How To Form Habits – An In-Depth Explanation

You have already formed thousands of habits in your lifetime, whether or not you realize it. Unfortunately, most of those habits were formed unconsciously, and you probably wish you hadn’t formed many of those habits.

In this article, I’ll show you how to consciously form habits that you want, so that you can learn to do them automatically and without even thinking about it.

(To find out what is a habit and why habits can improve your health, read this article first.)


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How To Form Habits In 5 Easy Steps Infographics

STEP 1 – Pick a General Topic or Goal

step 1 of how to form habits

As with anything worth accomplishing, you’ve got to focus on one thing at a time.

As we now know, multi-tasking is a myth, so don’t target 10 things all at once!

If you want to lose weight, then choose losing weight as your topic or goal. If you want to build muscle, then choose building muscle. Maybe getting more sleep is your priority (or perhaps de-stressing). It doesn’t matter which broad topic it is, just pick one.

If you have trouble picking just one topic or thinking of topics, then trying answering the following questions quickly – just take the first answer that comes to mind (don’t mull it over).

What do you worry about just before you go to sleep?
If there’s one thing you could change about yourself, what would it be?

STEP 2 – Narrow Down To One Small Habit

step 2 of how to form habits

Ok, now that you have one general topic/goal, the next step is to narrow down your goal to a really small habit.

First, let me tell you the mistake I see most people make so that you can avoid it. Here’s an example of what NOT to do…

Louise’s cousin is desperate to lose weight, so for her, STEP 1 was easy. She immediately decided that her topic/goal was to lose weight. But when I asked her what habit she might like to put in place, her response was “I’m going to exercise more and eat better.”

I hope you can already see some of the problem with this “habit” that she chose – it’s not really a habit at al. It’s way too broad and unspecific. Our brains simply cannot translate that statement into a concrete action.

So, if your goal is to lose weight (like Louise’s cousin), then here’s what to do…

Pick one thing – are you going to work on your eating habits or work on your exercise habits?

Let’s say you pick eating habits. Then you’ve got to narrow it further.

What does eating better mean? It could mean, eating a non-sugary breakfast, or it could mean eliminating that afternoon snack you get from Starbucks, or it could mean ensuring you don’t eat out for dinner.

Keep drilling down until you come to a very small and specific habit that you want to create. Here are some examples to help you come up with ideas:

Eat protein instead of carbs for breakfast.
Run daily.
Build more arm or leg muscle.
Take supplements daily.
Drinking tea instead of coffee.
Writing down each night what you plan to eat for dinner the next day.

The difference is that these are all very specific actions, and they’re all easy to do. You can do them quickly and easily, and they take place in a relatively short amount of time.

STEP 3 – Choose a Cue

step 3 of how to form habits

A Cue is an essential component of a habit. It’s what triggers you to do the thing you want to do.

A Cue could be literally anything, but there are 2 huge tips for picking a “better” Cue:

1. Pick Something Specific

For example, if I want to drink a green smoothie every morning, then I could pick the cue, “when I walk into the kitchen.” This Cue is OK, but it’s not hugely specific (especially if you have an open kitchen). It’s not clear specifically when you enter the kitchen, and it probably doesn’t occur to you every morning that “I just entered the kitchen.”

A better cue would be something like “when I switch on the coffee maker in the morning” (assuming that you make coffee every single morning). In this case, it’s very clear and specific exactly when you switch on the coffee maker.

2. Pick Something You Already Do Every Single Day

When you first start building habits, you’ll want to use a Cue that you already do daily. This makes it incredibly easierthan forming a new cue.

Great examples of cues include:

  • Brushing your teeth
  • Getting into your car
  • Changing clothes for bed
  • Switching on the coffee maker in the morning
  • Eating a certain meal
  • Hearing an alarm on your phone at a certain time of day

If you’re confused about what Cues are and how to pick one, then read this article on Cues, where I explain everything in more detail.

STEP 4 – Create a Practice/Routine

step 4 of how to form habits

The second component of a habit is the Practice/Routine. This is the action you want to do, and the point of the habit is to make this action automatic for you.

You can read more about how to automate the practice/routine here, but my top 2 tips are these:

1. Your Practice Must Be ULTRA-SPECIFIC

I probably sound like a broken record after emphasizing this so much for cues, but it’s the same for the Practice. If your Practice isn’t an ultra-specific action, then your brain won’t internalize it as an automatic action.

For instance, if you want to run every day, then what does that actually mean? Run 1 minute, run 5 minutes, run 10 miles? How fast is the run? Do you run a specific route or on the treadmill – what counts as running for you?

“Running every day” is not a specific practice. Running for 2 minutes every morning around the neighborhood is a specific practice.

2. Your Practice Must Be EASY

If you’re not currently very athletic and you want to start running, then you’re setting yourself up for failure if you decide to try running for 1 hour per day.

It’s much better to start with a practice that you know you can definitely stick to because it’s super easy. Like a 2-minute jog around the block, or 3 pushups on your bedroom floor.

The reason this works so much better is because there are going to be days when you won’t have the time or energy to do more. However, consistency is critical, so you still need to perform your habit on those days. If your Practice is super-easy, then you’ll still be able to complete it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t run 30 minutes one day when you have more energy or do 20 pushups one day. But it does mean that you condition your brain to recognize that a 2-minute jog means you completed that day’s practice.

Celebrate small wins and they will add up to huge successes.

STEP 5 – Determine the Payoff/Reward

step 5 of how to form habits

This is always my favorite step – it’s what holds the habit in place and makes you crave it.

The payoff (or reward) is the benefit you get for completing the Practice (Step 4 above).

A common payoff example is the sugar-rush from eating a tub of ice-cream/a donut/a cookie when you’re stressed. And when you hear people say they love running or exercising, then it usually means that they enjoy the endorphin rush from exercising.

Since this is the enjoyable part of the habit and the part that makes your brain want to complete the habit, you want to MAKE SURE YOU DON’T SKIP THIS STEP!

2 Tips for creating an ideal payoff:

1. Use An Existing Payoff

This makes it easy to assimilate your payoff into your daily life. If you currently enjoy some things that perhaps aren’t all that healthy (like a donut for breakfast, or TV in the evening, or the Facebook/Twitter surfing, video game playing etc.), then why not forgive yourself for doing those things and instead turn them around as the payoff for a healthy habit?

I’m not encouraging you to eat donuts or watch a lot of TV. However, you already know whether or not you do these things on a daily basis. If you do, then use them to your advantage.

The bigger point, though, is to choose something that already exists in your day. It could be an outdoor walk that you take every day or time playing with your puppy.

2. Time The Payoff To Start Right After The Practice Ends

In order to get your brain to associate the Payoff with the Practice/Habit, you need make sure that they Payoff occurs immediately after the Practice. So, if your payoff is playing with your dog, then make sure that happens right after your practice of drinking a green smoothie.


step 6 of how to form habits

In some ways, creating habits is super simple, but it’s also not easy, because there are many things that could trip you up.

We get carried away with how easy creating habits seems, and we often try to skip a step or create too many habits all at once. And then a day comes when everything seems to go wrong – it’s raining, there’s traffic, you wake up late, someone annoying calls you, someone spills a drink on you, your date stands you up…you get my drift. And suddenly, those great habits you’ve been building go out the window.

It’s not knowledge that you’re lacking – you know how to be healthy, but putting those into practice in real life situations requires more than just knowledge!



Thank you! This is just what I needed!

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