Forming New Habits: Step-by-Step Guide

Overworked and exhausted, around the early afternoon. We begin to lose our magic powers. We stop being so responsive. Our decision-making skills diminish. Critical thinking becomes not so critical. We gravitate towards easy and fun – tend to avoid everything that requires effort and discipline.

As creatures with limited capacity, many of us can relate to the feeling of losing our ability to function properly. This can vary from expansive burnout to simply entering a state of uncontrolled consumption – scrolling through all major social media accounts while marathoning Netflix and impulsively ordering items from the never-ending online catalog.

Is there a way out of this periodic lack of discipline?

There is. The answer is acquiring new habits. Good habits. Healthy routines.

These have the power to stop us from loss of emotional regulation. Plus, subscribe us to a gym membership we are eager to exploit.

There’s a lot of chatter in the world in relation to habits.

What are habits? Why habits are good? What are the best habits? What are the worst habits? How many days does it take to form a habit? How many days does it take to break a habit?

There is little information about how one should go about embedding one new habit into his already busy life.

In this installment, we talk about new habits. And more specifically, I propose a framework. Guide on how a person should approach adding one new positive behavior into his life.

But first, the basics…

How Are Habits Formed?

The American Psychological Association defines habit formation as “the process by which, through repetition or conditioning, animals or humans acquire a behavior that becomes regular and increasingly easy to perform.” Though correct, I’m not sure this definition captures the nuances associated with the process of acquiring habits.

Yes, repetition leads to a behavior that is automatically triggered and executed. But “increasingly easy to perform”? That’s not entirely true.

Though I am an early riser and I train right after my head divorces the soft pillow for the night. I can’t say that I easily perform the exercises for the day. Sometimes, I just don’t want to obey the habits that by now should have become automatic – and I’ve been doing this routine for more than 3 years.

Why is that?

The answer is that there are different kinds of habits.

In 1911, Henri Bergson – who was a famous French philosopher. Categorized habits as active and passive.

Active habits refer to the routines we consciously add to our lives. Those behavior patterns we work intentionally to develop. For example, you set a goal to participate in a marathon which results in adding a portfolio of habits to help you endure the challenge.

Passive habits are different. They arise from our exposure to life. They can be good or bad. Quite often, sadly, they are bad. Like an unfortunate side effect of living in a particular city or being friends with a particular group of people. Meaning that we tend to adopt the behavior of others. To make things even worse, we have a natural tendency to adopt behaviors that are easy and fun – things like smoking, drinking, gambling, playing video games for hours, obsessing about how many likes you got because everyone else seems so interested in the topic.

Comparing active and passive habits with example habits for each category
When actions are initiated based on your own will. Based on your own decision. They become less difficult with repeated performance. Plus, they are usually more beneficial for you.

As you can sense, passive habits are things that work under the hood – sort to speak. We don’t see them. Well, we do. But we don’t perceive them as something that needs changing.

We’ve always smoked, for example. Or, we’ve always gone to the bar on Friday night and made a dent in the floor after collapsing from drinking a whole bottle of cognac.

At some point, the passive habits become so natural to us that we can’t imagine ourselves not doing them.

Conversely, active habits are behavior patterns we work to keep. You make active efforts to keep exercising or to keep not eating sugary things, for example.

The more we do what we do, the harder it becomes to dissociate ourselves from a certain nasty routine. But on the bright side, it becomes easier to practice the hard-to-practice habits.

Why?

That’s something neuroscience can explain.

Neuroscience of New Habits

Have you ever asked yourself, how a particular set of actions becomes so effortless for the body?

For instance, transitioning from someone who can barely produce a tune on the piano to someone who can play a symphony?

When we are young, everything feels hard and foreign.

I remember when I was around the age of 5. My mom was trying to teach me how to tie my shoes, and I can vividly recall how she was failing. Back then, it seemed so hard to take two independent woven bands and combine them into something whole. A couple of months after my mom nearly gave up on me, I was tying my shoes while rambling nonstop about my action figure toys. Meaning, that I’ve mastered shoe-tying. (Not something you can put on your resume, but definitely something nice to have in your portfolio of skills.)

But tying shoes is just a tiny piece of what we are cable of. We can learn multiple languages and effortlessly switch from English to Chinese without breaking a sweat.

This is all thanks to the tiny particles we have in our heads called neurons – the building blocks of our brains.

We have literally millions of neurons in our brains. They are the primary cells of the nervous system. And their job is to pass through information and send motor commands to our muscles.

Each neuron has three main parts: the cell body, dendrites, and an axon.

A neuron where the axon and the dendrites are pointed out.

When a neuron wants to talk to another one. It reaches its arm (axon) and gives a tiny shock to the toe (dendrite) of the other neuron. The gap between the two neurons while giving the shock is called a synapse. Basically, a synapse is the process of communication – how a neuron passes along a signal.1

Neurons making a synapse

Why I’m telling you all of this?

Well, because this communication between neurons is vital in terms of creating habits.

You see, the more you do a certain task. More and more neurons talk to each other and connect. Eventually, there is a group of neurons and the connection between them is mighty strong. You can imagine this assembly of neurons as a steel chain or a well-paved road. Or in our case, you’ve built a habit.

A cluster of well-connected neurons
When a cluster of neurons is created, this means that you are now well-versed in a particular topic – or a habit is established.

In this sense, forming new habits basically means that you have created enough strong brain links in your head.

You can also picture this by imagining a highway in your head. When the relationship between your neurons is based on months, even years of practice. When you sit down at the piano, a brain wave travels like a fine-tuned Mustang. In other words, you start playing and for someone looking from the outside, what you do seems effortless.

Sadly, this also means that when you’ve done a particularly nasty habit for long enough. It will be quite hard to abandon it for the same reason as above – a strong connection between neurons exists in your head activating the behavior.

Not that it’s impossible to break an already existing bad daily routine – it surely is possible to change bad habits. For now, though, we’ll focus on adding fresh new habits.

We now know how habits are formed and we also know what happens in our heads when we acquire new behavior patterns.

Based on the foundations, let’s see how we should go about building new habits.

How To Build New Habits (Step-by-Step Guide)

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While there is a pile of hacks existing on the internet competing to answer how to develop new habits. As you saw above, neuroscience can’t guarantee shortcuts.

The best approach according to everyone who has studied habit formation in depth is the old-fashion way: commit and persist.

To unpack the above a bit more, do this: Decide what habit you want to add and continue working on perfecting the behavior to make this a permanent tool in your arsenal, despite how hard it is.

Here are the steps towards incorporating positive new habits into your life:

1. How To Start With New Habits

how-to-start-a-new-habit

Starting with new habits involves the following three:

1.1. Decide What Type Of Person You Want To Be

Here’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advice for teens in an interview: “Find your vision. Find who you want to be. And chase it.”2

Contrary to what you might think, Schwarzenegger didn’t adopt the habit of weightlifting and then decided to conquer Mr. Olympia (dominating the title for six years in a row). It was the other way around, his vision was to become one of the strongest men alive and also an actor – a childhood dream of his. Naturally, this led to attaining habits that helped him get there.

Similarly, you first need to decide the person you want to be. Then, work backward to figure out what type of habits you need that will get you to this state.3

1.2. Specify The Exact Behavior

Clearly defining the behavior you want and setting some initial standards will allow you to focus. To fixate yourself and more importantly, to prevent falling into your old ways – being a sluggish overeater whose exercise regime solely involves clicking buttons.

If you bravely state that you want to exercise, you won’t hesitate when it’s time for exercising.

So, write down what exactly are you going to do. Are you going to… Visit the gym? Work out from home? Jog? Sign up for swimming classes? Write a bike? Or, something else. Obviously, a combination of things is allowed.

The point is to define the behavior and to potentially – while we’ll tackle this later as well – specify when exactly you are going to execute the new desired habit.

1.3. Start Incredibly Small

Imagining yourself lifting 30-pound dumbbells if you have never lifted weights before, or running 5 kilometers if you have never set foot in a stadium feels intimidating – to say the least.

A good place to start with a habit that you want to make long-lasting is by first practicing micro habits. Plainly, you start so small, that it will feel embarrassing not to perform the behavior – e.g., start with 20 push-ups per day.

Another thing to consider here is routines vs habits.

Scientists argue that you should first create routines. The author Nir Eyal explains that routines are different from habits.4

Habits are actions we do with little or no thought. In contrast, routines involve a series of behaviors intentionally repeated. Therefore, if you start with jogging for 1 kilometer – even walking for 1 kilometer. You will create a routine for traveling to the track race and exercising. Once the body accepts this whole regime. You can increase the pace.

2. How To Add A New Habit

how-to-add-new-habits

The second set of steps involves the following two actions for adding a new habit:

2.1. Make Room for The New Behavior

I don’t know you, but I suspect that your life is pretty busy right now. We are strange creatures. If we have free time, we’ll surely fill it with certain activities – even if they don’t contribute to our well-being.

With this in mind, we need to make room in our schedule for the new activity we want to practice.

Think about your current daily routine. List everything you do in your day – all the little details. After you have it all written down, consider where the new behavior should be practiced. Block that time slot and guard it against other activities wanting to replace it.

2.2. Give Yourself Permission to Suck

When I decided that I want to write on the internet. I didn’t think it all the way through. I thought that you just write down what comes to your mind and people will like it. Well, they didn’t. I didn’t either. What I wrote initially was so disgusting that I wanted to chop off my hands for writing the garbage I used to write.

For whatever reason, I persisted.

I kept the habit of writing daily, which eventually turned me into a decent ink slinger – or at least I hope.

Doing pretty much anything worthwhile is an iterative process. At first, you’ll most probably suck. No, actually, it will be worse. You’ll be so bad, that you will want to remove any memory of doing the activity. But if you allow yourself to suck. If you realize that every first draft is supposed to be awful. You will keep doing the activity and eventually improve.

3. How To Remember Doing The New Habit

how-to-remember-the-new-habit

3.1. Make It Obvious

Imagine you’ve just spent an entire weekend planning to adopt the habit of reading daily. In your notebook, you’ve structured how and when you’ll start, and you even have a book in mind to begin the journey of becoming a more decent reader. Then Monday comes and it smacks you so hard in the face with its usual dose of impossible tasks that you totally forget about your recent desire for adopting a fresh new activity. Thus, you return home from work and dose of in front off the TV still wearing your work clothes.

Mistake number one in relation to new habits is not adding a cue that will remind you about the desired – still unfamiliar – behavior.

In this sense, if you want to read regularly. Not only you should plan when to read. But also add physical reminders in your surrounding that will ensure you won’t forget – i.e., place the book you want to read somewhere where you can see it.

After all, you’ve been living on autopilot for so long. Doing something new requires constant reminders to actually do it. So, set cues around the house to empower you to start executing the new behavior.

3.2. Attach New Habits To Existing Ones

If you are already watching a lot of television – by definition a bad habit. You can attach a good habit to your already existing routine.

The technical term of this strategy is called temptation bundling. You pack a want – something satisfying – with a should – something your future self will thank you for.

The way I used this framework in my life is by allowing myself to eat something sweet in the morning only if I first trained and ate something organic – an apple or a carrot.

You can use the following structure: Only if I (painful but good activity). I can then (pleasant but wasteful activity). Else, I don’t do (pleasant but wasteful activity).

4. How To Master The New Habit

how-to-master-the-new-habit

4.1. Deliberate Practice

Eventually, you reach a place of sameness. Running outdoors now is a common thing, and reading books is just an ordinary activity. Plainly, you reach a point of habituation – a decrease of excitement to repeated behaviors or stimuli.

At this stage, you have two options: keep the habits in their current state or try to perfect them.

Both of these are feasible options. After all, if you are reading a book per week. Why push yourself to read more than that, right? However, if your goal in life is to become a professional athlete. Running 5 kilometers won’t be enough to compete. You need practice. You need deliberate practice.

The deliberate practice theory refers to our commitment to a skill. Setting a detailed plan that is focused on gradual improvements. You basically break down all the activities related to running – if that’s what you want to do – and you form a plan for improving each area. For instance, lose weight to become lighter. Practice intervals and tempo runs to increase your cardio capacity. Consider hydration, etc.

4.2. Form a Fellowship

There’s an old saying stating: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”

Training alone will help you reach a particular milestone. But getting the best almost always requires outside support.

After all, all professional athletes have coaches. It’s difficult, almost impossible, to go outside your comfort zone alone. You need help. And help comes either by joining a group of people who have the same aims as you, or by hiring a coach to guide you.

4.3. Befriend Failure

Fear of failure is a common roadblock toward peak performance. The better you become at your daily routine. The more the fear of failure might cripple your mind.

Based on my experience with this unpleasantly strong emotion. Fear of failure is basically a combination of these two: lack of patience and fear of embarrassment.

You can’t improve your routines if you don’t have the patience to work on them. A lot of times you’ll suck. And the only way not to suck is by persistently improving what you do.

The other thing is fear of embarrassment. We want others to like us. Therefore, we do all possible to fit in. Present ourselves in a flashy light, but not too extravagant. We refrain from trying new things because we are afraid that others might judge us.

The escape plan here is awfully familiar. We need to practice. The more we practice. The more we’ll improve our skills. The more we improve our skills. The higher our confidence will grow in relation to what we do.

Some Closing Thoughts

When a new habit is embraced. When this new habit is successfully embedded in your life. It reduces action to its barest form – minimizing the time and effort it requires while maximizing its effects.

What this means is that you focus on the purest form or behavior.

Virtuous habits diminish the impact of external impediments that are passively experienced. Making you better prepared for whatever life throws at you.

You no longer mindlessly walk around and do activities simply because you’ve always done them. You take control over your actions and purposefully aim them towards something fruitful.

Plainly, as some of the most influential philosophers argue in a science paper…

Habit weakens passivity and strengthens activity.5

I really hope the above – when practiced – will help you in your journey towards a more disciplined life. Becoming a more disciplined person.

I’ve personally gained from this framework as it allowed me to get up early in the morning, so I can train, write, and think. And it’s not only for a day or two. I’ve been doing this since 2019.

To add further to this, I think that habits are magic. They are like an invisible shrine guiding you forward that exists only in your brain.

But it does take work to make them profitable for the whole body and prevent them from being poisonous to the mind.

The only thing remaining here is to ask: What type of magic powers do you want to add in your life?

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Footnotes:

  1. Dr. Woodruff, Alan. What is a neuron? The University of Queensland. On the web: https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain/brain-anatomy/what-neuron
  2. Dupre, Katie. Arnold Schwarzenegger Advised a Teen on How to Avoid a Mundane Life. Men’s Health blog. On the web: https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a37179099/arnold-schwarzenegger-advice-happiness-vision/
  3. This framework is also known as identity-based habits
  4. DePaul, Kristi. What Does It Really Take to Build a New Habit? Harvard Business Review. On the web: https://hbr.org/2021/02/what-does-it-really-take-to-build-a-new-habit
  5. Grosz, Elizabeth. (2013). Habit Today: Ravaisson, Bergson, Deleuze and Us. Body & Society. On the web: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258127055_Habit_Today_Ravaisson_Bergson_Deleuze_and_Us
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