Some of what I do as a coach is helping people set up intentional actions that align with their desire to create a life in line with their dreams and goals.
You could sometimes call that setting up habits.
Habits can be a giant influential part of our daily lives and experiences.
In this article I’m diving deep into habits. I share some resources where I’ve learned things about habits, a few of my personal experiences and several resources that I hope you find helpful.
What is a habit?
A habit is an action (or series of actions) you do without much thought or work to make it happen.
The definition of habit is not too controversial or contested. You probably already had a pretty good idea of what it meant.
Habits are things we do without much thought.
I tried to research for how many habits we might have but I didn’t find an answer to that. If you are reading this and you have an idea let me know.
There are some estimates that each of us has around 60,000 thoughts in a day … I honestly don’t know how anybody figures that out but it’s a big number.
I did find this estimate that perhaps between 45-90 percent of our overall actions are perhaps habitual. There’s not a clear source given for this number and it’s such a wide range that I find this to be not too helpful. But maybe interesting.
Popular books about habit and habit change
There are probably literally hundreds of books about habits, setting habits and habit change.
It is a very popular topic to talk about and write about.
The first book I may have read that was specifically about habits might have been the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. He actually turned that into a whole series of books and courses about habits.
I once had a boss who referred to him and his guidance almost daily. She would say things like I’m taking the afternoon off to make a deposit into my children’s emotional accounts — that’s a lesson from the book about habits of successful families.
I personally have four favorite books that are mostly around habits. I’m just going to list them here. You may already own them or you can buy them at your favorite booksellers or listen to them as audiobooks.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg . I read this in 2016 and wrote about it a little bit here. He talks about the idea of keystone habits.
Atomic Habits by James Clear – I listened to this as an audio book. The biggest takeaway for me was the idea of habit stacking. There are a lot of good tips in this book.
Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod. This book is incredibly inspiring if only for the story about the transformation experienced by the author. Also this is where I learned how to make a habit tracker.
The Molecule of More by Daniel Lieberman . This book is actually not expressly about habits but the influence of dopamine on our behaviors. I found this book to be truly transformation in understanding my own decisions around behaviors.
When can habits be helpful?
Habits can be helpful because you don’t think as much about things that are habitual.
You do think a little bit but you don’t really notice it. A common example is brushing your teeth. You don’t actually have to do that. And it’s a bunch of small actions (turn on the water, pick up the brush, put on the toothpaste, brush, rinse, floss … you do floss, right?)
If you’ve ever tried to teach somebody how to do something that is a habit you realize how much you do without really much thought. Like blowing a bubble with bubble gum. Seriously, have you ever tried to describe the steps of making a bubble with bubble gum … it’s kind of hilarious. Go ahead … I’ll wait.
Setting an intentional habit that supports what you want in your life can make getting to that point feel a lot simpler.
That’s how working to set up intentional habits can be very helpful.
Think about things in your life that you feel like you really struggle to do. This could be getting to work on time, waking up early, doing more exercise, cleaning your kitchen, lifting weights, drinking more water…almost anything.
Now… imagine that you do that thing with almost no effort.
That’s when intentional habits can really be a game changer.
I think that’s the pull that draws us in to try and set up habits. Which includes why we look for tools, tricks and courses and books about the topic.
What is a habit tracker?
A habit tracker is a worksheet. A simple worksheet that you can use to evaluate current habits and work to establish new habits.
Basically, you determine what you want to do and how often you want to do it. And then every day you log your progress. The action of checking off the item creates a tiny reward that helps motivate you to keep that habit going.
You can also see what actions you are struggling to do – so it helps you evaluate what’s not working.
You can buy habit trackers and even make your own. You can also download one I made for free here. There’s a form at the bottom of the post to enter your email and get that immediately.
How can you figure out what habits you should want to have?
Often a desire to set up a new habit is driven by the thoughts around something we don’t want.
So the desire to not want to be late to work or class might push you to want to set up a habit of waking up earlier.
A desire to want to not have your pants so snug around your belly may push you to want to set up different eating and movement habits.
Another way that people sometimes get inspired to set up new habits is by looking at what other people they admire or emulate do. This is the basis of the books by Stephen Covey and a book by Tim Ferris, The Tools of Titans.
There are probably lots of examples of this. For example. many people find the daily routine of Thomas Jefferson waking up early to be a habit they consider worth adopting in their own lives.
Another example is that there was a super viral video years back by a military guy who promoted the idea of making your bed everyday as a good way to start your day.
Have you ever been inspired by a habit of another person that you wanted to adopt?
Are there good and bad habits?
The words good and bad are probably not my favorite word choice here.
On one hand maybe it doesn’t matter much and on the other hand maybe it’s important.
But it’s really common to say things like, “I have a bad habit of doing [insert whatever].”
Or even “[certain behavior] is a bad [nasty/dirty] habit.”
I think that these words can lend toward shame and that’s not always a super powerful place to make lasting change.
People do make changes from a place of shame … all the time. Or try. And it might work for a while but if the shame element isn’t processed the new habit may not stick, you may develop a compensating other habit that’s not any more desiralbe, and you may not feel good forcing yourself into the new behavior because you don’t actually want it – you actually want the shame to stop.
I think better words are intentional for a habit that you want to set up and something like non-desired for a habit you no longer wish to continue.
This is my opinion. There are probably some pretty good words and techniques for this out there and when I learn them I’ll update this section.
Is a habit the same as a routine?
Sometimes. You might have a series of things you do in sequence that make up a routine.
In Atomic Habits the author James Clear calls that a habit stack.
If you are in the tech world it’s like a technology stack. They work together to do a set of things.
Examples could be a morning routine, an evening routine, your get to work routine, I have a salad making routine.
The concept of a morning routine was a very hot topic a few years ago.
Routines are soothing. If you think of your life you might be able to pick out routines that you adore or find helpful. For example many people around the globe find the rituals around a great variety of religious ceremonies soothing and helpful.
The routine of a nightly family dinner is also something that many people find delightful and enjoyable.
Routines can help aid in transitions from one activity to another.
For example, many parents of young children work hard to set up bedtime routines. It takes time but if you successfully set up a bedtime routine you can transition even very active kids from jumping around to nighty-night.
I remember my in-laws were babysitting my kids. My youngest son was a ball of non-stop energy (his nickname included the word “action”).
I left them the step-by-step instructions for getting the kids into bed. Dinner. Clean up toys. Bath. Pajamas. Into bed. Exactly this many books and exactly these songs and then sleep. My father in law texted me during bath time that he did not think my son was going to go to sleep… perhaps ever. Then about thirty minutes later he confirmed that my active toddler was crashed out cold exactly on schedule.
Here’s another example of a routine being soothing.
My masters swim coach taught me to begin and end each workout pretty much the same way. He said that people love the idea of variety but by doing the same thing it makes it something that you don’t have to think as much about so it’s easier to repeat.
I initially pushed back on this idea. I thought it would be boring. I quickly grew to love it. I always knew how to start the workout. If I was a minute late I didn’t need to ask what to do. Jump in and go 200 swim – 200 drill – 200 kick. And about an hour later when he would call out okay 200 easy … I knew the work was over. That routine became a frame that I could rely on.
How long does it take to form a new habit?
I’m going to be honest. I think that when people answer this it’s all lies.
Lies and wishful thinking. 🙂
People like to have concrete expectations like if I do this for 21 days then it will suddenly be easy.
I think it depends on what behavior you are trying to change and how deeply set it is and how much you want to change it.
Smoking cigarettes is an infamously hard habit to change. Some people never succeed. Others change in one day.
Some people say 21 days. Other people say 30 days. I did an interview with an expert who said 66 days. They could all be correct. They could also all be wrong.
Here’s an example. This might be a really silly example but here goes.
Back in the 1980s there was this horrible diet called the cabbage soup diet. It’s like the worst plan ever.
Basically, you make this huge batch of cabbage soup and then eat only that for 3 meals a day for a month and you lose a bunch of weight. I would not be surprised to learn that nobody had actually ever completed the diet because who wants to eat cabbage soup all day every day. Nobody.
More related to this article, eating nothing but cabbage soup all day for any amount of time definitely does not develop a habit of eating cabbage soup. As soon as the diet is over you may never want it again. I never tried it. I knew people who did…the longest I think anybody lasted was 3 days.
Unrelated but kind of interesting back in 2010 a man named Chris Voigt went on a potato only diet for a few months. Why? Well at least at the time he worked for the Washington State Potato Commission.
That also didn’t result in a habit of eating nothing but potatoes.
What’s perhaps more important than just repeating something over and over is the commitment to the process of making the change. If you don’t have that I think it takes zero days. Which is to say that if you don’t actually want to set up a new habit or make a change it’s very hard to ever do it.
What does commitment to the process mean?
It means that you are not just focused on the goal or the habit but the steps to do the work to make it happen. Setting up support for the habit, tracking your progress, removing obstacles, refining the process.
Is it easier to form a new habit or break an existing habit?
I’m not sure there is a pure guaranteed correct answer to this.
On the other hand I do feel like at least most of the things I’ve listened to and read is that when you are breaking a habit what you are perhaps actually doing is establishing a different pattern in it’s place.
In that sense perhaps there is no actual thing that is “breaking a habit.”
Although, sometimes I personally will put a habit on my habit tracker that is to not do something like not snacking after dinner and before bed. So that is pretty much breaking a habit.
That’s why I say I don’t have a pure and decisive answer to this.
Changing set behaviors can be very tough. I don’t think we need anybody to tell us that. We’ve probably all got our own personal experiences to back it up.
This is why I think we sometimes look for tricks, or hacks or shortcuts. Sometimes these may even work very well. I have never been through hypnosis but there are many stories of people who find it helpful and effective.
Is there one proven way to establish a new habit?
I think that if it were as simple as one proven way – there wouldn’t be hundreds of best-selling books and courses on the topic.
Hypnosis, Therapy, Coaching, Positive Reinforcement, Affirmations, Mantras … there’s lots of ways to go after this concept of setting up new behaviors.
I think that there are some common bits of advice that do tend to overlap. I think that these are the three bits of advice I see and hear over and over.
- Making small changes may feel easier and therefore be helpful.
- Changing your environment to support new desired changes can be very helpful.
- Having community to support your desired behavior can be helpful.
These three show up in many books and in long time programs including weight loss programs like weight watchers and even 12 step programs like alcoholics anonymous.
I think that there is a strong drive to wish that some things like behavior change and setting up habits could simply be whittled down into a fool-proof process of 1-2-3 and boom it’s done. My current personal thinking on this is that the reality is that it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Humans just are not machines where if you push a button the always respond the same way.
The reason I point this out is that I think that in any journey of self-development or transformation self-compassion should be encouraged. The reasons for a lot of why we do things and choose to do things is more complex than we might realize. There are many people out there promising easy solutions and instant results … more often than not that is not going to be reality for most people.
Thought work and habits
In the sphere of self-development and life coaching there is a pretty well established rubric that several people use and teach which espouses the idea that thoughts determine actions.
Bing bang boom …want different actions change your thoughts.
To do this you would do thought work which is the process of observing your thoughts and then attempting to be intentional about the thoughts you choose to continue to allow and reinforce.
It’s a beautiful idea.
Where this particular coaching model breaks apart for me is that with habits the action is so routine that the thought is perhaps not easy to pinpoint.
Why did you brush your teeth today? What was the thought that drove that?
Why did you hold your coffee cup the way that you did today?
The whole thing with habits is that they bypass the intentional thought process and you do them without being aware of making a decision.
It’s not necessarily that the model is wrong per se. In fact, the coach who taught this to me adamantly believes that “the model is always working.” It’s just that, in my opinion, focusing on identifying the thought behind a habit might not be the most useful way to go about impacting a change in the behavior.
This is significant to me to mention because so much of what we do each day really might be habitual. Trying to pinpoint these thoughts sounds good but it might actually be frustrating in practice.
I do believe that there are lots of other options. The first one that comes to mind is focusing on the behavior or action. Work to perhaps intentionally create a new action pattern. So using the brushing your teeth example if you wanted to change that behavior you could move all of your tooth brushing equipment so that it wasn’t by your sink. To brush your teeth you would have to go and get it and then do whatever you wanted to do. This is perhaps a weird example because I can’t really think of why you might do that but I do hope it makes sense.
It’s worth noting that this is one reason why I think it’s good to have a coach that is versed in more than one particular tool for coaching. The idea that one coaching model works in all situations and for all people is a little tough for me to agree with.
The role of community in changing a habitual behavior
One thing that is frequently mentioned when we talk about changing behaviors is the influence of a community or peer group.
The more and more I learn about habits and behavior change. The more significant the role of community seems in my mind.
Think about something so simple as going to work or to school and how much those communities influence can influence what we do in a day.
I am perhaps extra aware of this at the moment because for the past 2 years the school and work impact in my family has been turned upside down due to the impact of the covid-19 pandemic. Working and attending school from home changed how I shopped, what I wore, when I exercised, how I vacationed (or didn’t) . Some changes I’ve enjoyed and others not as much.
I can also look back in my life and see how joining a running club and building my community with people who share my love of running has had a profound impact on my own life. It is undoubtedly a really big part of why and how fitness has been a long term part of my adult life.
The importance of consistency and frequency in setting up new habits
Something that I hear often from clients who are working to establish a new behavior pattern is that they want to do that thing everyday.
For example, I want to start running so I set a goal to run every day for 30 days.
I think it is a common idea that the more consistent you are with a new behavior and the more often you repeat the new pattern the faster it feels natural and sticky.
But I don’t think that you need to do all things everyday in order to set up a habit.
I exercise 6 days a week. Taking the one day off is part of the routine. I don’t do the same activity everyday. I am still able to set up the habit.
In fact, I think sometimes the desire to set up a non-stop streak can be harmful and work against setting up a long term successful habit or lifestyle.
For example, have you heard of the athletic challenge 75 hard. The idea is 2 hours a day of workouts for 75 straight days. That sounds … very hard and also like a recipe for possible injury.
There are obviously some things that this line of thinking is not true for. Notably, things that are addictive substances or very damaging to your health. Once you succeed at removing that from your life total abstinence is I think definitely recommended.
But the idea of a non-stop streak can definitely be appealing. There is some truth to the idea that a streak can be a motivator to keep doing something. Jerry Seinfeld writes a joke every day he calls it a chain and he says he’s been doing it so long that it’s a big motivator to keep the chain complete.
I guess my thinking here is that some behaviors do lend themselves to streaks and others might not benefit from incorporating planned breaks.
Are some habits easier to change than others?
In my prep for this article I interviewed several people who are experts or authorities in helping people set up and change habits. Also being an endurance coach is a lot of coaching on setting up habits and routines to support the new exercise regime.
Pretty much everybody seems to agree that some habits are harder to change but the explanations given and examples given were varied.
So, yes and also it depends. Some things that seem pretty agreed upon by a good many people are that when there is a physical addiction like nicotine that is much more complicated. This type of behavior change is very specialized and there are people and programs specifically designed to support this type of changes.
Other things that may make a habit more complicated to change or cease include the social aspect of the behavior — if you do the thing with friends or family and if the action is attached to a memory or experience.
For example, if you want to stop eating chips but every week you have a habit of watching a movie with your family and they all like to eat chips it’s possibly tougher to change that habit. Not impossible certainly but perhaps more challenging.
Or if you want to start getting up in the morning and running everyday but your only memories of running are being forced to run in school almost as a punishment – you may find that you’ll want to detangle that memory from the activity before you are able to really start a regular running habit.
In my experience, and this is my opinion, the more different things are involved in the action the more complicated it is to change. I think this is one of the things that makes eating and drinking habits so sticky. There’s often a community social aspect, all of your senses are involved in both eating and drinking as well.
Cues, Triggers and Rewards with habits
Depending on who the author is the words can be a little different but the idea of looking to see what comes right before a behavior (cue or trigger) and what comes after (reward, benefit, payoff) is common when working on habits.
In my research I learned something interesting from a coach I interviewed on the podcast. This may or may not be new to you. It’s the concept that there can actually be multiple layers of cues or rewards. She called it a secondary cue or benefit.
We might intially thing that the reward for an action is one thing and then if we dig a little deeper discover that there’s another benefit that we are getting as well that holds a clue for why we do whatever that thing is.
This is super interesting to me because while the primary cue or reward may be easy to observe … figuring out the deeper ones is where some help might come in handy.
How a coach can help set and succeed with habits.
Obviously, I am a coach so this is a totally self-serving and biased answer.
Also I do think it’s true.
A coach or a trainer can be extremely helpful in working to modify existing actions and set up new intentional actions that you want to be habits.
A coach can help you identify behaviors that you want to set up and break it down into the small parts that are repeatable and also identify what are the foundational habits that will support your desired behaviors. For example, if you want the result of being on time to work one habit I actually might suggest working on is setting your alarm and getting up when it goes off.
Of course, you can do this yourself but it can be very helpful to have an outside opinion that isn’t impacted by your thoughts and emotions in this process.
A coach is there to support and believe in you and can be the start of a community that you need to achieve a habit change.
For example if you are looking to create change in your fitness routine but your friends and family are not currently on that journey – your coach or trainer may be the first person in your circle who supports your changes. They are there for you to support you and encourage you.
The impact of having somebody in your corner supporting you can be powerful.
Thank you for reading. I’d love to know your thoughts on my ideas presented here and if you are interested in working with me let me know.