How to Build Good Habits
The quality of your habits determines the quality of your life. Here's your step-by-step guide.
In the 1950s, a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz noticed that it took his patients about three weeks to get used to their faces after cosmetic surgery. He also realized that that was about how long it took him to get acclimated to new behaviors in his own life. In 1960, Maltz published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics, in which he wrote that “it requires a minimum of just about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.” The book went on to sell millions of copies and made popular the idea that it takes exactly 21 days to build a new habit. The only problem is that while Maltz’s findings were fascinating, his observations were just that: the observations of a single person. Data is not the plural of anecdote.
It wasn’t until 2009 that researchers evaluated habit formation in a more scientific manner. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers from University College London tracked 96 people as they tried to form a new habit related to eating, drinking, or some other specific activity. On average it took participants 66 days to form a new habit—what the researchers called “reaching automaticity.” At an individual level, however, the range was broad. Some people took just 18 days to form a new habit while others took over 200.
Since that study, habits have been researched and written about with increasing frequency—and for good reason. We really are creatures of habit. Much of what we do, we do without thinking. As the habit expert James Clear points out in his bestselling book Atomic Habits, “The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits.” Here’s how to start a new habit or kick an old one.
Map Out a Trigger, Behavior, and Reward
Much of human behavior follows a predictable cycle: trigger, behavior, reward. A simple example is exercise. The trigger could be your workout program pasted to your fridge door, the behavior is going to the gym, the reward is that you feel great once you’re finished.
For behaviors that you want to do, the goal is to make triggers salient, the behavior easy, and the reward as immediate and satisfying as possible. For behaviors that you want to avoid, it’s the opposite. Bury the trigger (move the fridge to the garage), make the behavior hard (keep ice cream out of the house so you have to drive to the store to get it), and sit with and deeply feel the negative consequences (the grossness following three pints of Ben & Jerry’s). This cycle can be applied to just about anything: define what you want to do (or cease doing), and pair it with triggers and rewards (or remove them).
The work of Michelle Segar, director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan, shows that habits last longer when the rewards are internal. If you’re doing a task to please someone else or to earn a treat at the end of the day, you’re less likely to stick to that behavior than if you’re doing it because it makes you feel good and aligns with your core values.
Rig Your Environment
In the classic novel Middlemarch, George Eliot writes, “There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.” She’s right. We’re heavily influenced by our environment. Research shows that relying on willpower alone to start a new behavior is an uphill battle. Constantly fighting temptations drains your energy.
A better option than relying purely on willpower is to consciously design your environment to remove the temptations that regularly get in the way of what you’re trying to do. For example, if you struggle with constantly checking your phone, keep your phone in a separate room when you’re doing deep-focus work or spending time with family. If you want to get to the gym early in the morning, prepack your gym bag and work clothes, so all you need to do is wake up and go. In habit speak, don’t underestimate the power of everything around you to act as a trigger.
Enlist a Community
Studies show that everything from your body weight to your fitness level to whether you smoke is heavily determined by the people around you. One study, “Is Poor Fitness Contagious? Evidence from Randomly Assigned Friends,” found that up to 70 percent of your fitness level may be explained by the people you train with. Other research shows that if you work with people who are internally driven, you’re more likely to end up the same way. In other words: it’s not just your physical environment that influences your behavior but also your social one. Motivation is contagious.
Community also helps with accountability. If you’ve made a commitment to another person or group, you’re more likely to stick with it, according to a 2013 review paper on the topic. “Training is hard. Let’s not pretend that we all have bulletproof internal motivation, that we will bring it every single day,” says Stuart McMillan, a sprint coach and director of performance at Altis, an Olympic-development facility for track and field athletes. “For those days when athletes need a little pick-me-up, their teammates are there. And they know this.”
Replace “training” with “building a new habit,” and “athletes” with “everyday people,” and McMillan’s statement would ring every bit as true.
Habits build upon themselves, according B.J. Fogg, a researcher who studies human behavior at Stanford University. If you want to make any kind of significant change, you’d be wise to take baby steps. In Fogg’s behavior model, whether someone takes action depends on both their motivation and their ability to complete a given task. If you regularly overshoot on the ability side of the equation, you’re liable to flame out. But if you gradually increase the challenge over time, what was hard last week will seem easier today. Consistency compounds. If you “go big or go home,” you’ll often end up home. But go small and steady, and you’ll end up with something big.
Replace Self-Judgment with Self-Compassion
The harder the habit change, the more likely you are to fail or relapse into old ways of being. Your reaction when this happens is critical. If you completely let yourself off the hook—“Screw it, I guess this just wasn’t for me”—you can expect a bad outcome. But the flip side is also true. If your inner voice is overly harsh and judgmental—“How come I still can’t get this right? I’m no good!”—the failure or relapse is only likely to compound.
A 2012 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that individuals who react to failure with self-compassion get back on the bandwagon much more swiftly than those who judge themselves. That’s because if you judge yourself for messing up, you’re liable to feel guilt or shame, and it is often this very guilt or shame that drives more of the undesired behavior. “Being kind to yourself gives you the resilience needed to thrive,” writes Kristen Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas, in her book The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook.
Self-compassion doesn’t come easily, especially for driven type A people who are accustomed to being hard on themselves. It’s an ongoing practice of giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. It’s not that you want to forfeit self-discipline—it’s that you want to marry it with self-compassion.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance. Subscribe to his newsletter here.