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How to Build Good Habits and Make Them Stick

by Michael Aliotti
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Updated on November 25, 2023

Editor's Note: Good study habits are key to effectively learning IT and earning certifications. We asked CBT Nuggets executive coach Michael Aliotti to share his advice for building strong habits that last. 

What if you could start building a good study habit — and know it would stick? Would you do the work necessary to make it happen? Since you're reading this, my guess is the answer to this question is 'yes.' Here are four helpful strategies to make sure your study habits stick. 

Note: If you've read Atomic Habits by James Clear or The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, you'll probably be familiar with some of the strategies and techniques covered here. If you haven't read either of these books, I highly recommend checking them out.

Strategy One: Make It Easy

When forming a habit, many of us fall into the trap of starting too big. We take on too much too soon, making it hard to stick with and overwhelming us. Simply put, if we aren't consistent, our habit isn't going to stick. So, how do we make sure it does? 

By making it so easy that it's impossible not to do.

Let's say you want to start running, but you've never been much of a runner. You might start by going for a 10 minute walk every day. This helps you eventually run regularly because you know you can do it consistently. You know that going for a 10-minute walk is so easy that there's no way you can miss — there's no excuse.

When it comes to forming a habit, consistency is the key. The easier a behavior is, the easier it is to repeat. The more times we repeat a behavior, the more ingrained it becomes. Once you've built up the habit of going for a 10-minute walk, you can turn it into a 10-minute run. Soon, 10 minutes becomes 20, 20 becomes 30, and so on.

So, the first strategy for building a good habit is to make it easy. Break it down into something so small that it's impossible not to do, then do it repeatedly (i.e., get in the repetitions), and build on the foundation of consistency to grow it further.

Strategy Two: Make It Intentional

Deciding which habits to form is easy — but most of us aren't great at setting habits intentionally. To be intentional about forming a habit, we need to know when and where we're going to do it — and, more importantly, why we're doing it in the first place.

Knowing when and where you're going to complete your habit action might look something like this: "I will run on weekdays at 4:00 p.m. on the trail near my house." This is what James Clear refers to as an implementation intention. This works because it leverages the two most common cues that trigger our existing habits: time and location. A study at the University of Bath found people who use this technique are 91% more likely to follow through just by stating what they intend to do and when and where they intend to do it. 

In addition to knowing when and where you're going to do your habit, it's important to know why you're doing it. No matter how ingrained your habit might be, there are going to be times when you don't feel like doing it. Having a strong statement of why can help carry you through. It might look like this: "I run because it makes me feel healthy and helps me sleep better at night." This is powerful because you won't always be motivated to take action. Remembering why helps shift your mindset from motivation to purpose.

As humans, we are great at convincing ourselves why we shouldn't do something. But by leveraging the second strategy of making our habits intentional — knowing when, where, and why — we're more likely to keep moving forward when adversity strikes.

Strategy Three: Make It Enjoyable

Behavior becomes a habit when we associate it with a reward for performing that behavior (it makes us feel good, we get enjoyment from it, etc). So, it stands to reason that behavior without a reward will not stick (at least, not for very long). In other words, if we aren't enjoying the behavior, it will be challenging to develop it into a habit.

To make your habit of running more enjoyable, you can reward yourself each time you complete a run. For example, you may enjoy watching a particular television series. Knowing that you get to watch your favorite TV show after you go for a run makes you more likely to get off the couch and run. It also increases your chances of going for a run again the next day and the day after that.

Why does this work? Because habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop. The hit of dopamine comes from our anticipation of getting a reward. We become more motivated to take action when we sense that we might get a reward. A reward can be anything we get enjoyment from. Even something as simple as checking a box for completing a task gives us a small hit of dopamine!

When building a good habit, it's important to make it enjoyable by having a reward for completing the behavior. Over time (and with consistency), the behavior itself becomes the reward. That's when the behavior becomes a habit.

Strategy Four: Make it Part of Your Identity

Most of us approach building a good habit based on the outcome we want and not on the type of person we want to be. While this approach is fine, it often falls short when making our habits stick. This is because true and enduring habit change comes from “changing” our sense of identity. Identity is arguably the most powerful way to build a habit that lasts.

Say you started running because you wanted to run a marathon. Imagine that you were consistent with your training for the months leading up to the event. You've built up the habit of running, right? But did you really? What is likely to happen after you finish the marathon? 

Will you keep running and training consistently? Odds are, probably not. There is a subtle yet significant difference between those who run because they want to run a marathon and those who run because they are a runner.

If our habits are based on the outcome, we'll constantly need to find a new goal to keep up the behavior. This makes it difficult to enjoy the habit we're building because our enjoyment comes from achieving the outcome rather than the habit itself. 

But if what we choose to do is based on our identity, the outcome no longer becomes the focus. Building our habits, honing our skills, and improving our technique moves to the forefront. Oddly enough, greater outcomes begin to emerge as a result.

When we use the fourth strategy of building a good habit by making it our identity, we engage a powerful force in making our habits stick. Who we are drives everything we do. So, to create lasting change, we need to ask ourselves who we want to be.

Little Things Add up to Big Things

The key to making these four techniques work is leveraging the power of incremental improvement. By taking our habits and making them easy, intentional, enjoyable, and part of who we are — and combining that with consistency, we will begin to see significant improvement.

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