How Habits Are Formed

How Habits Are Formed

By Leo Babauta

How are habits formed? This is the key to making any of the changes we make in the Sea Change Program, and this method is embedded in the monthly plan for each module.

Habits are formed when actions are tied to a trigger by consistent repetition so that when the trigger happens, you have an automatic urge to do the action.

Some examples:

Our lives are filled with these trigger-habit combos, often without our being aware of them. If you drive home from work every weekday following the same route, you probably often drive by rote, making turns without thinking about it, because of constant repetition.

How did these habits form?

  1. Through consistent repetition over the years.
  2. They started with actions performed very consciously at first, before they were a habit, and gradually they became more automatic and less conscious.
  3. There is a feedback loop that helped us repeat the habit for a good length of time. For example, if you are stressed and then eat junk food, you might get pleasure or comfort (positive feedback), and if you don’t eat the junk food, you remain stressed (negative feedback). So positive feedback for indulging an urge and negative feedback for not indulging it makes  to want to do it repeatedly, whenever the trigger happens, which leads to the formation of a habit.

The opposite feedback loop exists for many things, including exercise and eating healthy:

And so feedback is normally set up so that you are unlikely to stick with these habits for long enough to actually make them automatic habits. Feedback is instead set up so that many bad habits (eating unhealthy food, being sedentary, doing drugs, surfing the Internet constantly) will be repeated often enough to become habits.

Fortunately, we can reverse the feedback loop by engineering our habit environment:

  1. Create positive feedback for habits you want to form. Good ways to do that are to start with habits you enjoy and focus on the enjoyment of those habits, create social accountability by telling your friends that you acted on the good habit, and rewarding yourself.
  2. Create negative feedback for not doing the habit. Social accountability is a good way to do this — tell your friends you’re going to act on this new habit for 30 days, and for each day you don’t, there will be a negative consequence.
  3. Reduce negative feedback for doing the habit. Don’t expect to form habits you persistently dislike — find healthy foods and exercise that you enjoy. Only do the activity you want to make a habit for 3-5 minutes at first — so it’s easy and not something you dread.
  4. Reduce positive feedback for not doing the habit. If you sit on your butt and don’t exercise, don’t allow yourself to do other pleasurable things. Create negative consequences. Make people get on your case and take away your wireless router and cable TV box, for example.

The Sea Change Habit Method

1. Pick only ONE small, positive habit — A 5-10 minute limit to start with. You will expand it later, but start as small as possible. This is extremely important, because most people make the mistake of doing multiple habits, or trying to do too much with the habit they’re forming, or both.

2. Come up with a plan. Take 1 week to pick your specific habit (start as small as possible), analyze your behaviors, pick a trigger, plan out how you’ll overcome your obstacles, pick the time of day you’ll implement the habit, plan who your support network will be, create a log for the habit, pick rewards, and decide what your motivations are. Write these down!

3. Do the habit immediately after the trigger for 4-6 weeks. Build in reminders. Try never to skip it. The more consistent you are, the stronger the habit will be. Read more about triggers.

4. Build in positive feedback. Focus on enjoyment, make it a game, create competition, do it with a partner or group if possible. Some good ways to build in positive feedback:

Read more about habit motivations.

5. Report daily to a social group (blog, Twitter, Facebook, email, or friends at work), use them for support when things get difficult. When you feel like not doing the habit, have one or more people you can call on for help. A social group is built-in positive feedback, as well as motivation through accountability. A few notes:

6. Test, adjust, iterate immediately. When you start a habit change, you are testing an approach, and it is very possible it will fail. That’s fine. Knowing that your initial approach didn’t work is good information, and you should use it to adjust your approach, and retry as soon as possible.