A Duke University study found that 45% of participants’ behavior was habitual, not intentional.
If this study is even a slightly accurate representation of human behavior, habits are an objectively vital part of life. I believe habit formation is one of the five greatest personal development strategies in existence. But there’s one question that is rarely asked or answered about good habits…
How do you know when a good behavior has become a good habit?
This is an important question because habits should be pursued one at a time for best results; only after you have made a behavior into a habit should you shift your focus to another desired behavior. In the following six signs of a good habit – which will answer this important question – I’m going to use habitual exercise as an example for two reasons.
- Exercise is a habit for me now (4-5x a week), so I can give specific examples
- Exercise is likely the most commonly desired good habit
If some of these apply and not others, it might mean you’re getting close, but you’re not quite there yet (persevere until it’s habit!). You might have a habit if…
1. It’s more natural to do it than not to do it (it’s default behavior)
Habits are your first instinct and your brain’s preferred behavior. If you find yourself doing your good behavior even when it isn’t planned, then that’s a good sign it’s a habit.
Example: It would feel strange if I didn’t go to the gym at least three times a week. I don’t have to track or plan my exercise, because it’s like brushing my teeth now. But there was a time when exercise was more of a special occasion. I would play video games if I had any free time, and to do something else was outside of this norm.
The Test: Has your behavior crossed the threshold of discomfort into comfortable and preferred? If so, it’s a habit. This is the primary definition of habit and perhaps best indicator, but if you’re not here yet, the signs that follow could indicate that you’re getting very close.
2. You don’t worry about doing it (it’s expected)
Worrying shows a lack of confidence in a positive outcome. So if you find yourself worrying about getting motivated to do any activity, it is not a habit yet.
Example: I used to want to go to the gym and exercise, but worry that when the time came, I’d not be in the mood or decide to do something else. Many times, my worries came true and I wouldn’t go. When I did go, I still wasn’t positive that I wouldn’t keep it up. Today, I don’t worry about going to the gym because I expect to go.
The Test: Are you sure you will carry out a behavior to the point that you don’t concern yourself with following through? That’s the sign of a habit.
3. It no longer feels like a great accomplishment (it’s normalized)
Established habits are not surprising anymore. Kobe Bryant does not dance every time he drains a three pointer in some rookie’s eye. He makes a face that says something like, “Boom. That’s right.” It’s normal for him to be the best player on the court.
Example: I remember a few years ago, struggling to motivate myself to work out, and feeling accomplished if I exercised for 20 minutes. The behavior was so contrary to my lazy ways, that it seemed very special to get myself to do it. Now? I go to the gym and work out for 45 minutes and it doesn’t feel like I’ve done something great – it just feels good to be in shape.
The Test: How do you feel when you do your positive behavior? Does it feel like a huge accomplishment or just one more step forward? If it’s habit, it will seem normal more than extraordinary.
4. It requires little to no willpower (it’s not driven by your prefrontal-cortex)
When you have to use willpower, you’re attempting to manually override a previous habit. It’s like telling your brain, “look, I know we’ve done it this way a thousand times and that’s been fun, but this new direction is better for us.” The brain acts stubbornly at first, and requires you to wrestle with it before it gives in, which tires out your pre-frontal cortex. But when you have a good habit established, your brain is already on board with the plan, your good behavior is automated, and you no longer have to fight to do it right! It’s really, really nice.
You can have all of the head knowledge in the world and still do all of the wrong things. Knowing something is not the same thing as “getting it,” which is fully understanding the cost-benefit ratio of an activity. Watching TV has the benefits of being relaxing, easy, and fun, but the cost is missing out on more fulfilling alternatives, suffering severe sedentary lifestyle consequences, and wasting time. The average American watches five hours of TV a day – how many Americans do you think really “get” the cost/benefit relationship of watching TV?
Example: I used to come up with the craziest tricks to get myself to exercise. I once devised a rather complicated point system, where I earned points by working out and could “buy” things with them. It was somewhat effective and fun, but you can see that I was still in the stage of wrestling with my brain. My tricks would only last a couple of weeks before I slacked off again.
The trick that finally made exercise a habit for me was The One Push-Up Challenge. It worked by setting the bar low and making exercise consistent. Today, my brain and I are on the same page. We go to the gym together, and he spots me on the bench press. Exercise doesn’t require much willpower for me because my brain finally “gets” the benefits and has been trained to enjoy exercise.
The Test: Do you have to get motivated to do your desired behavior? Does it require more effort than its physical and mental components would indicate? If so, it is not a habit yet.
5. Missing a day only happens for a really good reason (you don’t use excuses to justify inaction)
Life might make you miss days. For habits, it’s not a problem, because you’ll resume as soon as you can; you will even run over the obstacles in your way.
Example: I badly jammed my finger playing basketball recently, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t exercise for a couple days while it healed. In the past, this little injury would have been my “ticket to relax” because that’s exactly what I had trained myself to desire. But now I’m wired to be in the best shape of my life. I was back on the court shooting around before my finger was fully healed (I was careful and shot one-handed mostly). It wasn’t long after that that I was back in the weight room.
The Test: When something sets you back, do you feel any hint of relief? Are your excuses weak or irrefutable? When you have a habit, you only miss days if you must, and not a day extra. Remember, a habit is something your brain automatically wants to do, so you won’t find yourself trying to justify doing something else.
6. It’s fun
Habits are unfair, superhuman powers. They can make an initially challenging and uncomfortable behavior turn into an automated, enjoyable process. That’s magic. One reason why (good) habitual behavior becomes more enjoyable is because you get better at it. There’s also enjoyment that comes from making progress in key areas like writing, fitness, cleaning, cooking, and time management.
Example: Throughout most of my life, I could do about 4-7 pull-ups, and it was a big struggle, especially mentally. It’s like my muscles were individually lazy. Just recently, I was able to do 12 pull-ups in a row (the most ever for me), and it was pretty fun because my muscles were stronger and I was more comfortable exercising. When I see how I’ve progressed in the mirror, that helps me to appreciate exercise and enjoy the process even more.
The Test: Is your desired behavior still a chore in your eyes? If so, it’s not likely a habit. Of course, some habits will always be somewhat chore-like (such as…chores), but when something becomes habit, it probably means you’ve already started to see benefits from it, which can reframe the activity positively in your mind. And it’s true that when the mind gets comfortable doing something, it learns to enjoy it more (such as foods that have an “acquired taste”).
Good habits are tough to start. They’re built slowly over time, but once they are established and strengthened, they’ll prove to be a solid foundation for the rest of your life. There are very few pursuits as worthwhile as that! These six signs will help you to determine if you’ve been successful in establishing a habit or if you need to give it a little more time.
Note: please don’t do something for 30 days and assume it’s habit – that is a faddish, unscientific number that people throw around recklessly. Most studies have shown that most habits take longer to form (for example, 66 days according to this study), and it also varies with each person. That’s why I made this list of indicators to give you an idea of what a habit looks and feels like.
If you want to know why habits are essential for reaching your goals and dreams (with tips on how to form habits), see my article called The Clear Path To Success – A Vision With Supportive Habits. And if you want to learn how habits, focusing, and small steps all relate and can change your life, you would enjoy subscribing to my blog, Deep Existence. I write a Tuesday newsletter on focusing and give new subscribers a set of 40 focus wallpapers as well as my well-liked eBook, Stress Management Redefined. If you’re interested, sign up here. We’d love to have you focus with us!