Seven Features of Highly Effective Habits

Everyone has habits, but while most of us struggle against habits acquired without much forethought, if we’re looking to make lasting changes in our lives, we’ll need to design and install new, healthier habits. What makes some habits “stick” while others fade? I believe seven factors make the difference between durable habits and last year’s forgotten resolutions.

1. Fun

Human beings are pleasure-seeking creatures. So much self-improvement can be framed in terms of resisting impulses and denying pleasures. We resist fattening foods and submit to grueling workouts as part of our efforts to better ourselves. Unfortunately, no matter how committed, there’s a limit to how much self-imposed deprivation anyone will endure. The good news is that a little creativity goes a long way in transforming drudgery into a neutral or even positive experience. There’s a very good reason gyms put video screens in front of their treadmills. And finding new, enjoyable, healthy foods to replace old eating habits is not only more pleasant, but far more likely to last.

2. Schedule

“But where will I find the time?” is more than just an excuse. It’s a common reason why habits fail to take root. Almost inevitably, there are more demands on our time than time available. We make choices, either deliberately or by default, on how we’ll use the hours in the day. Effective habits must be given enough time to take hold in a schedule. It’s important to decide in advance what old time-sinks will be abandoned to make room for the new habit. The best habits are scheduled daily, and at the same time each day. Better yet, “anchor” the habit to existing commitments in your day. For example, if your goal is to journal daily, you might decide to do your writing after you brush your teeth, before you go to bed.

3. The Right Place

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Just as sufficient time is essential for strong habits, having the right place also matters. It was hard for me to commit to walking, but when I found a trail near my home, having a place I enjoyed made it that much easier to get in the habit. Those positive experiences strengthened the habit to the point where I look forward to walking almost anywhere.

4. Social Commitment

If you’re a man or woman of your word, then giving your word may be the extra push you need to overcome inertia. Hiring a personal trainer or finding a gym buddy is one of the most powerful ways to make sure you’re working out regularly. Letting supportive friends and family know your intentions can also provide a boost.

5. Benefits: Now and Later

“Where do you want to be in five years?” may be a popular interview question, but it’s not the first question I would ask to strengthen a habit. Having a distant, ultimate goal might provide some motivation, but if there’s no positive reinforcement between now and the finish line, it’s going to be an uphill battle to keep doing the little daily steps necessary to build that ultimate outcome. On the other hand, complete focus on immediate goals brings its own difficulties. People seeking to lose weight can motivate or de-motivate themselves with daily weigh-ins. A person’s weight can vary by several pounds for reasons having nothing to do with a good diet or exercise regimen. If you can see the downward trend in the weight and ignore the little blips, then regular weigh-ins help. But some people are crushed after just a few days of hard work to see no weight lost, or even a pound or two of gain. The key is to switch to the time frame that is most motivating. If the scale says you lost a lot of weight this week, celebrate the week — but if you’re going nowhere despite your best efforts this week, look back at how far you’ve come since you began.

6. Materials, Props, and Supplies On-Hand

New habits are like tender seedlings. A little disturbance will snuff them out before they get a chance to grow into robust patterns of behavior. If you want to draw more, but can’t find your sketchbook or pencils, it’s so easy to just let it slide this one time. As with time and place, having all the little props you need as well as the things that make your habit easier and more fun contribute to its survival. Sometimes a habit is really a complex of habits. If the habit is going to the gym, it may be dependent on the habit of putting a gym bag full of clean workout clothes in the car the night before. Hard-core drug addicts tend to have multiple “stashes” hidden all about; why not adapt their destructive patterns for a better purpose? There’s usually little cost in having multiple sets of supplies tucked away where you’ll most likely need them. To develop healthy eating habits, why not stash healthy, quick snacks in your home and workplace?

7. Distractions Minimized

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have collided with the new generation of smartphones to make life even more distracting than ever before. Distractions are bad for almost any kind of mental or physical performance, but they’re especially destructive to new habits. Especially while new habits are forming, it pays to do everything in your power to prevent distractions from breaking into your new pattern.

Your Turn

How do these seven features of effective habits show up in your life? Your mission, should you choose to accept it… Either pick an existing habit (perhaps brushing your teeth) and describe how each of the seven features reinforces the habit or select a habit you’d like to have and make a plan to use as many factors as needed to get the new habit to stick. Whichever assignment you accept, I’d love to hear what you learn in the comments below.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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