How To Make Any Habit Stick: a Complete Guide
Use the habit loop and learn to fall in love with creating habits with staying power
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you do consistently.”
— Tony Robbins
I used to live the life of a hedonistic adventurer. I woke up every day without any structure, so I followed the most basic of instincts: pleasure. Through chaotic living, though, I felt lost. I had no idea why I was doing what I was doing.
Then, I read Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit, where he explains a Duke University study found that around 40% of what we do every day feels like a decision, but is actually a habit. Since reading the idea years ago, it has infiltrated my mind over and over and over. It’s not the shocking statistic, but the relatability that seduces me; after all, we all have anecdotal experiences that display the domination that habits have over us. For me, these include the simplest of tasks: brushing my teeth in the morning, changing out of my pajamas before I leave my house, showering before I sleep. These were all habits I had been automatically doing for years — yet I never considered them habits.
It would be years before I integrated the power of habits into my life. To do so required continuous experimentation with the arduous process of starting a habit, failing, then starting again. Nonetheless, I have successfully established many habits, including three habits that will be the theme of this post: exercising, meditating, and journaling. I also wrote an article about how to wake up at 5 a.m. every day, but to tell you the truth, it’s really an article about how to create a specific habit.
Good habits change your life. They become the foundation that prepares you for each day. They become a place of solace you can come to after you’ve battled the chaotic world. They become the light at the end of the tunnel because you know that whatever happens throughout the day, your habits will always be there for you.
Here’s how to make a habit stick.
⚒️ Break Down a Habit Into Its Cue, Routine, and Reward
“Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they’ve learned.”
— Charles Duhigg
The habit loop is composed of three parts:
- Cue: the trigger
- Routine: the physical and mental sequence of actions
- Reward: the benefits
Identify the routine
The routine is the most straightforward part to choose because you likely already have one — or more than one — in mind. I suggested exercise, meditation, and journaling earlier as examples of routines. If you can’t think of anything else, experiment with one of those three.
If you can’t think of a routine, then maybe you don’t need to create a habit. There’s no reason to get into the habit of doing something just for the sake of getting into the habit of doing something.
But if there’s something you want to do, then decide when you’re going to do it and how it relates to other habits you already have.
Isolate a cue
A cue is a trigger for your routine. The routine comes right after the cue. I brush my teeth (routine) after getting out of bed (cue).
Cues fall into the following categories:
- Emotional state
- Other people
- Immediately preceding action
A good cue is a combination of these.
You want it to be specific enough that you associate the routine with the cue, but general enough that it doesn’t make the habit impossible. If it’s too specific, it might never happen: when you go to Mars would be a cue that would never trigger your routine. If it’s too general and your routine takes too long to do, you might not ever associate your routine with your cue—for example, exercising whenever you smile won’t become a habit because it’s impossible to exercise every time you smile.
When I wasn’t an early bird, I tried to use the cue of waking up at 5 a.m. as a trigger to exercise. It worked once or twice. I woke up early with a surge of motivation, ready to exercise. But I quickly stopped exercising. I couldn’t manage to enter the cue state, so I could never do the routine.
What are you going to get from the routine? A reward.
Choose a reward
Rewards teach you that the habit is worth building. You can implement pseudo-rewards like eating candy after meditation, but most of the time, you won’t need something like that.
If you chose a healthy routine, there are already intrinsic benefits to it. Reflect on those benefits. Reflect, reflect, reflect. And then research. Learn everything you can about how your habit is going to improve your life. That’s a reliable, real reward.
So, you now have a cue, routine, and reward. But everything is still so confusing; are there any examples? Yes.
My habit loops
These are my habits for exercise, meditation, and journaling. Copy them, change them, do whatever you want with them. They’re here as reference material if you ever need them.
- Cue: Finishing dinner after work
- Routine: Go to the gym and follow my gym routine (a variation of a push-pull legs weightlifting)
- Reward: A rush of endorphins and the feeling of being healthy
- Cue: Coming home
- Routine: Meditate for 10 minutes
- Reward: Feeling calm, relaxed, and refreshed
- Cue: Waking up
- Routine: Write 4 pages in my journal in a stream of consciousness
- Reward: A clear mind prepared to tackle the day
Once you’ve identified your sequence of actions, when you’re going to do it, and what you’re going to get from it, it’s time to understand the barriers that can get in the way of success. Despite knowing the structure, you can still fail. That’s why you need to build a plan for solidifying your habit.
You can’t change your life immediately, and unless you have the willpower of a god, you probably can’t even create the ideal version of the habit you want when you start. That’s why you have to start small, really small.
🌱 Start Small, Really Small
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
This quote is often misattributed to an anonymous Navy SEAL because it’s still used by Navy SEALs today. I’ve created a more specific version of it:
First, we have motivation; when we lose motivation, we fall to the level of our discipline; when we lose discipline, we fall to the level of our habits.
When you start creating a habit, a surge of motivation energizes you. You want to change your life, and you believe this habit is going to change everything. You want the silver bullet to pierce through your somber suffering and absolve you of all your problems. You want this one thing to be the only thing you ever need to do, because if it didn’t fix you, then what would?
And so, you tell yourself you’re going to actually try, and not the fickle sort of fake-trying you did before. You haven’t exercised before, but you’re going to exercise for 3 hours every day. You haven’t meditated before, but you’re going to meditate for 30 minutes every day. You haven’t journaled before, but you’re going to journal 10 pages every day. Then, you start the habit, and you’ve really started. Your motivation carries you. The first day is fantastic; for once, everything feels right. You might even get through a whole week. But sure enough, life gets in the way. You get worried, tired, or scared, and think, “I’ve been working hard. Maybe I can skip this one day,” and you skip this one day just this one time. One becomes two; two becomes three; three becomes forever.
Sound familiar? Has this happened to you before? Yes? Well, that’s because I — and many others and probably you — have gone through the repetitive cycle of building a habit, starting to feel good, and then failing anyway. The mistake here is doing too much at once. When you do too much, it takes more effort to do your routine, so it takes longer to adapt.
Small improvements create big wins
So start small, really small.
Once you lose motivation, you’ll fall to the level of your discipline. And when your discipline sucks, well, then, make your routine really, really easy. If you want long-term habits, they have to be easy. Make them so easy you can’t excuse yourself from doing them. Examples:
- Exercise for 10 minutes
- Meditate for 2 minutes
- Journal an answer to 1 question
But don’t make them too easy. If it’s not challenging, you might not feel like you’re working towards a goal. But often, just getting started is a challenge.
The idea here is that you want to get comfortable with the habit loop before you make it harder. Once you’re satisfied with a habit, slowly increase the difficulty.
I tried the “go hard or go home” mentality many times before. I would start strong and be so motivated by all the marvelous things I would achieve. But it never lasted. Sometimes I would even be able to maintain my habits for months, but eventually, without fail, I would fail.
I found accepting small improvements to be challenging. I meditated for 5 minutes for weeks before I increased it to 6 minutes. Then I meditated for 6 minutes for weeks before I increased it to 7 minutes…
I felt like I wasn’t even changing my life. But it was easy. So I did it every day, and then I did it more. And now the habit has lasted.
A caution against going too big too fast
When I first started intentionally implementing habits into my life, I tried to start big. Honestly, even today, I’m tempted to skip starting small. To resist the temptation, I remind myself of my past experiences. Every time I failed was because I tried to do too much at once.
I tried to start by meditating 20 minutes, but I burnt out. I tried to start by doing full-body workouts for 2 hours, but I burnt out. I tried to journal every morning and night with rigorous questions, but I burnt out. Whenever I started big, I burnt out.
I hated the idea of starting small because it was somewhat unattractive. I couldn’t imagine telling someone that I only meditate for 5 minutes. It’s embarrassing. They could ask me why I don’t meditate for longer, and I would have to answer by explaining my lack of discipline.
But starting big doesn’t work — at least it doesn’t work for me. I had to be honest with myself. I decided to admit to myself I wasn’t able to integrate big habits immediately and decided to start small.
🔂 Repeat the Habit Over and Over and Over
“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.”
— Haruki Murakami
A study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that on average, it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic, though it took the participants anywhere from 18 days to 254 days.
So it’s a safe bet that you should repeat your habit loop for at least 2 months before expecting it to become an automatic part of your life. But to tell you the truth, I’ve lost habits after doing them for 2 months. I lost my exercising habit after exercising 5 times a week for a year. I got arrogant, believing I would never lose a habit I kept for so long.
If you want to keep a habit, you need to commit continually. But that’s okay, especially if you integrate habits you want to keep. I’ve been using exercise, meditation, and journaling as examples because they’re habits that benefit you for the rest of your life.
Repeat your habit. Repeat it more. Repeat it until you’re comfortable. Repeat it until you do it automatically. Repeat it until you miss it if you miss it. Repeat it like your favorite song. Repeat it as if your life depended on it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
When I started creating habits, I didn’t repeat them for long enough. I expected to keep a habit after a month, and because I gave up, I would never have a habit. Then, when I learned that it takes on average a little over 2 months to integrate a habit into your life, I would stop trying after 2 months. I would lose the habit again. I could never fully integrate a habit until I accepted that I would have to keep repeating it if I wanted to keep it. Sure, sometimes I miss a day or two. But I make sure those missed days don’t become the rest of my life by repeating.
Move past the dip
As you’re repeating the habit, you’re going to go through what Seth Godin calls “the dip”: a temporary setback that you can overcome with persistence.
Remember what I said before about falling to the level of your discipline? When you reach the dip, be disciplined, and keep repeating. The dip is when most people quit and why most people never build good habits. They abandon their goals the first second it gets a little annoying. If it’s putting too much mental strain on your mind, then decrease the volume of your habit (not frequency). You want to persist through the cue-routine-reward loop.
As Murakami says, repeat the habit until it mesmerizes you. At some point, you’ll find that you won’t be consciously willing yourself to do it anymore, the same way you don’t consciously brush your teeth in the morning. The habit becomes automatic, and you automatically do the habit.
Before I understood the concept of the dip, I gave up every time the habit became hard. I would feel this resistance to repeating the habit whenever it became boring — and it always becomes boring. I’ve never repeated the same thing over and over without it becoming boring. But when that happens now, I tell myself that I’m at the dip, and I just need to pass it, because it’s about to become a habit.
It works. Knowing that things becoming more difficult is a stage towards success gives me the last drip of motivation to keep going.
Conquer your fear of commitment
If committing to the rest of your life is scary, then regularly reflect on your routine, and understand that you can quit if it doesn’t work for you anymore. I reflect on my habits every time I do them — until I’m so comfortable with them that I know I’m not going to give them up. If you feel like giving up, ask yourself:
- Has the habit improved my life?
- Do I regret creating the habit?
- Is there something better I could spend that time doing?
These are essential questions that you should answer honestly.
I used to go to the gym for two hours and train until my muscles were so sore I couldn’t move. I regretted that, and I’ve since reduced the amount of time I exercise to 40 minutes. All because of reflection. And I use the rest of the time to read books, a vital habit for an aspiring writer.
Don’t expect a complete transformation
I used to expect each habit I integrated into my life to reward me with everlasting happiness. It’s stupid and silly, but when I first started self-improvement, I believed that if I did that one thing, I would be happy. If I just meditated, I would be happy. If I just exercised, I would be happy. If I just journaled, I would be happy.
But after I had built healthy habits, I would still find myself unsatisfied with life. Ignorance towards my improvements intensified this feeling. I couldn’t see how my habits were changing me while I was doing them. So I wondered why I put so much effort into habits that didn’t make me happy (even though they were invisibly making me happier). I asked myself “If this doesn’t work for me, why should I keep doing them?” and rationalized my way out of continuing my habits.
The truth is, my habits were working for me. I couldn’t see it because I still had problems in my life, and I expected my habits to absolve me from all of them. So I would give up. I gave up again and again and again. And of course, every time, without healthy habits to ground me, I became even more dissatisfied. Then, I had to recreate my habits, which is much harder than keeping them.
Now, I keep repeating a habit as long as it adds value. Before I permit myself to stop repeating a habit, I ask myself, “Does the habit add any value to my life?” Most of the time, the answer is yes, so I keep repeating the habit.
Don’t expect a habit to transform you completely. Habits improve your life, but they don’t turn you into a superhero.
🤕 Use Positive Punishment
“A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”
— Thomas Paine
When you get the reward for doing your routine, that’s positive reinforcement: encouragement for behavior because you received something pleasant.
Give yourself something unpleasant when you miss the habit, and you get a pleasant and unpleasant conditioning technique: positive punishment. It’s exactly what it sounds like: punishment for failure.
Punish yourself for failure
Every time you miss your habit loop, punish yourself.
Some common punishment techniques include giving money to a friend or public shame, like posting your failure on Facebook. But although these techniques might work for you, they don’t work for me.
I have found a punishment that works for me: if I ever fail my habit loop, I have to do it some other time.
For example, if I miss my meditation, I have to meditate for double the time the next day.
I’ve only managed to implement this as part of my habit-building system after I started small, really small. Doing double the work of something easy is annoying but doable. Doing double the work for something hard is crippling and demotivating. An unintended but positive side effect is that you do the routine again, which reinforces it.
Before I started enforcing positive punishment, I excused myself from failing. This lack of accountability didn’t work for me. If I could skip my habit once, why can’t I keep skipping it? Solution: positive punishment. I’ll have to do the routine later if I don’t do it now, so I might as well do it now.
A habit in self-accountability
A meta-benefit from enforcing positive punishment is that it teaches a habit itself: keeping yourself accountable. It takes a level of discipline and responsibility not to let yourself off the hook. It’s hard but worth it. Repeat it enough, and keeping yourself accountable becomes an automatic habit. And then it becomes natural, like any other habit.
Only choose enforceable punishments
The good thing about self-accountability is that you’re the one responsible for your success or failure. The bad thing is that you’re the one responsible for your success or failure.
Responsibility for your punishment means you have to enforce it. And you can rationalize your way out of responsibility if you choose a painful punishment.
I tried meditating with the positive punishment of posting my failure on Facebook every time I failed. It was a punishment I dreaded. It’s embarrassing, not just because other people would know I failed, but because my friends usually post cute things like photos, memes, and funny status updates. Posting something serious like a habit failure could lead to ridicule.
It worked at first. I was terrified of failure, so I meditated. But eventually, I failed. And when I failed, I told myself, “I’ve already failed, why make it worse?” So I decided not to post. I’ve never posted about a single failure in my life on Facebook. It was a punishment I couldn’t force.
And with an unenforceable punishment, I failed to meditate again and again. I was driven by fear of the punishment, and the fear was now gone because I knew I wasn’t going to enforce it.
Now, I only choose enforceable punishments. Even though the idea of being driven by fear is somewhat attractive (it makes me feel alive), I knew I couldn’t maintain it long term. Before I decide on a punishment, I ask myself “Can I enforce this?” and answer it honestly. Sometimes, the answer is no, because I can’t enforce it.
So choose a punishment you can enforce, or don’t use punishment at all. There’s a fine line between a good punishment and a bad one. But if you find the balance, it discourages you enough from failure that you continue to repeat the habit, but not so much that it becomes the only reason you repeat it.
The Results: A Better Life
Habits are powerful, almost as if they have a life of their own. Build healthy ones, and they will change your life; build unhealthy ones, and they will also change your life, except in the other direction. Creating helpful habits is the biggest productivity hack I’ve ever come across because even though they don’t have a set-it-and-forget-it mechanism, they have a set-it-and-you-can-try-less mechanism.
Here are some of my favorite habits that I’ve made stick:
- When I get on a train (cue), I put my phone in my bag and take out a book (routine), to learn more out of what would otherwise be wasted time (reward)
- When I see an unwanted email newsletter (cue), I find and click the unsubscribe link (routine), to ensure I don’t get more unwanted emails (reward)
- Before I sleep (cue), I watch an episode of a sitcom (routine), to wind down so I can wake up refreshed the next day (reward)
My friends call these quirky; I think they’re exquisite. They’re small, simple, and sweet ways I’ve used my system to improve my life. You can take the system and apply it to anything, even little things like watching sitcoms. I encourage you to find similarly unique activities that work for you and experiment with turning them into habits.
The system can also be used to break habits. If you smoke (routine) to feel better (reward) when you’re bored (cue), you can change the habit by changing any part of the habit loop. Change the cue by never allowing yourself to be bored, the routine by switching to another boredom-satisfying activity, or the reward by using nicotine-free cigarettes to make it unsatisfying.
Fall in love with habits. Make them; break them; integrate them so deeply into your life that you can’t get rid of them. I can’t guarantee you’ll change your life, but you’ll undoubtedly change something.
“First we form habits, then they form us.”
— Rob Gilbert