Building habits in order to reach a goal requires you to be able to understand what makes a strong habit. This is different than a good habit. A strong habit can be a positive habit (like exercising daily, eating vegetables at every meal etc.) or a negative habit (smoking, eating too much etc.).
The strength a habit will be what determines the lasting power of the habit. Will it keep going? If the answer is yes, then it likely is a strong habit and meets the criteria of these 3 main principles.
The first principle is that the habit is simple. The more simple the behavior the more likely it will be to form into a habit. If it is too complex, then we have to think too much and will take longer to transition from something we have to think about to something that happens automatically.
Think of trying to learn a musical instrument. It usually takes years to master the technical aspects of the instrument enough to be able to play without thinking about each hand movement. But over time, it starts to transition to being more automatic and less reliant on conscious thought.
Learning a musical instrument is long, time-consuming process because it isn’t that simple. Until you have done it so much that it starts to become repetitive, it seems very complex and difficult.
But something like learning how to use Twitter happens much more quickly. It doesn’t take years to finally understand how to send a tweet or how to read a tweet on your favorite topic. It is incredibly easy.
So habits can form whether or not they are simple or complex, but it is much more likely that a simple action will transfer to being habitual.
The next principle is sticky. This is how much pull there is to keep doing the action. It could be based on internal or external cues. What drives us towards doing that behavior?
Smoking is one of the stickiest habits because it has physiological pleasure and pain associated with it. Smoke and you receive a jolt of energy from the chemicals. Avoid a cigarette when you crave one and you start to feel anxious and may even start to feel ill. This is incredibly sticky.
But if you are building new habits, you likely are trying to perform new behaviors that don’t have the initial physiological associations as smoking. But you can have behaviors become stickier by working hard to make it something that can transfer to an automated habit – like doing it at the same time every day or after the same behavior each time.
By doing something at the same time every day we start to form that sticky association. Every time I take a shower I get out, dry off and brush my teeth. Usually this occurs in the morning but even if I take a shower in the evening I feel strange if I don’t immediately brush my teeth after the shower.
Because I have done this series of actions enough, it has transitioned to being a very automatic behavior.
The third principle is self-regulating. This represents the ability of the habit to keep going regardless of our conscious thought. If we want to eat healthier do we constantly avoid buying healthy food at the grocery store only to find ourselves always hungry with tons of junk food around?
I don’t know of any smoker that quit simply because they forgot to buy more cigarettes. There is a self-regulating aspect that keeps the cycle going by immediately getting close to the end of the pack and then buying another pack. This cycle becomes very self-regulating and helps to keep the behavior going.
If you build habits with these principles in mind (simple, sticky, self-regulating) you are much more likely to keep going with a behavior long enough for it to form into a habit.
These principles can form strong negative habits but if we are intentional about what we are doing, we can create all sorts of positive habits that can transform our lives and help us achieve our goals.