How to use old habits to form new ones

All of us have new habits we’d like to form. Like exercising or reading or even (ahem) flossing. Yet, habit formation doesn’t come easy.

How to use old habits to form new ones


That’s because forming new habits require repetition under similar conditions. Most of us don’t take into account the necessity to trigger new habits the same way each time. We might, for example, try working out in the morning one day, then the afternoon another. After awhile, we give up altogether. The reasons our new habits don’t take hold is that we forget the importance of tying them to a cue.

As Charles Duhigg points out in his book, The Power of Habit (read my review) habits are composed of three primary elements: the cue, the routine, and the reward. If our “routine” is habitually snacking from the refrigerator, for instance, our “cue” might wandering into the kitchen when we’re bored. We open the refrigerator and snag our “reward.” Together, a habit cycle forms an “if this, then that” routine. If I’m bored, then I wander in the kitchen. If I see the refrigerator, then I open the door. And so on.

With some mindful effort, it’s not hard to spot the “if this” cues to our bad habits. But how do we develop good “if this” cues for a new habit?

Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, has a helpful suggestion to identifying a cue that’s more likely to trigger a new habit. Add the new habit to those that are already entrenched. As he puts it:

“Think about how large portions of your day are habits linked together in chains. What you want to do is add a new link in the chain where there is an open slot. You are looking for a time when you’ve just finished one regular habit and you’re casting about for the next activity.”

The beauty of that approach is that it’s easier to identify when we finish a habit chain and start “casting about for the next activity.” Tying a new habit to our most consistent chains will increase the odds of success. For instance, if you regularly have a cup of coffee in the morning but your routine varies right after that, pick up a book to read (if reading is the new habit you want to start). Soon, you’ll automatically couple reading with that cup of coffee. To be even more strategic in habit formation, identify the habits you can create to support your most important goals. Then evaluate where you might add those new habits to the habit chains you already have.

Merely by accident, I’ve discovered that the most effective new habits I’ve formed over the last several years have been when I’ve linked them to old ones, as Dean suggests. After reading his book, I decided to re-evaluate my own habit chains to find where I might add new habits to be make more progress toward my goals.

I suppose that even that kind of assessment could become a habit. Maybe right after that cup of coffee.

What new habits do you want to form?

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