How to create habits that really stick
Do you ever start with the best intentions of creating new and healthy habits, but they never last longer than a few weeks or months?
In this article, we’ll explore how we can create, and most importantly, maintain habits in a sustainable way through our knowledge of neuroscience and positive psychology.
The link between habit forming and identity
Habits - small everyday intentional actions, that we do so often that they become second nature and automatic – are an integral part of making positive change in our lives, and creating the life we want.
They are also intrinsically linked with the idea of our own identity. The habits we have shape our identity, and make a huge difference to how we perceive ourselves and what we are capable of.
Adopting an identity aligned with your aspirations strengthens the habits necessary for success. For instance, if you want to be a writer, then you need to build a habit of writing every day. When you write each day this will reinforce your identity as a writer.
- What are your goals and aspirations?
- Who do you need to be to accomplish this?
- What habit will support this identity?
- What do you need to believe about yourself to make this habit a reality?
Neuroplasticity: Rewiring your brain for success
Positive habits not only propel you towards your goals but also help in reducing or replacing unhelpful habits. We know from neuroscience that the more a behaviour is repeated, the stronger the neural pathway becomes. Harnessing neuroplasticity allows us to change thought patterns and behaviours, supporting the identity we wish to create.
Every habit has three parts.
A trigger – something that sparks off the idea to activate that habit. This could be environmental, or an internal feeling. Such as, when I'm waiting for the bus, this is a trigger for me to smoke, or when I'm feeling tired this is a trigger for me to reach for the biscuits.
An action – the action you take, which almost feels automatic, like you are on autopilot, because this action is so well embedded. These can be a whole range of habits which can be a range of helpful or unhelpful for us... brushing our teeth when we get out of bed in the morning, scrolling through our phones when we’re waiting for the kettle to boil etc.
A reward – the positive effect that this action achieves for us. There is always some kind of reward even if the bait isn’t necessarily good for us in the long run – it is fulfilling a need. For example, smoking might give the instant reward of feeling calmer and scrolling on our phone might give us a boost from notifications we receive.
So it can be really useful for us to understand and notice what is happening when we are enacting habits in our lives in terms of trigger, action, and reward – for both those habits which are helpful for us, and which are not. Once we have an awareness of what is happening, then it is easier for us to change these patterns to work for us better.
- What positive habits do you want to create?
- What is going to be the trigger to do this action? i.e. When I am going to bed, this is the trigger to put my phone in the other room.
- What is the reward from this action? e.g. I will feel calmer before bed, and get a better night’s sleep.
Habit tracking tips
Ways to track
- Use a written tracker with tallies, stickers, or gold stars for each completed habit.
- Conduct weekly and monthly reflections on what worked well, what helped, and what was unhelpful.
- Consider using a jar where each completed action earns a tangible item, creating a visual cue of your progress.
- Share your habit goals with others to help have some external accountability and support
The power of celebrating
Celebrating your progress, both small and large, releases dopamine, reinforcing the neural pathway. Recognise your achievements along the way to foster a positive cycle of reinforcement.
A visual cue
Place your habit tracker somewhere prominent in your home for a visual reminder. This serves as a cue or trigger, prompting you to act consistently. Choose a visible location, steering clear of hidden digital trackers.
It takes time
Embedding new habits in the basal ganglia of the brain requires time, repetition, and motivation. Patience and consistency are key as you navigate the journey of habit formation.
Resources for diving deeper
If you're eager to delve deeper into habit-building strategies, we recommend exploring the following books:
- Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
- Atomic Habits by James Clear
These resources provide practical tips and insights to guide you on your path to cultivating and sustaining positive habits.
It can be really beneficial to work with a coach when you are on a journey of creating new positive habits, and letting go of habits that don’t serve you. A coach can support you to explore which are the habits that will work best for you in achieving your overall vision of where you want to be in life. They can help you to create habits that are right for you, and help to keep on track and accountable for carrying them out and embedding them in a meaningful and sustainable way into your life.