How to Create Good Habits

What you can do to change bad habits into something good? Is brute-force willpower the only way? Maybe not. Read on for Get-It-Done Guy's alternative.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #281

Habits Have Parts

To change your habits at school, you need to reprogram your brain.

Noted scholar Frank Purdue once said, “Parts is parts,” and a habit has two parts: the trigger and the behavior. The trigger is the cue that tells your brain "Hey brain, it’s time for that habit." Triggers are specific: seeing your textbooks may trigger excitement, curiosity, and studying. Triggers can be internal. In college, I was doing exercises in body awareness and found myself standing in front of the fridge at midnight, but not sure why. I realized that I was becoming aware of body sensations I’d never noticed before. As I learned to feel my body, I would react to any stomach sensation as if it were hunger. So a mild tingling triggered my midnight fridge trip, even though it was a different sensation than hunger!

Your brain on vacation is different than your brain at school. Your brain at home has familiar triggers and behavior patterns. These are what become those dastardly “habits” of which you speak. 

Identify Triggers

You change your school habits by finding the triggers that happen at school. You see a delicious slice of Oreo Ice Cream Cake being delivered to the next  table, and you instantly call the wait-person and order one. And by “you,” of course, I mean “me.”

Or when you see the doors of the elevator, you walk over and push the call button, rather than looking for stairs. Watch yourself closely and identify the triggers that propel you into ick behaviors, and also notice what triggers should propel you into goodness, but don’t.

Mental Rehearsal

Now mentally rehearse the triggers, only rehearse them leading from the trigger into the positive habit instead. First, visualize yourself from the outside, as if you were watching a movie of yourself. See yourself noticing the Oreo Ice Cream Cake, smiling, and saying, “I’ll have the fruit cup, please.” See yourself walk up to the elevator, look at the doors, and then turn and walk down the stairs instead.

Visualize yourself enjoying the new behavior. Picture yourself as the happiest walker-down-stairs ever! Replay the picture several times until you’re satisfied with how it looks from the outside.

Physical Rehearsal

Next, rehearse it from the inside. Step into the movie you just created and imagine the new habit as if it were happening right now. You see the elevator doors in front of you, you feel your weight shift and your eyes glance to see the stairwell door. Then you feel your feet start to walk to the door, your hand reaches out and turns the knob, and you start to descend (or ascend, whatever the case may be). If possible, actually go to where you want the habit to kick in and physically rehearse. Do it several times in sequence so it really gets trained into your brain.

Speed Makes it Work

Finally, add the secret sauce: speed! No, not the drug. You’ve been watching too much Breaking Bad. Go back to the mental movie and run it faster and faster from the inside, starting just before the trigger happens until you’re well into your new habit. Do this mentally until you can run the entire movie in under a second. Then step back out and watch it from the outside again.

This technique is the one I use to change or start a new habit. It isn’t perfect, but it can go a long way.

To recap: Identify the habits you want to change, find the right trigger, rehearse it from the outside to design how you want to act, then rehearse from the inside and speed it up to start developing muscle memory, and finally step back out and use the movie as a guide. 

For more on how visualizations can help you reach your goals, check out The Power of Visualization, Part 1 and Part 2.

Connect with Get-It-Done Guy on Facebook and find more articles on how to work less and do more at quickanddirtytips.com/get-it-done-guy

Trigger button image courtesy of Shutterstock.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.