How One Habit a Day Can Change Your Life

Is it time to shake up your routine?

By Riley Reed
how to form a habit

There’s way more to wellness than just eating clean, so we’re taking a holistic approach to restoring our spaces, minds, bodies, and hearts in small but powerful ways. Introducing The RE:SET Challenge—a 21-day plan to a healthier and happier you. Everything kicks off on January 17 so click here to sign up—it’s free! 

But first, in preparation for The RE:SET Challenge, let’s learn how to form a habit. 

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I interviewed a guest last month who told me she was joining a challenge: row 100,000 meters in December. It piqued my interest, as challenges often do, but I didn’t have a rowing machine on hand. She said, “It could be anything. Just pick one thing and commit to it daily. That commitment incentivizes you to act and action leads to discipline.”

Admittedly, habits have always scared me. My spontaneous spirit wants to soar unbounded by structure. Doing the same thing over and over again? Boring! However, time and again I’ve been reminded that forming habits are powerful.

In essence, our lives consist of how we spend our days. Our time is dictated by the little things we do or don’t do.

Consciously making choices and commitments to mold our lives is where a free-spirited girl like me can soar higher and further.

I’m not saying this is easy. In fact, with temptations, distractions, and responsibilities swirling around us, it’s quite difficult without a clear roadmap in place. That’s why I’m answering some of your biggest questions around habit building so that you can take hold of your days (and thus your life) in ways like never before.

Want to know how to form a habit? Keep reading…

image by Riley Blanks

What is a habit?

Though the definition of a habit is relatively universal, I love looking at it in different ways. A variety of explanations can help us process what a habit looks like once it’s formed. Based on my research, here are some of my favorite words around the meaning of habits:

  1. An acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.
  2. A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows. When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE to get REWARD.
  3. The little things we do (or don’t do) every day that determines the course of our lives.
  4. Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.

How long does it take to form a habit?

Contrary to popular belief, habits take patience and a good amount of time to develop and solidify. One of the reasons we often fall off track is because we think things will automate sooner than they actually do. The myth around how to form a habit is that it takes 21 days (you can thank Maxwell Maltz for that) or some other magic number to develop a habit. Sounds pretty attainable, right? However, that antiquated timeframe isn’t built on science. Furthermore, it sets us up for disappointment and setbacks when we realize we’ve not reached our goal in just three weeks.

Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, published her findings from a study that examined the habits of almost 100 people for 12 weeks. She and her team found that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new behavior that becomes automatic. Further, and notably, “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” If you mess up, it’s okay.

The greater lesson here is that how long it takes doesn’t matter. The work you put in is where your progress lies. Habits are not episodic. Just focus on beginning and continuing.

How are habits formed?

We all want to know how to form a habit. Ultimately, habits are formed cyclically. The best way to describe how they work is with the habit loop model—a cycle that dictates how habits build and function. Habits loops are made up of three components:

  1. The Cue: an event, action, feeling, person (external entity) that triggers your habit. For example: waking up in the morning.
  2. The Routine: the behavior that follows after the habit has been triggered. For example: waking up in the morning cues my routine of drinking a glass of water.
  3. The Reward: a positive reaction that your brain attaches to the routine you’ve just performed. It associates the routine with the cue so that in the future you repeat the behavior to get the same reward. For example, waking up in the morning cues my routine of drinking a glass of water. I’m rewarded with a feeling of hydration and freshness so tomorrow I do the same thing again.

How do you break a habit?

Ultimately, breaking a habit long term requires a holistic approach.

Your habits are a part of a greater system of being. Actions and behaviors are the results of thought patterns and belief systems. Commit to unpacking your current lifestyle completely to better understand where your behavior results from.

Charles Duhigg writes about the habit loop and expands on different ways you can take control over the cycle. The first step is to take control of your cues.

Explore the cue you want to address.

Reflect and write down various cues (external aspects) that cause your routines for a few days. Ask yourself: What was I doing at the time? Who was I around? How did I feel? The cues will start to become more evident.

For example, I have a habit of scratching my skin due to dryness and/or eczema (which isn’t good because it only makes it worse). The cues are:

  • A miserable feeling of itchiness
  • Boredom
  • Subconsciousness (I find myself scratching in my sleep)
  • Hot showers
  • When I’m frustrated or anxious
  • Usually, when I’m alone as scratching isn’t an attractive act, and people I love, know it’s bad for me so they tell me to stop when I do it

Identify the reward attached to the cue.

Sometimes this is a little harder to unpack as we don’t always fully comprehend why it is we do what we do. However, with some curiosity and experimentation, you can get to the root of the reason/reward behind your behavior.

For example, scratching my skin provides me with:

  • A way to exert my emotions physically
  • Temporary relief from itchiness
  • Something to do when my hands are idle

Make small changes and adjust the routine.

Here is the part that is tricky but crucial.

For a habit to be broken, one of the aspects of the habit loop must be addressed and altered with intentional control.

I have found that by calling out the cue and replacing the reward, I can make significant changes.

For example, (the cue) my eczema and (another cue) emotional state trigger (the routine) scratching which provides (the reward) temporary relief. However, scratching aggravates the skin further, causes scarring, and only worsens the state of my eczema. It’s a habit that must be broken. To break my habit, I need to address the cues and give myself a better reward. This is an involved process as eczema has been a lifelong struggle. For that reason, I’m making four small adjustments:

  • Manicure my fingernails every Sunday afternoon so that if I attempt to scratch, I don’t receive the temporary relief and am thus incentivized to reach for a healthier remedy.
  • Keep a weekly wellness journal to report changes and feelings around skin health every Sunday afternoon. Note how good it feels to not have eczema flare-ups.
  • Ensure I have topical ointments and creams in my bedroom, office space, and purse to apply regularly.
  • Commit to taking lukewarm showers during flare-ups.

Why do habits work?

Thinking about habits in the big picture, I love looking at Ken Wilbur’s Integral Model—The Four Quadrant Map.

“The Integral approach helps to reveal some of the deepest patterns running through all human knowledge, showing the relationships that exist between physical evolution, systemic evolution, cultural evolution, and conscious evolution.”

These quadrants—the I, the We, the It, and the Its—ultimately determine our happiness, our evolution, and our societal impact. Our choices (which dictate our behaviors) dictate how we exist within each quadrant and thus collectively. Habits are made up of who we are. They speak volumes about our character and our trajectory. And because they are automated, it is easy for them to represent what is urgent rather than what is important.

Evaluating how you operate daily, without thinking, is crucial to your self worth and self-defined success.

How and where do I start?

If you go back to the process of breaking a habit, you might find an overarching theme: we revert to what feels good.

Begin by identifying the root of your desires so that you can create positive behavioral changes and a real motivation to alter your current systems. Jules Acree has a beautiful Life Audit tool that can aid you in the process.

So, now that you’ve learned how to form a habit, join us for The RE:SET Challenge and start building healthy habits that will build upon your self-worth and self-defined success. Click here to sign up.