Mastering Habits: The Principles and Strategies for Lasting Change

Most of our behaviour is directed by habits. They can be created outside our awareness and once they are lodged in our brain they influence our decisions and our actions, often without realization. This is the benefit and the danger of habits. If you build the right ones they will improve your life behind the scenes, but if you build the wrong ones they can destroy it. Here, we’ll look at some tools to take control of the process so we can create and maintain good habits.


Habits are based on the principle of association. Our unconscious notices when two or more things happen simultaneously or in sequence, and if the pattern repeats several times -or in an emotionally significant way- we begin to associate them and treat them as a unit. If you run first thing in the morning, for example, you’ll soon create the link between waking up and going for a run. The same principles applies for pairing just about anything.

Once a habit is created it goes through the same three step cycle. First there’s a cue -either external or internal- that triggers our automatic response. Then, there’s the response itself, either physical, mental or emotional. And finally, there’s the outcome, also called “the reward”. The outcome is what tells our brain if we should do the same thing when we see the cue again. The more we repeat the cycle Cue>Response>Outcome the stronger it will link together. In our example of going for a run the Cue is waking up, our response to the cue is going for a run, and the Outcome of going for a run is improving our mood, feeling clear headed, or getting a rush of endorphins.

As habits get stronger we think less about them. Our conscious mind becomes less involved and stops decision making to free up energy for other activities. At this point we end up moving smoothly through the habit cycle -sometimes without even noticing. Each time we repeat the cycle it takes less effort -mentally and emotionally- until habits reach a tipping point where it becomes easier to do them than not to.

As much as we would like to, we can’t reason our way into a habit. Knowing what habit we want to add to our lives or why we want to add it is not enough. Think of all the people who set up goals of being kinder to their loves ones, saving money, or exercising more and never stick to them. They already know why they want to change but they keep struggling to do so.

Only repeated action -going through the habit cycle over and over again -or very high emotional response-Like experiencing significant life event that shake our perspective- can build strong new habits. What we can do to improve the process, however, is to find ways to encourage the behaviour we want for long enough to turn it into a habit.

Let’s look at four strategies to do so.

1.Use Your Environment to Your Advantage. Our environment plays an important role in forming habits. We tend to do the same things in the same circumstances. For that reason, when we are first building a habit we should try to keep most conditions around us consistent from day to day. This means that if you are trying to write everyday, try to write at the same desk around the same time -or preferably, right after the same repeating event like after breakfast or after taking a shower for example. We are trying to build a pattern so it’s easier for the new behavior to fit in our routine. If we keep the context -or environment- consistent it’s easier to stick to our new habit.

2.Link habits to events or to other habits. A great way to get started with a new habit is to make it’s cue something that happens at a regular time or something you do consistently. The cue could then be “First thing when I wake up” “after breakfast” “right when I get home from work” Etc. Another option is to tie it to other habits you already have. So if you meditate every morning you can set your new habit to start right after your meditation.

We need to know exactly how we are going to fit the new habit into our life. If we choose vague cues such as “I’ll write in the morning” we are more likely to be inconsistent. It’s easy to fill out our mornings with many other tasks and soon realize that the morning is long gone and we didn’t work on our new habit.

3.Work on few habits at a time. Don’t try to add or change too many habits at the same time. The task is too big for our conscious mind and our willpower. Instead, focus on building a few habits at a time -ideally one or two and never more than three. Once we establish one habit we can start working on another one. I know you want many new habits, and you will get them, but it will be progressive. Trying to do too much at a time may make you feel like you are achieving more but the change won’t last, you will soon become exhausted and break all your new habits.

Keep in mind that habits take time to build -somewhere between 20 to 60 days, and in some cases up to several months- so not because you’ve been sticking to a new behavior for a week it means that it has become a habit. Be patient, work progressively and you will be rewarded. It takes time to create a new habit but once you have it you will benefit from it for a long time.

4.First consistency then intensity. When we are starting a new habit we are tempted to do too much right from the start. We think this will get us faster results, and it might look that way in the beginning, but what really happens is that we eventually get exhausted and quit.

For many years I failed to build the habit of going to the gym consistently. I would always start with a lot of energy and work out everyday for almost an hour. But after a few weeks I would get overwhelmed and stop. Months later, I would try the same thing but ended up quitting again. The way I finally got to build the habit was by trying a different approach. Consistency first, intensity second. The strategy works by starting from a small habit and then building more layers to it.

I started going to the gym twice a week for only 20min per session. After a few weeks of being consistent with it I added an extra workout day to the week. I let that sink into my routine for a few more weeks and then added 10 more minutes to each session. Then, weeks after that, I added the last 10min per session to get to the routine I wanted from the start. Work out 3 times a week for 40min a session.

Remember: First create the habit, then build the intensity.

Note: There are some people, who find it easier to start with high intensity instead of building up the habit slowly. If this is you go ahead and do so. But for most people it’s better to add intensity to the habit slowly. It’s one of the most effective ways to build a lasting habit.

PS: If one of habits you want to build is reading more here’s how to do it: How to read more and remember what you read

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