Self Improvement

The 5 Step Habit Guide

You probably know them too, the person who manages to get up at 5 in the morning, read one book a week and trained at the same time. Or the athlete who shows up for practice every single day and you think to yourself, "Gee, I wish I had that kind of discipline!"

Well, now we have some good news and some bad news for you: on average, these people don't have more self-discipline at all. In fact, they just have more productive habits and are so organized that it's hard for them not to keep them. That was the good news. The bad news is: Now that you're gaining knowledge about this, you no longer have an excuse for not being able to apply the same "discipline". 😉

In this article, we explain how you can put your new habit into practice in five steps, so that in the future you no longer give your inner pig a chance, but can actively fulfill your goals with productive habits. 

What exactly is a habit?

A habit is an activity that we have repeated so many times that we now perform it automatically. When we are faced with a new problem for the first time, we have to consciously go through all the possibilities with a lot of "processing power" of our brain and decide on a course of action. Depending on what result we get from this decision, we are satisfied or not. If the result is negative, the next time we are in the same situation, we will again consciously go through all the possibilities and decide on a different course of action. If the result is now positive, we have found a solution to our problem, according to the principle: try, fail, learn, where the output of the past influences the input of the future, so we have a feedback loop. 

Now, once we have found a satisfactory solution to our problem, the neural activity of the brain lowers the next time the problem occurs and not so much "processing power" is needed, since we already know the solution to the problem and can recall it quite easily. Habits are therefore simply learned problem-solving tactics through which we can use our brain's processing power more efficiently, preserving it for important problems that require our full concentration. At the same time, habits increase our chances of success in daily problem solving.

How habits are formed

Habits are formed in a simple sequence of four steps: cue, craving, response, reward in exactly this order, with the outcome of this cycle influencing the next cycle again: a feedback loop.

Cue

At the beginning, there is the cue, a stimulus that triggers an impulse in your brain to go into action. This stimulus consists of information that suggests a reward (if followed). This can be, for example, a visual stimulus, an auditory stimulus, a kinesthetic stimulus, an olfactory stimulus, a gustatory stimulus or a feeling.

Example: You run your tongue over your teeth after waking up in the morning and feel the impurities that have accumulated over the night. 

Craving

Next comes the desire. Behind craving is a motivation to change one's state. If we are not motivated to change our state, we do not associate motivation with following the stimulus. 

Example: Now you most likely feel a desire to brush your teeth because you want to get rid of the state and the feeling of uncleanliness.

Response

The response is the action you now initiate out of the motivation to change the state - it represents the actual habit. So this reaction is to bring about the desired change of state. 

Example: You brush your teeth. 

Reward

The reward is the result of the state change, targeted in step two and represents the end of each habit loop.

Example: You now run your tongue over your brushed teeth and feel the fresh, smooth sensation of clean teeth.

The 5 steps to your new habit

Only if cue, desire, response and reward are present, a new habit can be formed at all, and none of these points can be neglected. So in order to get the best possible chance of success, we consciously optimize our new habit in exactly these four steps. 

This is how you proceed if you want to acquire a new habit: 

Step 1: Set yourself a precise and achievable goal

Decide on exactly one new habit and concentrate fully on this new habit. With every additional habit you want to acquire, you use up willpower and processing power that you could use for this one habit and thus reduce your chances of success. 

Decide:

  • when exactly (either specific time or before or after an activity)
  • how exactly
  • how often
  • with whom 
  • how long

you want to implement this new habit. Define exactly what it looks like when you have successfully executed this habit, i.e. when exactly it is fulfilled and when it is not.

For example, "I will go for a run by myself in the fresh air for 30 minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday right after I get up and before work at 6 a.m."

With this goal, you've covered most contingencies and objections: it's raining this morning? Your planned workday is going to be stressful? Your goal is clear and concise, so your pig dog can no longer discover any unnoticed gaps. Another tip from us: Even if your goal is to go running for 30 minutes, it makes sense to start your habit as small as possible. It is more important to fulfill a small version of the new habit from the beginning than to start with the full extent right away but be demotivated after the first week. So if you are not yet used to going running every day, better start with 5 minutes in the morning, even though at the beginning it may seem ridiculous to put in all this effort for just 5 minutes. Every repetition you perform and every time you follow through with your new habit is proof that you can do it! It is far easier to expand a habit once learned than to learn an entirely new one. This is a cognitive process that is far more complex than simply changing the frequency or duration of the habit. 

The most important rule is to start habits as small as possible and expand them over time. 

Step 2: Set yourself a cue that is as obvious as possible

The more obvious the cue, the more likely you are to perceive it. We no longer leave this to chance, but consciously adapt our environment accordingly. Let's take the previous example of going for a run in the morning: The stimulus can be your sports outfit, which you put right next to your bed the night before so that it is the first thing you see when you get up. The following always applies: visual stimuli are usually the most effective stimuli. Or if you want to do 40 push-ups every morning, you can put your sports mat right next to the coffee machine if your first walk in the morning is to the coffee machine anyway.

The goal is to make your new habit as obvious as possible, so you can't look away.

Step 3: Make the habit as attractive as possible

Attractiveness plays a massive role in the formation of new habits, as it is directly related to the motivation we feel when it comes to performing the habit. If the new habit itself is not particularly attractive (this is especially often the case when it comes to habits whose rewards are not immediately visible, such as fitness routines or nutrition),you can trick yourself a little. 

Let's take the previous example of running in the morning. You can now combine the new habit of running with something you really like to do: e.g. listening to your favorite podcast, which you only get to listen to when you go running. Another option is to add a reward after you finished your run, for example, make yourself a delicious cappuccino after you get back that you're already looking forward to when you put on your gym clothes.

The key is to associate your new habit with a reward that is attractive enough for you to accept doing the less attractive habit first. Over time, you'll condition yourself to the point where you naturally associate the two things together. 

Step 4: Make it as easy as possible to perform your new habit.

The easier it is to perform the habit, the more likely you are to do so. Let's take the previous example of running again: You got up motivated, now you want to go running, but you remember that you forgot to wash your running clothes yesterday and your shoes are still wet from the rain. In addition, you haven't turned on the dishwasher and your water bottle is still dirty, so all in all, everything speaks in favor of getting into a hot shower and skipping your workout today. 

All these points are bad preparation, which are the perfect targets for your inner pig, so it is important to eliminate them from the beginning. Think about everything you need to make your new habit as easy as possible. Make sure you have enough running clothes so you always have a fresh pair available. This includes weatherproof clothing, so you won't have any excuses even if the weather is bad. Make sure you have a fixed place to put your fresh sportswear already in the evening. Fill your water bottle and put it there as well. Ideally, you should even put your coffee cup under the coffee machine in the evening, so that you only have to press the button after your run to get your reward. Also prepare your environment accordingly, switch your cell phone to the appropriate mode so that you don't wake up in the morning to emails from your boss that make you jump into action and throw your good intentions overboard. 

Create an environment that supports you in your plan, for example by letting your partner in on it, who can support you even with little things. 

Step 5: Make the habit as satisfying as possible.

You know that feeling when you've done a long hike, come home completely exhausted, put your feet up, and feel that deep sense of complete balance? This feeling of "having done something" and at the same time being allowed to take some time out is an excellent reward. Now, this is not something that can be set up for every habit right away. Therefore, it is important to create rewards for yourself that you can integrate into your daily routine, but that really satisfy you. 

In the case of running, for example, it is the delicious cappuccino at the end. If you want to integrate reading for 10 minutes every day into your daily routine, the tracking of this habit itself and the visual progress of it can also be a huge reward. So let's say you want to read every day from now on, it's a great idea to buy yourself a calendar. Start by marking a bold red cross on your calendar immediately after you have completed your reading minutes each day. After a short time, you'll find that marking the red cross makes you so happy that you can't wait to invest the 10 minutes of your time again tomorrow. 

The big effect comes after a while: Imagine you've already managed to read those 10 minutes every day for a whole month, and now you've had a really bad day at work, your boss has embarrassed you in a meeting, and you've spilled coffee all over yourself. What you'd really like to do right now is crawl into bed and watch a movie.. Can you imagine how hard it will be for you to break the 30-day chain of bold red crosses on your calendar if you only had to read for 10 minutes? After a while, we associate pride with achieving a new habit, and with a visual cue like this, we can have that pride right in front of us in case we have a moment of weakness. 

Consciousness and preparation are the key

Creating new habits is not about developing tremendous self-discipline and forcing yourself to do productive things. It's about managing one's perception and the way we are conditioned to do things that we normally do unconsciously, now consciously. Everyone is conditioned to do certain things, we can use this knowledge to do the things that support us in achieving our goals from now on, instead of preventing us from achieving them. With these 5 steps, however, it's also clear that when it comes to creating new habits, good preparation is key: the clearer you are about what new habit you want to create, the better you can prepare and the more likely you are to successfully implement it. 

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I am Adriana, Entrepreneur, freethinker and digital enthusiast with a love for marketing, business models and new technologies in Zurich.
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