Building Habits That Stick: A Deep Dive Into The Psychology
Self Help

Building Habits That Stick: A Deep Dive Into The Psychology

The art of building habits succesfully

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”


Many of us made resolutions and set objectives for what we wanted to accomplish in the New Year as the calendar turned. When we do this, we take advantage of the “new start effect,” which occurs when our brains immediately relegate prior flaws to a separate timeframe. To build a habit successfully, you must first understand what happens in your brain, why standard methods fail, and how to create manageable habits.

Trigger, Reaction and Reward

Any action we execute has three steps: a trigger, a reaction, and a reward. Psychologists refer to this as the behaviour or habit loop. Bad breath signals that it’s time to wash your teeth when you wake up in the morning. The reaction is brushing, and the reward is minty-fresh breath. This three-part methodology directs all we do. While this is a simplified explanation of action and habit, it is helpful to know when forming new habits.

According to studies, combining a new habit with a regular activity makes it easier to learn and sustain. According to the researchers, “decades of psychology study repeatedly reveal that simply repeating a simple behaviour in a regular context leads to a habit.” After you’ve established a habit, the next stage is to maintain it. That is the most difficult part for most of us. While using chocolate, money, or other external rewards to start a habit is a good way to get started, it’s unlikely to stay if you don’t have the intrinsic desire.

This is the internal reward you receive for completing a task. The culprits include exercise-induced endorphins or the nice feeling you get while spending time with a loved one.

Temporal Milestones

Researchers Hengchen Dai, Katherine L. Milkman, and Jason Riis of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School characterise the New Year as one of many “temporal milestones” used to motivate people to make beneficial lifestyle changes. Positive behavioural alterations are more likely to occur when a temporal landmark is reached, according to the study.

On Mondays, the first day of the month, the first of January, and so on, our brains are hardwired to set goals and form the necessary habits. According to the study, “the prevalence of New Year’s resolutions suggests that people are more likely to pursue their goals shortly following significant temporal landmarks.” “These little-studied phenomena have the potential to assist people in overcoming significant willpower issues that frequently stymie goal achievement.”

Understanding the significance of temporal milestones and the fresh start effect is only the first step. Developing long-term, healthy behaviours requires more. Understanding the interplay of complex psychological mechanisms at work can help set the setting for success when it comes to developing habits. When you reach a temporal milestone, you must explicitly define your objectives. You should develop goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound using the S.M.A.R.T. technique.

“My objective is to run for at least 20 minutes on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for the next three months,” rather than “My goal is to run three times a week.” A crucial first step is to create a S.M.A.R.T. goal. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author, reduces habit formation into three easy steps: a cue, an action, and a reward. From a psychological standpoint, Our brains get a stimulus (cue) from our surroundings. We then participate in a specific behaviour pattern (activity) in response to the stimulus. Finally, our brains produce a cocktail of chemicals that make us feel good (reward).


Consciously managing your surroundings to support a specific action and achieve the desired consequence is the key to developing good habits. This is why runners often lay out their workout clothes before going to bed or pack a nutritious lunch to avoid mindless munching throughout the day. Regulating your surroundings significantly influences “associative learning,” emphasizing its importance. The British Journal of General Practice published an article titled “Making Health Habitual,” which recommends three stages of habit formation:

  1. In the commencement step, individuals choose the new behaviour and the context in which they will perform it.
  2. Automaticity emerges as a result of repeated behaviour in the chosen setting throughout the learning phase.
  3. The stability phase occurs when the habit has developed, its strength has plateaued, and it continues to persist over time with little effort or thought.
Associative Learning

You can use the technique of “associative learning” to make long-term, positive, and healthy changes. In psychology, experts define ‘habits’ as actions that individuals automatically trigger in response to contextual cues associated with their performance. “For example, automatically washing hands (activity) after visiting the restroom (contextual cue) or buckling up (action) after entering the car (contextual cue).

“Repeating a given activity in a certain setting leads to associative learning, which improves the automaticity of the intended behaviour, according to years of research. This is critical because, to achieve long-term, sustainable behaviour change, individuals must maintain habits even when motivation is low.”

Moving action initiation to external cues reduces the motivational systems’ reliance on conscious attention. As a result, even if conscious motivation or interest fades, habits are likely to endure. If you are continuously trying to develop habits via sheer mental willpower, consider redirecting your energy. Create an environment where such habits emerge on a subconscious level. Rather than trying to force your way through the decision-making process, you should concentrate your efforts on automating the desired behaviour. So, where do you begin in building the ideal environment? “Chaining” is a notion that describes how we construct a series of events or behaviour.

Now, if you want to start flossing every morning, research has shown that integrating the new goal into an existing “chain” is the most effective method. Better yet, include the desired behaviour at the end of a “chain” of other behaviours to give you more indications to prepare you for the precise act. For instance, suppose you wake up, stroll to the toilet, brush your teeth, and then floss. A “system” is made up of a series of “chains.” James Clear, an author and entrepreneur, is a big believer in a systems-based approach. In his New York Times bestseller book Atomic Habits, Clear discusses the systems-first mentality.

“Goals are useful for determining a course, but processes are the most effective for achieving progress,” he argues. “When you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time creating your systems, you’ll run into a few issues.” Goals can give you direction and even push you forward in the near term,” he continues, “but in the end, a well-designed system will always win.” “What matters is that you have a system.” What makes the difference is the dedication to the process.”

Habit Formation in Everyday Life

We wish there was a simple habit-forming button you could push for fast results. However, you’ll have to work hard to develop a new habit that will stick. To help you start, here are some pointers:

  1. Make every effort to be as exact as possible. What exactly are you hoping to accomplish? The more explicit your goals are, the more likely they are to be met.
  2. Maintain an uncomplicated attitude. Your habits can help you achieve a greater goal by building on each other. The smaller and easier a habit is, the more likely you are to succeed.
  3. Make use of your current habits. You don’t have to think about your habits because you already have them. If a new habit is linked to an existing one, it may be easier to sustain.
  4. Change your environment. Make changes to your environment to make things as easy as feasible. You don’t want a cabinet full of junk food if you’re trying to eat healthily.
  5. Allow yourself to be disappointed. It’s challenging to form new habits. Don’t be discouraged if you miss a day; nevertheless, try not to miss more than one in a row.
  6. Discover your unique reward. Determine the internal benefit you expect to gain from developing a new habit. That internal incentive will keep you going when it’s simple to drop your new habit like a hot potato.

To conclude, let’s commit to making it a habit. Let’s change our habits for a better life in the days to come. Let us utilise all the available resources for the same.

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