How to Form Good Habits (and Break Bad Ones)

Forming new habits is tough–most of us fail when we try.

But creating good habits is worth the effort.

James Clear’s Atomic Habits is the best book I know about habit formation, and he lays out why creating good habits are so important: 

“...if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done...Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous.”

Small habits, over long periods, can deliver amazing results.

Why Habits, and Not Goals?

The first step many of us take when setting out to do something new is setting a goal.

Goals can be valuable. They give us something to reach for and a metric by which to measure success.

But there are downsides.

We all know someone who has crash-dieted for a short time (wedding season?), only to gain the weight back a week later.

And the people who wanted to learn a new language, but stopped studying after a month.

There are several problems with focusing on goals.

Goals are often set poorly. Setting good goals is a valuable skill that should be practiced. You will have to set goals your whole life.

But most of us don’t set good goals. We set goals that are aspirational but lack a specific time frame. We don’t think about the strategy required to meet those goals, and if it’s realistic. We don’t do pre-mortems to think about what could go wrong along the way.

We set ourselves up for failure.

Predictions are difficult. Humans are bad at making predictions. We see it in every facet of life: TV pundits, so-called “experts”, and our neighbor who thinks he’s a stock-market genius.

When we make goals, we are attempting to predict, often with limited information. 

“I want to learn a language in 6 months.” Is that realistic? 

Often, when we don’t know much about a particular subject, it becomes even harder to make good predictions. We don’t know the ‘unknown unknowns.’

Like predictions, goals are subject to unexpected events. Part of the reason why making good predictions is hard is that many factors influence outcomes that are far in the future. 

A family member getting sick can derail all kinds of goals. Unexpected changes in life change our plans all the time.

Long-term goals often discourage us. As Peter Drucker said: “People often overestimate what they can accomplish in one year. But they greatly underestimate what they could accomplish in five years.” 

A long-term goal can seem unattainable at the start. Compound interest doesn’t pay off until near the end. 

Looking at a goal like “running a marathon”, for example, can seem impossible when you’re just starting out and struggling to run a few miles. The gap between where we are and where we want to be can make taking the first steps seem useless.

Goals can be valuable. But for many reasons, they aren’t ideal. 

Instead, we should focus on what will get us to those goals: habits.

How to Form Good Habits

Charles Duhigg laid out the formula for every habit we have: “a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: when I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”

This cue–craving–response–reward loop forms the basis for all our habits, bad or good.

So how do we successfully form new habits?

Here is James Clear’s formula for how to create a good habit:

  • “The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
  • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
  • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
  • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.”

One of my favorite quotes from Atomic Habits:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

To create new habits, we must build systems that make our habit obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.

Build Upon a Habit You Already Have

Starting a new habit is easiest if you build it on top of one that already exists. 

This is called habit stacking. The formula for habit stacking is:


Want to learn to start flossing? Add it to part of your morning routine that already exists. 

Perhaps when you step into the shower in the morning, you grab your floss and do it then. Or instead of brushing your teeth immediately after breakfast, you floss first.

Ideally, you should layer it upon a habit you enjoy. If you struggle or dislike the habit you’re trying to layer on top of, it’s more likely that you’ll just try to avoid both.

Build Your Environment For Success

Your environment plays a huge role in how obvious, attractive and easy your habits are.

Use visual cues whenever possible to trigger your habits, and make them as easy as possible. 

Want to floss more? Put floss on your shower shelf and your sink, and leave a sticky note on the bathroom mirror reminding you to floss. 

Want to play guitar more? Put your guitar out on a stand in the middle of your living room instead of packed away in a case in your closet.

Completely new environments are often helpful for establishing new habits and eliminating old ones. 

Use your environment to remind you about your new habit.

Make Your New Habit Stupidly Easy

Habits are formed based on frequency, not time. 

In other words, you want to establish a new habit by doing it over and over, not doing it for long periods.

James Clear’s rule: “When you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do so.”

If you want to start journaling once per day, you should start by writing one word in your journal per day. Even better, figure out what you’re going to write ahead of time.

“Write in my journal every day” becomes “Write down ‘I am a person who journals every day’”. It becomes so easy that it’s hard not to do.

Once you’ve established the habit, you can begin to expand it. Some days you may feel like writing more, but success will be determined only by whether you wrote that one sentence.

Want to start going to the gym more? Make a successful gym trip one where you go to the gym and change into workout clothes. That’s it. No exercise necessary.

The habit should be as easy as possible to accomplish.

Examples of Potential Habits & Starting Points:

  • Journal daily: Write 1 word or “I am a person who journals” when I have my morning coffee.
  • Run each morning: Put on workout clothes after I wake up.
  • Play guitar: Strum one chord every day when I come home from work.

Reward Yourself

The final step of new habit formation is the reward.

Sometimes the action itself will be reward enough for you. 

When it isn’t, find a reward that you look forward to, but isn’t too destructive. Going to the gym and putting workout gear on isn’t enough justification for a large pizza. But it could be enough to warrant a nice coffee.

Ideally, the reward builds upon the habit. Whenever you pass on a purchase, for example, you move that money to a savings account.

Track Your Progress Visually

There are various apps for tracking habits, but I suggest making it even simpler. 

Print out a calendar for the month of your habit formation, and put it next to wherever you accomplish that habit, along with a marker.

Each time you complete the habit, mark that day with an X. Building streaks will give you the motivation to keep going with your habit.

Remember, habits are built with frequency, not time.

Put Fear of Loss to Work

If you’re serious about committing to your habit, create a contract with a friend, or use an app like Spar! to put money on the line.

As humans, we hate losing something much more than we enjoy gaining that same thing. 

Create an agreement with a friend that if you fail to create your habit, they will deposit a cheque you give them to a cause you dislike. 

If you use Spar!, it will charge you $5 for every day you don’t upload video proof of completing your new habit.

Social contracts and putting money on the line will help you adhere to a new habit. It will feel scary at first, but that’s the point–it’s effective.

Make It Part of Your Identity

It was deliberate when I suggested writing ‘I am a person who journals every day’ as a way to start a journaling habit.

Our identities are closely linked to our habits, and vice versa. When we talk about forming a habit, our goal is not to change our behavior, it is to change our identity. 

We don’t want to go to the gym every day–we want to become someone who exercises. 

We don’t want to play guitar each day–we want to become musicians. 

Use this mind trick to your advantage. Tell yourself that you are the person you want to become. This change in mindset will help you stick with your habits, and as you stick with your habits, it will reinforce this identity.

“Every action is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” - James Clear, Atomic Habits

Expect Setbacks

No one is perfect. We all experience setbacks. 

There will be days where you don’t make it to the gym, or forget to floss, or don’t manage to read just one page.

The important part is to get back on track.

Forgive yourself, and get back on track the next day. Don’t let multiple days stack up, or beat yourself up for missing a day. 

Just get back to it tomorrow.

When in Doubt, Return to the Formula

Not being as successful as you’d like with your new habit? Go back to the formula:

  • The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious.
  • The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive.
  • The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy.
  • The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.

Ask yourself:

  • How can I make this more obvious?
  • How can I make this more attractive?
  • How can I make it easier?
  • How can I make it more satisfying?

Think about the underlying goal. Is it really to go to the gym every day? Or is it to get fit? 

Maybe you can try a different type of exercise, go with a friend, and go to the gym next to your work instead of the one across town. Try upping the reward, or the punishment (or both).

Building good habits is an iterative process. Expect that you won’t be perfect the first time. 

Keep returning to the formula until you’ve built a system for success.

How to Break Bad Habits

To break bad habits, use the same principles for forming good habits. Just invert the laws. From Atomic Habits:

  • “Inversion of the 1st law (Cue): Make it invisible.
  • Inversion of the 2nd law (Craving): Make it unattractive.
  • Inversion of the 3rd law (Response): Make it difficult.
  • Inversion of the 4th law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying.”

All of the same principles apply, we’re simply reversing the goal.

Instead of adding visual cues, we want to remove them.

Instead of building our environment to make a habit easy, we want to make it hard.

Instead of adding a reward when you accomplish your habit, add a punishment to make it unsatisfying.

First, Replace Your Bad Habits

You should do your best to remove and reduce the number of times a cue triggers a bad habit. 

But going cold turkey is difficult. There will inevitably be times when your old cue triggers a craving. 

In the early days of forming a new habit, you should substitute something else as your response.

Once you’ve successfully managed to do this, then you can start creating new habits or triggers.

Trying to break your habit of drinking a beer or two when you get home from work? Substitute something else you enjoy–maybe a diet soda, or sparkling water. 

You satisfy your craving but transform the habit.

Habit Examples

Here’s how I would think about trying to establish new habits and breaking old ones. 

Building a New Habit - Stretching

The goal: become flexible.

The habit: stretch more often.

I want to become more flexible because I think it will help my body feel better and less likely to be injured.

I already work out several times a week, and this seems like the ideal time to stretch, so I’m going to add my new habit to this routine.

  • I want to make it easy, so I will perform one stretch after each workout. I’ll define one stretch as simply doing the stretch, with no time requirement.
  • I want to be specific, so I choose a simple quad stretch to start with, so there’s no guessing about which one I need to do.
  • To remind myself, I put an event in my calendar following every workout session I have scheduled that will send me a notification reminding me to stretch.
  • To track progress, I print off a calendar and put it with a marker in my gym bag, so I can mark off each successful day when I finish my workout.
  • Each time I remember to stretch, I reward myself with a sauna session afterward, something I enjoy but don’t always take the time to do.
  • Once this habit becomes automatic, I can add other stretches and longer duration, but for the first 6 weeks, I commit to just doing one stretch.

This is a solid plan, but the one downside about a gym or public place is that you don’t control much of the environment. I might be better off trying to tie this habit to something at home, where I have more control.

Breaking a Bad Habit - Drinking at Home

The goal: drink less.

The habit to break: drinking one or two beer at home each evening.

I want to drink less because I think it will make me feel healthier, help me sleep, and contribute to other good habits (like exercising more).

I identify the one or two drinks I tend to have each evening as an easy spot to cut back and decide those will be my target.

  • The easiest way to cut this out is just not keeping anything to drink at home. But I want to have some for when entertaining and when I do want to drink.
  • I make the habit much less attractive by not keeping any beer in the fridge unless I know I’m entertaining.
  • I make it less obvious by putting the beer in a new cupboard that is harder to access and doing the same with any other alternate liquor.
  • I know that when I come home from work, I’m likely to still have the craving for a while, so I make sure I have an alternative reward. I like flavored sparkling water, so I stock up the fridge with those instead.
  • For me, the alternate here–the sparkling water–is enough of a reward, but as a backup, I’m going to pick something I’d like to buy–a new pair of workout shoes, for example–and say that for every night I don’t drink any beer, I’m going to put $5 in a savings account towards those shoes.
  • I also print off a calendar and put it up next to the fridge with a marker, so that each time I have sparkling water instead of a beer, I can mark it off.
  • Finally, I challenge my brother, who also wants to drink less, to put $250 on the line, which will be donated to a cause we both hate if we don’t manage to avoid drinking on weekdays.

Habits Don’t Add, They Compound

Albert Einstein is rumored to have said: “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world”.

I’ll return to the quote we mentioned at the beginning:

“...if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done...Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

Habits are behind every significant accomplishment in our life. 

Deliberate practice is built through habit. 

Mastery is built through habit.

Build your life around good habits. 

Build your identity around good habits. 

Favor action over planning. 

Build your life to make bad habits impossible.

Remember: “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”

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