The Ultimate Guide To Building Good Habits
First off, this is a detailed guide. (and the last one you’re going to ever need to build a habit again, seriously)
I’ve put the headings here so it’s easy for you to get where you want to go
- How To Use This Guide
- Part 1. What is a Habit
- Part 2. The Science of How Habits Work
- Part 3. The Habit Loop and How to Make It Work For You
- Part 4. How To Change Your Behaviour
- Part 5. How To Create Good Habits — 6 Steps To Accomplish Anything
- Part 6. How To Break Bad Habits — 5 Ways To Do It
- Part 7 How To Build Habits That Stick — Forever
How To Use This Guide
Studies done at Duke University show that about 40% of our behaviours are caused by our habits. . These daily habits have formed through actions done repeatedly over the course of our lives. Some of them serve us well and some don’t.
Understanding how to create new habits or change old ones is one of the most effective ways to improve your life. Whether you want to improve your health, wealth, happiness or relationships, your daily habits will get you there once you build the right ones.
The problem we face today is not one our ancestors did. We live in the information overload age. We have never had as much information available at our fingertips. The price of this is decreased attention spans. When it comes to habit-building, the challenge is not to do with information, it is how to take action.
If more information was the answer, then we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.”
– Derek Sivers
I have written this habit guide with a simple purpose. Think of it as a practical, easy-to-use tool that you can use to build better habits or change old ones. When it comes to habits, our ultimate aim is to transform our life for long-term success. This guide will help you to build the habits required to take you there. This guide is written in sections so feel free to skip ahead to the parts that interest you if you’re in a hurry. Otherwise, grab a cuppa coffee and enjoy the read.
What is a Habit
Before we can change or build a habit, we need to be clear on what it is. Let’s start by defining the word “habit”. The Oxford dictionary describes the word habit as:
Habit — noun
“a thing that you do often and almost without thinking, especially something that is hard to stop doing”
Another way to define habits is that they are behaviours we complete on auto-pilot. Personally, I prefer this definition from behaviour change experts Bas Verplanken & Henrik Aarts .
“Habits are learned sequences of acts that have become automatic responses to specific cues”
In a nutshell, habits are learned behaviours that we repeat over and over. That’s important because they are learned, it means we can learn new ones or unlearn old ones.
The Science Of How Habits Work
There has been a lot written on the science of how habits work. The book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, breaks habits into four stages . Let’s break each down.
Stage 1: Cue.
Our brain remembers past experiences so that it can better predict future ones. One way it does this is by associating external cues or triggers in our environment with past experiences. An external cue triggers an internal response. (think of the sight or smell of freshly baked cookies). A cue or trigger usually falls into five main sub-headings .
- Location — place we are in
- Time — what time of day or year is it
- People — Who we are with and what other people around us are doing
- Emotional State — what mood we are in, how we feel
- Preceding action — what did we just do beforehand
Stage 2: Craving
The next stage is an internal or emotional response we have to that external cue. Our brain gives meaning to the external cues we receive every day. It will predict that if we take a certain action following a specific cue, we get a predicted response. (If I eat the tasty cookies, I won’t be hungry and will feel full). We may crave this feeling enough to take action.
Stage 3: Routine
This stage is when the actual behaviour or action occurs. As humans we are hard-wired to conserve energy when we can. Taking actions that require little energy pleases our love for convenience. If we can take little action and get a nice reward, even better again. (Eating those tasty cookies is very easy!).
Stage 4: Reward
The final stage is the reward. This is the benefit or outcome we get from our behaviour or action. All habits serve us in some way. Eating the cookies means we feel full and get a sugar rush. The reward matters because it gives feedback to our brain. Then it can decide whether or not the action was easy to take and the reward was worth the effort. The reward dictates whether we will or won’t seek out that action again in the future.
The Habit Loop
When these four stages happen together this creates a habit loop. We are continuously running through this loop, getting feedback and learning from these experiences.
It is amazing how effective the habit loop is in controlling our actions.
Our brains like connections. If we sip on a nice, warm coffee as soon as we get out of bed, our brain will associate the caffeine hit with getting out of bed. When a loop is closed, the feedback received determines our expectation for what will happen when we do a similar action in that same situation, in the future.
In the past, people tried to change their behavior only. Now we know better. The rewards and cues are more important for successful behaviour change than the actual habit or action.
Now we know how habits work, let’s look at how to change them.
How To Change Your Behaviour
Most “bad” habits have common traits. They are usually very easy actions (convenient) and they give us instant rewards, making our brain happy. Eating chocolate is easy and gives an instant sugar rush. Watching Netflix is easy and gives us an instant dopamine hit. We literally click a button and we are instantly entertained with a movie for a few hours.
Most habits that are good for us in the long-term have more difficult actions in comparison to ‘bad’ habits. They don’t always give immediate feedback. If you go to the gym, you have to lift heavy weights, you feel sweaty and tired after. Yes, you will be fit and healthy in the long run but you may not get instant, positive feedback. Same with running. We know the long-term outcome but our brain likes to deal with the here and now, not the future. So how can you make good habits more rewarding? Sometimes we need to make sure we give ourselves an actual reward. We will talk about how to do that later.
When it comes to behaviour change we need to focus on building the right cues and rewards, the routine will take care of itself. But this is easier said than done.
Behavior change can be difficult. Our habits are so ingrained that often we don’t even notice ourselves doing the behaviour or habit. Here’s an example. Whenever I was idle for a few minutes, I would automatically scroll numblessly through social media. Queueing in the supermarket, waiting for somebody for 2 minutes, waiting for a kettle to boil. Didn’t matter, I had my phone out on auto-pilot. The cue was boredom. The response was to use social media. The reward was a dopamine hit from something “interesting” on my newsfeed. I hadn’t even noticed this habit until someone pointed it out to me.
When I set out to change this habit, it didn’t go well at the start. I would be in a queue, get bored, instinctively reach for my phone, then have a mental battle with myself for a few minutes. It was tiring. Energy draining too. What worked for me was to just leave my phone behind completely going to the supermarket. I would give myself mental puzzles to work on when I was standing in a queue after that.
When you’re thinking of changing a habit or behaviour, the questions below will help you to get started. Grab a pen and paper. Write down the habit you want to build or change. Then answer the following questions.
1. How can I make my behavior obvious?
2. How can I make my behaviour attractive?
3. How can I make my behaviour easy?
4. How can I make my behaviour satisfying
Go back, read your answers and make sure they’re specific. These answers are key to you having success in habit-building. An obvious cue means you have a clear prompt to start a behaviour. Let’s say you want to read more.
Every morning, make your bed and leave your kindle on your pillow. Every night, get into bed, pick up your kindle and read a few pages.
Making your behaviour easy or attractive means that you need to choose an action at the beginning that is simple and quick to do. We will cover that in the next section “How to Create Good Habits”.
To make a behaviour satisfying, you need to give yourself a reward you enjoy. This helps to close the habit loop and gives your brain the positive feedback it’s looking for.
How To Create Good Habits — 6 Steps To Accomplish Anything
- Start with a really small habit
- Build upon your habit in small steps
- Use chunking to break up habits into bite-size pieces
- Never miss twice
- Reward Yourself often and early
- Don’t go fast
1. Start with a really small habit
“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward”
– Chinese Proverb
Whenever most of us start a new habit, after a while we eventually struggle to keep momentum. We blame ourselves. We say “if only I had more willpower or motivation, I would succeed”. But it doesn’t work like that. We need to think differently.
See motivation works like a muscle. We only have a finite amount available each day. Motivation levels ebb and flow. Sometimes we have more or less. BJ Fogg, a Stanford researcher calls this phenomenon ‘motivation waves‘.
Instead of choosing actions that rely on motivation, focus on habits that are easy and simple to do. In the beginning, your habit should almost feel effortless. Instead of reading for 30 minutes per day, start with 2 pages per day. Rather than trying to start running 20 minutes per day, start with 2 minutes per day. Think of the “2-minute rule” when choosing a new habit. At this stage, we want to focus on just showing up every day. 2 minutes is enough to get started.
Action Steps Here are 3 steps to make your new habit easy to do.
- Start by writing down the good habit you want to eventually achieve
- Write down 1 simple daily action that lasts about 2 minutes that will let you practice an aspect of that habit.
- Aim to complete that simple, single action on a daily basis
2. Build upon your habit in small steps
“Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.
– Jim Rohn
A cornerstone of building habits is to start small and gradually improve your habit over time. Even a simple action may not seem like much in a single day, but those actions add up. Consistent effort compounds over time. Often, we don’t think that small, daily actions make that much of a difference. A single day may not matter. But when we expand our horizon, even small, actions add up to big results over a year. Some of these might surprise you.
Reading 10 pages every day for 1 year equals 3,600 pages. About 10 extra books read.
Doing 25 pushups every day for 1 year equals 9,125 pushups.
Meditating for 5 minutes every day for 1 year equals 1,825 minutes of meditation. This is 30.41 hours.
Choosing not to eat a chocolate bar every weekday at work (let’s take a standard 45-gram Dairy Milk Chocolate bar). That’s 240 calories. Over a year, it equals 62,640 fewer calories which is the equivalent of burning off 17.9 pounds of weight.
- Think of your daily habit. Now calculate what the results would be from doing that habit every day for 1 year.
- Now, repeat that calculation for 3 and then 5 years. The results will surprise you.
3. Use chunking to break up habits into bite-size pieces
At a certain stage, your daily habit will become easy and boring, likely after a few weeks. Then you might consider increasing your effort. When you’re building momentum, you want to keep your habits easy to do. Breaking bigger habits into chunks is a good way to do this.
I wanted to publish a short article every day online for 30 days. When I started out, I struggled to research, write, edit and publish all in one go. To stay consistent, I changed my approach. I would write my first draft in the morning. Then, in the evening, I would edit and hit publish. I had strict time constraints on myself doing this. It worked because I had split my habit into easy-to-manage chunks. You can check out those essays here.
Let’s say you want to build up to 20 minutes of reading every day. Try to split this into two 10 minute blocks at first. These could even be different times during the day.
Trying to work towards 50 situps every day? 50 seems like a lot but 5 sets of 10 seems a lot easier to get you there.
- Break your habit into smaller chunks
- Write down where and when you are going to perform this action every day
4. Never miss twice
Jerry Seinfeld is one of the greatest comedians of his generation. He was the creator of the show Seinfeld that ran for 9 seasons. It was voted as the greatest show of all time in 2009 by TV Show Guide. When Jerry was asked about the secret for such consistent productivity over such a long timeline, he explained his system. 
This is how Jerry stays consistent even when other challenges come along.
” He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker.
He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
“Don’t break the chain,” he said again for emphasis.
I love Jerry’s “Don’t Break The Chain” calendar. Sticking to this approach will allow all of your added effort to compound over time. Once you get that chain started, don’t break it.
Beginners love to focus on productivity tools, apps and hacks. It’s easy and exciting to have new shiny tools to play with. But usually, the simple approach — a calendar and marker — work just as well if not better than some apps. The cornerstone to success is having a system that is very easy and simple to do so you can stick to it.
Here are 4 steps you can use today to help create your own habit chain-link
- Map out your schedule on a simple calendar system or paper.
- Write down when exactly you are planning to work on your small habit.
- Set an alert or reminder on your phone to review this calendar every week.
- Mark it off on your calendar every day you complete it. Build your chain.
5. Reward Yourself Often and Early
“The cardinal rule of behaviour change. What gets rewarded gets repeated. What gets punished gets avoided”
– James Clear
If you want a habit to stick it needs to feel successful. This means you want to get a feeling of pleasure, enjoyment or satisfaction. Every time you complete your habit, close the habit loop.
I can unsubscribe any time I wish
The challenge with good habits is delayed gratification. If I go to the gym every day, one year later, I will be in great shape. If I read every day, one year later, I will be smarter. However, our brain doesn’t like delayed gratification, it wants its dopamine now. It’s like a cranky child. When you’re building your new habit, you need to give yourself a reward early and often. Closing the habit loop reinforces that positive habit you’re building.
In the beginning, when we choose a habit, we are choosing an action that reflects the type of person we want to become.
A runner runs most days.
A writer writes most days.
A smart person reads most days.
Later, when you have done your habit for so long that you’ve become the type of person you set out to be, motivation won’t be an issue.
But in the early days, we need and crave the reward. When I wanted to build a writing habit, here was my approach. I had a target of writing at least 200 words every day for 30 days to build the habit. At my workstation, I had a box of sugar-free sweets that I really liked. The only time I could have one of those sweets was immediately after I had written 200 words. A nice, daily treat. This idea of tying my writing to eating a treat was enough of a reward to build momentum in the early days.
Let’s look at a few ways you can add a reward to your habit.
Say you go the gym. After, grab a delicious smoothie and savor sipping on on it post-workout.
Let’s say you’re taking up running. Treat yourself to a relaxing bubble bath after every run. This will give you a nice reward and reinforce the idea that you’re a person who takes care of their body.
- For your goal, write down the exact reward you are going to give yourself every day when you complete your habit.
- Choose a reward that you can do right after your habit or behaviour.
6. Don’t go fast
“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
– Bill Gates
You will make incredible progress if you are patient and consistent over a long enough time period. Looking at these things as an equation helps.
Effort X Consistentcy X Time Period = Success
Staying consistent is difficult. The reason for this is because we don’t always see immediate results. You may not look different after one workout or even seven days working out. When you show up for 3 months or 6 months, I guarantee you will notice the change. The challenge here is that we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, especially in the beginning.
Say you’re new to the gym. You might expect to be able to lift a certain weight because your friend can. It’s more reasonable for you to be able to lift less weight than you expect because you haven’t done it before. In fact, this is the logical expectation. What about if you showed up to the gym 3 times per week for 6 months. Would it be reasonable for you to be able to lift heavier weights than before? You already know the answer, YES it would.
Let’s look at this another way.
If you had a business plan that involved you making daily sales calls. Take your very first day, you might do ten calls and only close one. You may beat yourself up over it. This is an unreasonable expectation. You can’t be good at something you haven’t practiced. Now, say you did 10 sales calls five days a week for 3 months. 600 sales calls. Would it be reasonable that you would be a lot better than you were starting out? You know the answer. Another few months, and it would be unreasonable for you to be anything but better than before.
Instead of having unreasonable expectations at the start based on the effort you put in, aim to put in enough effort, consistency and time so it is unreasonable for you not to be successful at your goal.
- Set realistic expectations for your expected results from your habit after 30 days, 90 days and 180 days
- Set a reminder in your phone or calendar to review these expectations
- When you’re reviewing, ask yourself, if you achieved your expectations and what worked or didn’t work.
How To Break Bad Habits — 5 Ways To Do It Successfully
Before we can break bad habits. We need to realise what causes them. Often bad habits are caused by two things…
Boredom and Stress
Do you find that your best intentions are nearly always overcome? Have you ever tried to be more productive, exercise more or eat healthier? Ever tried to get rid of clutter or debt, only to realise you can’t?
The reason we have these struggles is obvious.
Many of us don’t manage stress and boredom in a healthy way. 
However, we can change. You can learn better approaches to manage stress and boredom. Eventually, you can replace bad habits with better ones.
When you do notice a bad habit you want to change, you may need to have an uncomfortable conversation with yourself. Ask yourself what’s the reason or belief behind that habit? Maybe, there’s a story you tell yourself, a limiting belief? Either way, until you accept your belief around a habit, you will struggle to overcome it. Next step, let’s look at techniques to change a habit.
- Change a bad habit, don’t break it
All of the habits you have right now are there for a reason. One way or another, these habits provide some benefit to you.
You’re more likely to succeed if you change your bad habit into a better one instead of trying to break it.
Here’s a common example. Many of us crave something sweet after lunch. We grab some chocolate or sweets. Anything to sort our craving.
One day we may decide, “I’ll just stop eating that treat after lunch”. If only it were that easy. First, we need to figure out why we take that action.
- Maybe that treat gives you a burst of energy to get you through the mid-afternoon slump.
- Maybe you eat that treat so you can spend time walking around the office chatting with colleagues because you don’t want to go back to work yet.
There are a lot of moving parts creating your behaviour and to change a habit, you need to know a few more things. You need to know the cue for the habit and the reward it gives you.
Back to our story. You could try to replace the action with a different one that may give the same reward. If you eat the chocolate for an energy rush, maybe having a coffee will solve the issue. If you eat the chocolate bar as an excuse to chat with colleagues, try chatting while having an apple. When you notice a bad habit that you have, think about how you can change the action of this habit into something else. This may take a little trial and error at the start. That’s ok.
Over time you will manage to replace your old, “bad habit” with a new, better one. Eventually, this will become automatic and you won’t even think about it anymore.
2. Choose a new substitute for your habit and plan accordingly
Think of a habit that you have that you want to change. Again, you may have to think about what the cue and reward for that habit actually is. When you have that figured out, write down exactly what you plan to do instead of your current habit, what is the substitute going to be?
What are you going to do when you get the urge to scroll through TikTok? Maybe you will read one page of a novel you enjoy? What are you going to do if you get an urge to smoke a cigarette? Maybe you have a set of relaxing, breathing exercises planned. The important part here is that you have a plan in place.
3. Cut out as many cues or triggers as you can
When most of us are trying to overcome a bad habit, we rely on willpower. It won’t work. We don’t have enough of it. You need to set up your environment to eliminate as many cues as you can. In my old apartment, my fiancee liked to leave chocolate bars in a glass jar on the counter after we did the weekly shopping. Bad idea. Every time I was having a cup of tea in the evening, I would crave a chocolate bar. Pretty soon, I was having one regularly with my cup of tea. I was building a habit of tea and chocolate.
I broke that habit eventually. How? We stopped buying the chocolate bars. If I didn’t have or see them, I didn’t crave them. You need to set up your environment in a way that is going to help you achieve your habit. Often this may include removing the cue completely from your environment.
4. Tell people about it
Have you ever thought about completing a 5-kilometre race or even a half-marathon? Maybe you started off with the best intentions only to give up running after a few weeks. Here is a way you can change that. Get out your calendar and find a running event coming up in a few months’ time. Make sure you have enough time to train for it. Book yourself entry to that race. Save a picture on your phone. Once you have that done, tell all your friends and family that you are planning to do that event and show them the ticket. This is going to hold you accountable. You will then have a choice…
Either you can train and complete your event or you can make a liar out of yourself. None of us like to be known as liars especially to our close friends and family. This incentive will help you to start your running routine and stay with it. It’s not the ideal way to build a long-term habit but sometimes to make progress, we just need to start.
5. Give yourself something to lose
This approach works quite well when it comes to breaking bad habits. The idea is quite simple. And the psychology behind this approach is interesting. Katherine Milkman, a behaviour change professor at Wharton explains why this works.
“Losses tend to be about twice as motivating as the same gains”
Say you want to break a habit of over-eating and build a habit of going to the gym. Think of a reasonable amount of weight you might like to lose within a specific time frame. Now make a bet with a friend. Hand them over some cash. If you achieve your goal, you get your cash back. If you don’t they keep it. If you are trying this approach, remember, the fear of losing something you already will have will motivate you much more than the opportunity of gaining something in the future.
How To Build Habits That Stick Forever
Jocko Willink was Officer in Charge of Training for all West Coast Navy Seal Teams. When Tim Ferris asked how he approached training soldiers to be ready for some of the most dangerous combat zones in the world his answer was interesting. He said they created some of the most “challenging and realistic combat training in the world”.  They would put huge amounts of pressure on soldiers and monitor their response. This helped them to be prepared for whatever lay ahead of them in the future.
The idea of this training is to be comfortable in chaos. The Navy Seals want their soldiers to be able to think clearly even in chaos, so they could make good decisions.
Now, when it comes to building habits that stick, you don’t need to go to these extremes. But using this approach will help. You can do this by planning for Chaos.
Plan for Chaos
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face”
– Mike Tyson
Take a goal that you set for yourself. Say it’s to strength train three times every week or read 10 pages of a book per day.
You start well and everything goes according to plan. You’re having a great week, with no unexpected interruptions. The only challenge is to just take action and complete the habit. That’s great.
But what happens when life gets busy. And life will always get busy. We start making excuses. “I didn’t plan for X to happen”. Maybe you had to work overtime at work. Meet a friend.
The challenge is how can you stay consistent with your habits when your everyday life becomes unpredictable? The answer is simple, you need to plan for chaos.
Stick to the Schedule, reduce the target
Planning for chaos means you prepare yourself in advance for the scenario where things go wrong.
Here’s an example of how I applied this approach recently. I play an amateur sport called Gaelic Football. This is a field sport with a high rate of muscle injuries due to the high amount of sprinting involved.
Earlier this season, I tore my hamstring muscle. Out for a few weeks, no big deal. We train as a group three times every week. Apart from this, I need to do 2 rehabilitation sessions every week to make sure my hamstring injury doesn’t happen again.
A few months back, I moved apartments. This meant I had a longer commute to the gym I did my rehabilitation sessions in. This led to more friction, more time traveling, more effort to get there. I missed one or two of my rehabilitation sessions. A while later, I was training and felt my hamstring muscle tighten. It was weak and I knew if I kept going as I was, I would reinjure myself and miss the most important part of the season.
My solution was simple. I got some dumbbell weights and a bench press and left them in my sitting room. My fiancee wasn’t too happy with the new furniture but the result of this means that now I can do my rehabilitation sessions twice per week in the comfort of my living room. Which is way easier than before. And I haven’t missed a planned session since. The key is not even what I do in the rehabilitation session, it doesn’t need to be too long or intense, it’s more important that I stay consistent. Just showing up and doing twenty minutes twice a week outside of training days.
Sticking to the schedule is the most important part. I have planned for chaos. Even when things get busy in life, I know that all I need to do is grab twenty minutes at my apartment to get my rehab in. It’s a much smaller target but it means it’s easier to stick to the schedule.
Here’s an exercise to use when planning for chaos. Think of the habit you’re building. Fast forward 6 months into the future. Imagine you’re having a conversation with yourself listing all of the reasons why you didn’t succeed in achieving your goal. Write down every potential excuse you can think of. We’re going to use that list in a minute.
The If-Then Technique
Now, you’re going to create an If-Then scenario. The If-Then technique was pioneered by a psychologist named Peter Gollwitzer. It is a simple and effective technique for managing setbacks. Back to your list. We are going to apply the If-Then technique to every potential excuse you came up with.
The technique is simple. You write down exactly what you’re going to do if something happens that causes you to have to change your original plan.
Let’s take an example.
If I have a takeaway on Saturday night, then I’ll go to the supermarket on Sunday and buy healthy foods for dinners on Monday & Tuesday.
If I work overtime this evening and I miss my exercise class, then I’ll wake up early tomorrow and run for 20 minutes.
If I stay out late tonight then I will read 10 pages on my Kindle during my lunch break tomorrow.
The “If-Then technique gives you a plan for overcoming unexpected problems, which means that when life gets in the way, you’ve already planned for getting back on track. You can’t control when mini life emergencies happen but you can control your response to them.
Think about how you’re going to use this information. Take one single habit and apply the advice from this guide in the next week. The best way to make progress is to get started. Leave a comment below letting me know how you get on.
We have covered some of the most effective techniques and approaches for building better habits. These will help you to create positive lasting changes in your life.
- In Part 1 and Part 2, we looked at what a habit is and the science behind it.
- In Part 3, we looked at The Habit Loop and the importance of focusing on cues and rewards when building habits. The four stages of the loop are cue, craving, response, reward.
- In Part 4, we talked about how to focus on cues and rewards to change habits.
- In Part 5, we laid out the exact steps you can take to build habits that last. Remember, the key is to start small with easy habits.
- In Part 6, you learned that the best way to break a habit is to change it to a better one.
- In Part 7, we covered how to use the “If-Then” technique to make sure you stick to your habit forever.
- Habits: A Repeat Performance by David T. Neal, Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn
- For example, see Verplanken, B. and Wood, W., “Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits” Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Vol 25(1) Spring 2006, 90–103
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
- Brad Isaac quote when he asked Jerry Seinfeld if he had any tips for a young comic
- Leo Babauta blog, Zen Habits
- Tim Ferris Podcast with Jocko Willink