you know what to do, building a new habit will still be challenging. The process requires a lot of self-evaluation and awareness. Just like depending on motivation and willpower, beating yourself up and guilt-trip yourself when you fall off track is not a good strategy.

Imposing guilt only makes the process even more unpleasant. Instead of beating yourself up, review your progress and keep going back to the fundamentals:

  1. Evaluate the habit loop.
  2. Focus on taking small steps.
  3. Create a winning environment.

While doing so, remember that just like good habits can compound quickly, bad habits can pull you down rapidly if you allow them to. And when you’re trying to move forward, the one thing you need to make sure is not to move backward at the same time.


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