Habits (Good & Bad): Definition, Books & Tips
What are habits and why are they important? This guide will define habits, review multiple strategies for building good habits, and share tips for how to break bad habits.
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What Is a Habit? (A Definition)
Habits are defined as routines that are practiced regularly. They can also be described as actions that arise from some kind of internal or external trigger (Robbins & Costa, 2017). Further, habits are the things you do in particular contexts. For example, one person might have a habit of smoking a cigarette when they drink alcohol. Another person might have a habit of brushing their teeth before bed. Basically, a habit can be anything that is repeated enough times to become automatic. You don't really have to think about doing the thing anymore. It just happens.
Some could say that life (or at least success) is the result of our habits. The things we do regularly contribute to the person we are and the goals we achieve. That's why learning how to build good habits (and break bad habits) is an essential life skill that has wide-spread benefits. So let's talk more about habits.
The Meaning of Habits
What are the most beneficial habits? Well, it depends on who you ask. A lot of people have offered explanations of what habits are and how to build them. Rather than focus on any specific meaning of habits, I thought it would be more helpful to review the popular perspectives and create a complete guide to habits. This way, you can take what's most useful to you and leave the rest.
So let's get started with our complete guide to habits.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is perhaps one of the most popular self-help books of all time. In it, Covey suggests that there are 7 key habits that we should all strive to build. These habits are:
1. Be proactive
This habit involves taking action and initiative to improve your situation. Don't sit and wait for things to happen. Instead, seek to solve problems and make things happen.
2. Begin with the end in mind
This habit involves thinking before acting. More specially, think about what you want in the future—your long-term goals—so that you can effectively work towards this future. If you don't know where you want to go, then you'll have a hard time getting there.
3. First things first
This habit is all about focusing efforts on what is important. Often, we get caught up handling things that are urgent or unimportant, but Covey suggests strategies for how to ensure we stay focused on what really matters.
4. Think win-win
This habit is all about looking for mutually beneficial solutions and situations. This isn't really about being kind. It's about creating situations that are good for all because they are more likely to be effective and successful.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
This habit is about using empathy to better understand others. This creates an atmosphere of mutual caring and better problem-solving.
This habit involves combining the strengths of different people so that a team can be stronger than any one person could be alone.
7. Sharpen the saw (keep growing)
This habit is about work-life balance, energy, and health. We can not focus on our work or goals all the time. Self-renewal is essential for optimal functioning.
Another approach to habits is the 'atomic habit' approach. Atomic Habits was written by James Clear and published in 2018. It's been wildly successful so far. In the book, Clear focuses on some key strategies for how to build small habits. Here are his main tips for building a new habit:
Clear's perspective is that small habits are relatively easy to do, so we should start with something small then add to our habit just a little bit over time.
Here a few more helpful tips he offers:
Video: Overview of Atomic Habits
BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, is a well-known researcher and consultant on habit formation. Personally, I like BJ Fogg's approach to habits because he's studied habits a lot and tested out what works and what doesn't work.
One of Fogg's key insights is to attach a new habit to an existing habit. For example, if you want to build a habit to floss, then you can attach it to brushing your teeth. You can use this approach for anything by saying, After I do X, I'll do Y.
Another aspect of Fogg's approach is to make the habit tiny... I mean minuscule. For example, rather than saying you're going to meditate for 5 minutes, start with something like 1 deep breath. That way, you'll feel less internal push back when trying to execute the new habit.
Finally, Fogg suggests you physically celebrate when you execute your tiny habit. For example, you could pump your hands up into the air and say "Yes!" This helps your body feel good for doing your habit and can help make it more likely that you'll do it again in the future.
Habits of The Mind
Another perspective on habits is called habits of the mind. This perspective focuses less on our behavior and more on our intent. It's about taking smart actions when confronted with problems, confusion, or uncertainty. This requires we draw on mental resources. Basically, habits of the mind are what help us successfully engage in effective behaviors that lead to success over the long term (Costa & Kallick, 2009).
If we're interested in learning about habit building, it's probably because we want to either build good habits or stop bad habits. A good place to start can be to choose some healthy habits that are a good fit for us. Good-fitting habits might be something that we really care about or something that we currently struggle with and want to improve.
If you're looking to build some healthy habits, here are some examples.
Maybe we're not looking to build healthy habits but rather develop high-performance habits. These are habits that help us be more successful in our careers and work. The book, High Performance Habits, highlights a few of these habits.
Here is a longer list of habits that may be helpful for improving your performance at work:
All of these skills can be developed by practicing small habits. The goal is to break down these skills into smaller pieces and practice them daily. For example, if I want to improve my empathy, I could take the time to listen to someone and put myself in their shoes each day.
Other Good Habits
In addition to healthy habits and high-performance habits, there are some other good habits to develop—habits that can help us optimize our well-being. Here are some examples:
Once you've decided which habits you want to build, it can be helpful to track your habits. You can do this on a regular calendar or habit tracker. It can feel rewarding to cross off each day of successfully completing your new habit, and see those little Xs or marks add up over time.
You may also want to keep a habit journal. This may help you reflect on your goals, figure out what to prioritize, and track your progress. While we are building new habits that are not yet automatic, tracking them can be helpful to keep us focused and remind us what we planned to do.
Examples of good habits to track
Not sure which habits to track? Here are some ideas.
You can pretty much track anything. And it doesn't have to be a habit that you do every day. It could be something you do each week or month. Tracking habits can just keep you "on track".
What About Bad Habits?
We've talked a lot about good habits and how to develop these habits. But what about breaking bad habits? The good (and bad) thing about habits is that after repeatedly engaging in them, they become automatic. We then do them without thinking. We crave engaging in them because they are what we've always done. This is great for good habits, but it's also what makes it really hard to break bad habits.
I find it interesting that none of the popular books on habits focus much on how to break habits. Perhaps that is because it's a very different process. Learning how to break a habit like smoking, drinking, gambling, overeating, or overspending is likely more difficult than starting a new habit. It requires more than building new patterns of behavior—it requires understanding how your existing patterns of behavior benefit you.
Be careful of swapping one bad habit for another
Earlier, we discussed how we should reward ourselves for engaging in good habits because that makes our habits stronger. Well, part of the reason why bad habits are so strong is because they offer rewards too. Maybe smoking helps us calm down or drinking helps us feel more social. Buying ourselves a gift that we can't afford is fun. And binging on cookies or fatty foods tastes good. These things are all rewarding.
Many of the things you might have read about breaking bad habits will provide very practical tips. For example, you may want to:
But in my graduate research, I found that often when we quit one bad habit and we have no other way to get the benefit we were previously getting from that habit, then we'll just add back in another bad habit. For example, someone might quit drinking and start smoking. Another person might stop eating potato chips and start binging on cookies. Our habits serve important emotional functions. So if we don't replace bad habits with healthier ones that serve similar functions, we might just become bad-habit-swappers—or people who hop from one bad habit to the next looking for that "feeling" that comes from engaging in the habit.
How to Break Bad Habits
Bad habits are all about emotions. We engage in bad behaviors because they make us feel more positive emotions or less negative emotions. So one of the more effective strategies for breaking bad habits is to find a healthy habit that gives you a similar reward as the unhealthy habit.
I'm not talking about replacing your habit of eating an afternoon candy bar with eating a celery stick (that's not likely to give you the same level of enjoyment). Instead, try swapping your afternoon candy bar for something that feels really good to you.
For example, maybe instead of eating your afternoon candy bar, you go for a quick walk with a coworker. Or, if you're trying to cut down on drinking, take up another fun evening hobby that you'll enjoy just as much. You could take up dancing or join an improv group. The goal is to replace the bad habit with a good habit that you'll actually enjoy as much as the bad habit.
Explore the Support Structures for Your Habits
We all have different things that help and hurt our ability to build or break habits. Understanding these habit support structures can help us set up our lives in more effective ways. Ask yourself these questions to better understand what helps and hurts your ability to stick to habits:
Once you know the things that stand in your way and the things that help you, see if you can make changes in your life that help you create better support structures for the habits you want to build.
More Articles Related to Habits
Habits are the keys to reaching our goals. Here are some more articles to help you make sure you're setting the right goals and building the right habits.
More Books on Habits
Want some more guidance? Here are a few more books that may be helpful.
Habits are so important for helping us get what we want and live the life that we want to live. That's why learning about habits from those who have spent their lives studying habits can be helpful. Hopefully, you learned some useful tips and tricks from this guide.