Building Positive Habits

Nader Alexan
Jul 6, 2019 · 6 min read

How are habits formed?

Photo by Patrick Fore

It’s a hot summer day in Berlin, I am cycling alongside the spree, enjoying the fresh breeze, when I see a huge billboard for Heinken, with a glass full to the rim with what looks like very cold and refreshing beer (CUE).

I think to myself, gosh, it would probably taste amazing after I’ve been cycling for a few KMs now to stop and have a cold beer (CRAVING).

Five minutes later, I find myself searching for an biergarten to sit down and grab myself a cold one (RESPONSE).

Another five minutes and I am enjoying the feeling of cold beer down my throat (REWARD).

To form any habit, you need to create a cue, craving, and reward — Vice versa, to kill a bad habit, kill the cue, craving, reward, or all three.

Cue — Let’s say you want to start meditating everyday, you need to start by creating a cue, (e.g. notification on your phone, post it on your laptop, or better yet, habit chaining — will explain in the coming paragraphs)

Craving — This one is tricky, you see when you start meditating the first few weeks, you probably do not crave it, as you have yet to experience the reward that comes from constantly meditating. This can be solved by two ways, both related to reward. Read on.

Reward — Either create an extrinsic reward, such as giving yourself something you enjoy (e.g. a piece of chocolate, positive self-talk) or better yet, enjoy the intrinsic reward at the end of each meditation session by taking a few minutes to do nothing. Just focus on the positive effects of meditation, the feeling of relaxation, the clear mind, and more importantly, be very conscious about how you feel, possibly write it down. This will pour back into the craving as you continue to meditate everyday.

The most common misconception about habits

Photo by Icons8 tea

Time. Lots of it.

According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes a median of 66 repetitions for a habit to become automatic. This does not oppose the earlier findings of Maxwell Maltz in his book Psycho-Cybernetics, as he mentions a minimum of 21 days, not an average of 21 days.

So what usually happens, you start off with one habit, a couple of weeks later, you’re super happy with the results and start attempting to add other habits to your life. This fails. Always.

The reason this fails, is that by the first few weeks, it is still not an automatic habit in your brain, and it takes quite a lot of effort to actually reach the point of automaticity, so if you start adding more habits before the first one has reached automaticity, you will end up breaking all of them. Try it.

Difficulty versus time

A very interesting phenomena tends to appear when you start adding a new habit to your life, the difficulty of performing the habit varies in an inconsistent manner over the first few weeks:
Days 1–3: You are excited to be adding a positive habit, and it seems quite easy to get yourself to do it

Day 4: Hard, you must push yourself not to slack

Days 5–10: It slowly becomes easier

Days 11–25: It seems easy, sometimes too easy, that you just postpone it through the day, until you end up going to bed without doing it. Tricky.

Days 25–66: It slowly starts becoming automatic.

Power through, otherwise, you will easily fall.

Keynote Habits

Photo by Ilya Ilford

There are certain habits that tend to automatically get you to build other positive habits in your life, for instance have you ever seen someone start doing sports everyday, then automatically started eating healthier, have a sleep schedule, start meditating more, spending more time on social activities….and so on?

Well, that’s a keynote habit at play, unlike for instance a positive habit such as drinking 8 glasses of water per day, there are habits such as sports, meditation, and diet, that tend to bring along a lot of other positive aspects to your life automatically, it is quite wise to start your positive habit building journey with such habits.

Environment and other tools

Photo by Todd Quackenbush

There are changes in your day-to-day environment that can make building the desired habits extensively easier, for instance:

  1. Surround yourself with others on the same journey as your own, prime examples of the wild success of such concept is AA.
  2. Remove distractions and oppositions, e.g. if you are trying to eat healthy, but keep your fridge packed with red meats, or frequently go out with friends to fast-food restaurants, well, you are just making it harder for yourself.
  3. Invest upfront. You are more likely to go to a gym if you are paying a monthly fee for it and subscribing to training plan, instead of planning to go workout in the park, where doing it today or next month, does not change much
  4. Make it public. Tell people around you about your plans to start meditating everyday, this will allow for a certain level of accountability when they ask if you’ve been doing it
  5. Create defence systems. If you are trying to stop smoking, make a plan on what you will do when offered a cig, what you will do when you feel a craving, what you will do when get weak once and do smoke, will it just be the end of your attempt, or just a bump in the road?
  6. Journal. Write about your experience, everyday, this allows you to not exaggerate the difficulty of the habit, nor forget about the rewards.
  7. Set a clear reason why you are doing this, what you want to accomplish, and how you will do it exactly.
  8. Habit chaining: you probably have a lot of habits already ingrained in your day-to-day life, maybe it is drinking coffee every morning, or taking your dog for a walk after breakfast. Habit chaining is when you chain your new habit to an existing habit, thus making the old habit, the cue for the new habit. e.g. Meditate right after your morning coffee.
  9. Make it as easy as possible. If you want to start running everyday, make it 3 minutes initially everyday and then work your way up as you feel more comfortable with it, this way, your head does not beat you down with thoughts like: Oh I don’t have time for it, or this would be too exhausting and I have not ran in ages, etc.

Wrap up

Photo by Viktor Forgacs

Building habits is not an easy task, but is a manageable one. Set clear goals, create a habit loop, give it time, supplement your efforts with the right environment, and give it time.

Oh, and best to start with a keynote habit ;).

Nader Alexan

Written by

Software Engineer passionate about Psychology, understanding fellow Homo sapiens, and dogs


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