✓ Fact checked by: Dr. Glen M Doniger, PhD
Creating good habits and making them stick can be tough. On the other hand, good habits can not only change our beliefs about ourselves; they can also help us be more productive and make our lives easier.
But why is it so hard to make them stick?
Truth be told, change is more comfortable when it’s enjoyable. In the book Atomic Habits, author James Clear offers valuable tips that can make the process of forming and keeping good habits easier and more fun.
Tip #1: Set time and place as your cues
A neurological loop at the core of every habit consists of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. The cue is a trigger that reminds you to perform a habit, a routine is an action you do, and the reward is the payoff you get. The more you repeat a routine, the more automatic it becomes. That’s how habits work.
There is a wide range of cues that can trigger a habit. But the most common cues are time and location. So, the first step in creating a new habit would be making a precise plan for when and where the new habit will happen.
For example, instead of telling yourself, “I’m going to meditate every day,” try using this formula:
I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION].
Or: ‘I will meditate for two minutes at 9 AM in my living room.’
When the planned moment of the action occurs, there is no need to make a decision. You won’t leave it up to chance and hope that you’ll feel motivated at the right time – you’ll follow your plan.
Tip #2: Keep an eye on your environment
You are more likely to notice cues if they stand out. The next step in building healthy habits is creating obvious visual cues that can draw your attention toward the desired behavior.
Think of it this way: it’s not easy to meditate if you don’t have a feel-good space. Create a cozy space in your living room and make it visually appealing.
Or, if you want to read a book first thing in the morning, make sure it’s always on your bedside table.
If you want to eat more fruit, remove it from the back of your fridge and place it in a bowl on your kitchen counter.
The bottom line is that if you want to make a habit a part of your life, you need to make the cue a big part of your environment.
Tip #3: Use the Two-Minute Rule
The Two-Minute Rule states that a new habit should take less than two minutes to complete. Why two minutes? In most cases, the longer an action takes and the more energy it requires, the less likely it is to occur.
Try making your new habits so easy that you’ll do them even when it’s not convenient. Nearly any habit can be scaled down to a two-minute version:
“Meditate for 10 minutes every day” becomes “Meditate for two minutes every day.”
“Fold the laundry” becomes “Fold one pair of socks.”
“Do a 30-minute yoga class early in the morning” becomes “Do a two-minute sun salutation flow early in the morning.”
Think of these two-minute behaviors as gateway habits. Meditating for an hour each day might be challenging. Meditating for half an hour is sometimes inconvenient. But playing relaxing music and just sitting in your feel-good space for two minutes is a gateway habit. That’s how you follow the Two-Minute Rule.
Tip #4: Try habit stacking
We all have some habits that we take for granted each day. We don't have to think much about taking a shower or making a cup of coffee, right? Take advantage of these automatic habits to build new ones through habit stacking.
The essence of habit stacking is to identify a current habit you already have and then stack your new behavior on top.
The habit stacking formula is:
“After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [NEW HABIT].”
For example: "After I pour my morning cup of coffee, I will meditate for two minutes."
Make sure you choose the right place and the right time (per Tip #1). If you are trying to incorporate meditation into your morning routine, but your mornings are hectic, you should probably consider a different time to meditate.
Tip #5: Use the temptation bundling technique
Do you have a friend who watches his favorite show while riding a stationary bike? Your friend might be onto something!
Dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure, is not only produced by our brain when we experience pleasure but also when we anticipate it. Habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop – when dopamine level rises, so does our motivation to act. Therefore, if you want to make the right habit stick, you have to make it attractive.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about a technique called temptation bundling. Temptation bundling works by linking an action you want to do with an action you need to do.
So, even if you don’t feel like meditating, maybe you’ll become conditioned to do it if you get something you want along the way. You can even try combining temptation bundling with the habit stacking strategy by using this formula:
After [HABIT I NEED], I will [HABIT I WANT].
Or: ’After I meditate for two minutes in my living room, I will have a piece of chocolate.’
Habit bundling makes nearly any habit more attractive and fun.
The Power of Dopamine
In the 1950s, neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran a classic experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. They implanted electrodes in rats’ brains and allowed the animals to press a lever to receive a mild burst of electrical stimulation to their brains.
Olds and Milner discovered that rats would repeatedly press the lever to receive stimulation to certain areas of the brain. They found a region known as the septal area to be the most sensitive. This plays a role in pleasure generation and anger suppression. In their experiment, one of the rats pressed a lever 7500 times in 12 hours to receive electrical stimulation to this region.
Olds and Milner's experiments were significant because they appeared to verify the existence of brain structures devoted to mediating rewarding experiences.
Researchers also found that they could cause rats to stop lever pressing by administering a dopamine antagonist (a drug that blocks the effects of dopamine). In other words, without the activity of dopamine, the rats were less likely to find brain stimulation reinforcing, and so they stopped pressing the lever altogether.
Tip #6: Figure out the immediate reward
The feeling of success is a signal to the brain that your habit paid off and that all the hard work was worth the effort. Rewards are crucial for creating good habits but also for making them stick because it's more likely that you’ll repeat a behavior if it’s satisfying.
But many of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately. If you meditate today, perhaps your stress level will only begin to drop next month. If you start saving money now, maybe you’ll only have enough for a vacation next year. That’s a reward for Future You. But Present You typically desires an immediate reward.
Let’s say that you want to meditate every day. After each meditation session, do something rewarding, like taking a bubble bath or going for a walk. That immediate reward will keep you excited while the delayed reward subtly accumulates in the background.
Rewards are essential because they close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.
Tip #7: Track your progress
Habit tracking gives you a proof of your hard work. But it can also serve as a reward because it’s satisfying to mark an X on the calendar. By tracking your progress, you’re casting votes for the type of person you wish to become, which is a form of gratification.
You can implement habit tracking with the habit stacking technique by using this formula:
After [CURRENT HABIT], I will [TRACK MY HABIT].
For example: After I meditate for two minutes in my living room, I’ll mark an X on my calendar.
If you mark an X on your calendar every time you succeed, you’ll be focused on the process rather than the result. And when you get an indication that you’re moving forward, you will probably be more motivated to continue down that path.
The Power of Good Habits
Forming good habits can make us better at self-control.
For example, if you feel tired, you might not have the energy to stick to a goal. But, if you have the right kinds of habits, you might automatically push through the fatigue.
In one study, researchers found that people who score high on a variety of self-control measures tend to inhibit