We all know about good habits. Wash your hands before eating. Exercise every day. Save for retirement.
But we often start a new habit only to see our efforts fizzle out in a few weeks — or even days.
And we often blame ourselves. I don’t have enough willpower! But it’s not that simple. Habit-building is a brain science. Once you understand it, your odds of success will multiply exponentially.
This article unravels the science of habit formation, followed by a list of 20 powerful habits to improve your well-being and success.
What is a habit?
A habit is a routine behavior or practice that you perform regularly, often subconsciously — like a well-worn path for your brain that allows you to carry out actions without expending much thought or effort.
Habits can be either positive or negative. Positive habits, like exercising and eating healthily daily, improve your overall well-being. Negative habits, on the other hand, such as smoking or procrastinating, can hinder your health and success in life.
People develop habits for various reasons. Habits can simplify complex tasks, increase efficiency, or turn your daily routine into a comfortable rhythm.
However, this automation also has drawbacks, such as getting stuck in an undesirable emotional or mental pattern that leads to unhealthy behaviors.
Being mindful of your habits, understanding why you’ve developed them, and actively working to cultivate positive ones can have a profound impact on your life.
How we form habits
Habit creation is a complex process rooted in our behavioral patterns and brain processes. At its core is the strengthening of synapses in the brain through repeated thoughts and feelings — especially the ones we entertain on a daily basis.
When you regularly perform an action, neural pathways are created and reinforced in your brain. This makes the action easier to perform without conscious thought over time. In other words, it pays off for us humans to be creatures of habit.
Interestingly, we create both conscious and subconscious habits. Conscious habits are those you deliberately choose to incorporate, while subconscious habits form without you even realizing it. Understanding the difference between the two can be helpful for getting the most out of your habit patterns.
Conscious habits, like choosing to exercise daily, empower you to actively shape your life. Subconscious habits, such as biting your nails when stressed, might require more introspection to recognize and change.
These neural patterns can develop surprisingly quickly, sometimes within a few weeks. That’s why consistency is key when trying to form a positive habit or break a negative one. Awareness of the mechanisms behind habit formation can make the process more manageable and successful.
Managing your habits
Good daily habits can be very helpful, but you’ve got to know how to develop them and stick to them — breaking free from the stranglehold of negative habits that oppose your positive ones.
We’ll look at both aspects: creating and strengthening new habits and successfully extracting yourself from old ones.
How to intentionally create a habit
The following seven steps can help you form a new habit:
1. Identify a specific goal
Choose a clear, achievable goal that can be translated into regular action, like exercising every morning. Repetitive daily goals are best to practice with.
2. Pair the new habit with existing habits
Connect the new habit with a routine part of your day, like brushing your teeth or driving to work, so that one triggers the other.
3. Start small
Begin with a version of the habit that’s easy to accomplish. Then, gradually increase the complexity or duration.
4. Use positive reinforcement
Reward yourself for successfully completing the habit. This can help strengthen the behavioral association in your brain.
5. Track your progress
Keep a log or journal, and record your experiences and successes for a specific time period. This will reinforce the importance of the habit and motivate you to continue.
6. Be patient
Recognize that forming a habit takes time — often several weeks or more. Patience is key.
7. Adjust as needed
Be flexible and willing to modify the habit if it’s not working. However, keep your overall goal in mind.
How to strengthen a habit
Strengthening a habit so it’ll stick also takes a systematic approach. Follow these five steps to cut through on habit formation in your everyday life:
1. Consistency is key
Stick to the routine without skipping anything since repetition reinforces the neural pathways in your brain that generate behavioral patterns.
2. Increase difficulty gradually
Once the habit is established, slowly increase the complexity or challenge to develop mastery over it.
3. Use visual reminders
Keep cues around that remind you of the habit. For instance, if your goal is to exercise daily, store your gym bag near your front door. You can also visualize yourself performing the habit to further strengthen the new mental pathways.
4. Avoid negative triggers
Identify and minimize anything that might derail the habit, such as anticipated distractions or temptations. Develop a strategy to outwit temptations when they come up. For instance, if you’re working on eating healthier, have an apple in your pocket or purse for times when you’re passing by a bakery and are tempted to purchase a pastry.
5. Use technology to stay on track
Apps and gadgets can provide helpful reminders and track progress. For example, Motion’s AI-driven intelligent calendar is a great tool to set dedicated blocks of time for a new habit and create a long-term schedule so you can stay on track.
How to break a bad habit loop
Bad habits can have a stranglehold on your entire being and suck the joy out of life. Here are eight key steps to break a negative habit:
1. Identify the underlying cause
Understanding why you developed the habit can guide you in breaking it. Boredom? Frustration? Self-condemnation? Identify the reason so you can develop new habits.
2. Replace the bad habit with a positive one
Instead of stopping the habit cold turkey, replace it with a better or more desirable alternative.
3. Set realistic goals
Break the harmful habit into smaller, more manageable pieces rather than trying to quit all at once.
4. Use your support systems
Friends, family, and support groups can provide encouragement and hold you accountable for the changes you want to make.
5. Monitor — and, if possible, avoid — your triggers
Recognize what triggers the habit, and try to avoid or replace it.
6. Reward progress
Set milestones and celebrate when you reach them to motivate yourself to continue.
7. Practice mindfulness and self-compassion
Being mindful of your actions and forgiving yourself for slip-ups is essential to the process of breaking a bad habit.
8. Seek professional help if needed
Some habits, like addictions or compulsive behaviors, might require professional guidance.
Reach out to a life coach, counselor, or therapist. They’re here to help!
20 powerful habits for a more successful, happier life
Need some inspiration for your new habits? We’ve collected 20 dynamic good habit examples that can change your life for the better.
Work and career
The habits in this section will help you stay focused on professional excellence and career advancement.
1. Set clear goals daily
Every morning, define your priorities for the day. This will focus your energy on what matters most so that you’ll be more likely to have a productive and satisfying workday.
2. Embrace continuous learning
A “perpetual learning” attitude is a characteristic found in successful people, so make a habit of always trying to learn something new. Whether it’s a skill or industry knowledge, continuous learning keeps you competitive and engaged in your field.
3. Build positive relationships
Networking is an important skill in professional advancement, so actively cultivate genuine relationships with colleagues or clients. These connections can open doors to new opportunities.
4. Regularly reflect on your progress
Periodically take time to review your accomplishments and areas for growth. Honest self-reflection helps you recognize success and learn from your mistakes.
Managing your time well is an important aspect of having a successful, balanced, happy life. Here’s a short list of habits to develop:
1. Use a planner or app
Using a daily planner app for appointments and tasks helps you stay organized and reduces the likelihood — and accompanying stress — of forgetting important commitments. Try timeboxing or time blocking.
2. Prioritize your tasks
Focus on what’s most urgent and important. Prioritizing your activities ensures you direct your energy effectively so that you can accomplish more in less time.
3. Limit multitasking
Though multitasking can feel productive, it often leads to mistakes and reduced efficiency. One study found that only 2.5% of people can engage in multitasking without losing efficiency. So, train yourself to focus on one task at a time. You may even want to develop a deep work routine.
4. Take regular breaks
Short breaks rejuvenate your mind, increasing your focus and creativity. So, step away from your work periodically.
Health and well-being
Healthy lifestyle choices are already at the top of many people’s daily to-do lists. Here are some healthier habits to develop that will improve your quality of life:
1. Eat a balanced, healthy diet
Eating a variety of nutritious foods fuels your body and mind and helps keep you in shape.
Need help with this when that bag of chips starts winking at you? Try the “start small” approach by including one healthy food in each meal. Then, gradually expand your selection to develop better overall health.
2. Exercise regularly
Engage in physical activity you enjoy to boost your energy, reduce stress, and help ensure a healthy heart and body.
3. Stay hydrated
Drink enough water daily. Proper hydration supports digestion and improves mental clarity.
4. Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
Limit or eliminate these and other addictive substances. Reducing or quitting smoking alone can lead to a longer, healthier life and reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases.
Self-care and sleep
At the top of this list is following a healthy sleep routine by sticking to a consistent bedtime. Once your body clock is regulated, here are four more habits to consider:
1. Engage in hobbies
Spend some time daily doing activities you love. Hobbies provide a sense of enjoyment and relaxation, enriching your life.
2. Practice mindfulness
Even if you’re not the meditative type, take some time to be “in the moment” rather than spending most of your time worrying about what might be. This practice can reduce stress, improve focus, and increase your overall well-being.
3. Show yourself compassion
Treat yourself kindly, especially during tough times. Self-compassion promotes emotional resilience and a more positive outlook on life.
4. Practice gratitude
Take a moment each day to acknowledge what you’re grateful for — whether big things or small. The practice of gratitude has many benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and improving sleep.
Writing in a gratitude journal or simply reflecting on positive aspects of your life can uplift your mood and give you a more optimistic outlook. It’s a simple habit that can make a big difference in your overall well-being.
Financial security and success
It’s easy to dream big about making a lot of money, but financial security rests squarely on the habits of measured spending and living within your means.
Here are some powerful habits for your financial life that’ll get you where you want to go:
1. Create and follow a budget
Always know where your money is going. Budgeting empowers you to control your finances and work steadily toward your financial goals.
2. Build an emergency fund
Save for unexpected expenses. Having a financial cushion provides peace of mind and stability during unforeseen circumstances.
3. Invest for the long-term
Explore safe investment opportunities that are designed to help money grow steadily over a longer time. Regularly investing even a small amount can lead to financial growth and security.
4. Regularly review your financial goals
Adjust your financial plans as needed. Regular reviews will keep you on track and responsive to changes in your life or the economy.
Adopting these habits will ensure you’re well on your way to greater well-being and success in life. Find what works best for you and make consistent, positive choices, and you’ll reach your goals in no time.
Use Motion to support your good habits
Positive, healthy habits are wonderful assets for personal well-being and success — but they need attention and repetition to become permanent.
Use a dynamic online time management tool, such as Motion’s AI-driven calendar, to help you schedule and keep track of your good habits.
Motion’s calendar app effortlessly and intelligently helps users manage their entire lives — including their habits. Try Motion for free for 7 days.