Habits Aren't Boring — They're the Secret to Happiness. Here's Why.


Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on harnessing habits to change our lives for the better. Tomorrow, in Part 2, Sarah puts theory to the test and attempts to corral one of her own bad habits — too much time spent on social media.

Do you brush your teeth every day? Of course you do. But do you know why you do it?

You do it because an advertiser named Claude C. Hopkins realized his clients would sell more toothpaste if they tied the product to a daily habit. (See also: 15 Small Healthy Habits)

Hopkins discovered that products tied to a cue that was both simple and specific sold better. In the case of toothpaste, he used the nasty feeling of the film that builds up on your teeth. Customers learned that, when they felt that film, they could brush their teeth, and it was gone! Within a few years, nearly everyone was brushing their teeth regularly.

We all have habits — good ones, like brushing your teeth, and unfortunately, some bad ones, like eating too many sweets. Habits are deeply powerful forces in our life. For better or worse, they automate our behavior. The key is to use the power of habits for good, by creating habits that will bring us closer to our goals. But in order to make habits work for us (instead of against us), we need to understand how a habit works. (See also: How to Break Bad Habits)

What Makes a Habit

Every habit has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Understanding each of these and how we can leverage them for our benefit can help us create the habits we want, rather than the ones we just fall into.

The Cue

The cue is the beginning of the process. The cue is the thing that sets us in motion, the thing that we recognize, either consciously or unconsciously, and act upon, automatically.

The Routine

The routine is the behavior itself. It is the set of actions that we perform. It's important to notice that, once these behaviors are triggered by their cues, things go by themselves from there. This is why we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of performing certain actions but aren't sure how we got there.

The Reward

Finally, every habit ends with a reward. It's the reason the habit was created in the first place. We may or may not even be aware of what exactly the reward is anymore, once the habit has been created and we've been acting it out for some time. But there is always a reward. (See also: 21 Frugal Ways to Reward Yourself)

Harness the Power of Habits to Reach Your Goals

More than anything else, habits can help us reach our goals. There are many times in our lives when we cannot depend on our own willpower to make good choices, like when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. However, if you turn behaviors into habits — like going to the gym or eating healthy snacks — then you'll perform that action even when you are tired, sick, or otherwise weakened. You won't have to rely on your willpower to achieve your goal of losing weight or eating healthy.

When our determination and resolve are weak, we default towards our habits. We do the things that we have "programmed" ourselves to do, via habit, even when we don't feel like it. Thus, if you want to take steps towards your goals even when you are not at your best, incorporate those steps into your daily habits. (See also: Habits of the Financially Successful)

How to Create a Habit

Not every habit is something that we can take on daily, but it is best if we make as many of our daily tasks as possible into habits, so that we are stepping towards our goals on a daily basis. Not only do we feel like we are accomplishing something, but we are actually doing it. And we have our accomplishing built-in to our schedules and linked to the cues that exist around us in everyday life. (See also: Create a Habit in 30 Days)

Start Smaller Than Small

When creating new habits, don't bite off more than you can chew. In fact, don't even bite off as much as you think you can chew, because it's probably too much. Instead, break your big habit into as small of pieces as possible, and start with one or two of those. When they become habitual, you can add to them, until you are performing the whole action that you want.

Use Cues to Your Advantage

The cue is what happens right before you perform your behavior. This can be as simple as something like eating when you feel hungry. When you want to create a new habit, decide what cue you will use. Tie your routine to your chosen cue, and it will reinforce your new habit without requiring nearly as much willpower as might be needed without the cue. You will still need willpower for the first few days or weeks (depending on the habit), but eventually you think of the habit whenever the cue appears. (See also: 10 Ways to Increase Your Willpower)

Habits Are Habit Forming

Practicing a set of habits on a daily basis also gives us even further motivation for continuing to practice them in the future. When we do a task or set of tasks every single day, we don't only have the motivation that we mentioned above, which is essential for any habit, but we also have the motivation of having created a chain. When we have done something every day for a period of time, we may choose to continue those actions simply because we don't want to break that chain. This gives the habit even more power in our lives.

We know the power that habits can have in our lives, if only because we've seen them work against us. However, understanding what makes up a habit and how good daily habits will help us succeed can motivate us to do the work necessary to replace bad habits with great ones. When we harness their power, we will watch our goals come closer to reality every, single day.

Have you used the power of habits to improve yourself and your life? How did you do it?

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Guest's picture

I'm trying to set a new habit of going to be earlier, getting up earlier, and getting some work done before my family gets up in the morning. I've cut it up into 3 pieces and so far, I'm still working on the "getting up earlier"! I find that even though I get to bed earlier, I'm still sleeping until my normal wake-up time on most mornings. Maybe I needed more sleep than I was getting before.