form good habits

6 Signs That You Have Developed A Good Habit

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.

  1. Exercise is a habit for me now (4-5x a week), so I can give specific examples
  2. 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”).

Conclusion

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!

Cheers,
Stephen Guise

  • http://www.caelanhuntress.com/ Caelan Huntress

    “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

    • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

      An excellent quote! Thanks for sharing it.

  • MrsZ

    I have achieved a great 3x per week workout routine that I have consistently attended over the last few years – is it a habit for me? No and I don’t think it ever will be! The reason I attend without fail – I have to book and pay for my daughter to go to crèche a week in advance so it is purely the commitment of it that makes me go. I still get out of bed every Friday morning and say to my husband “I’m tired I don’t want to go spinning this morning” despite the fact that I love spinning when I am there and love the health benefits that this regular exercise gives me! Any tips on taking this to the next level and making it a “habit” would be great x

    • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

      Habits are reward and resistance-based. In your case, it sounds like you love spinning class (reward), but you’re struggling with being tired (resistance) in the morning. Since the reward is already in place, I think you should try to decrease the resistance to bring it to a habit.

      Do you get up earlier for your spinning classes than on other days of the week? If so, it will be very difficult for it to become a habit. The less frequent something is, the less habit-potential there is.

      I think the habit you really want to have is getting up early enough on Fridays. Here’s what I’d suggest you try…

      1. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night. Without enough energy, everything becomes Mt. Everest.

      2. Waking up tired when you’re getting enough sleep could mean that your circadian rhythm is off. Try getting up the same time every morning. When I had success with my morning habit, I’d get up at 7:25 AM every day. Over time, it became easier and easier to get up, and I always felt good in the mornings.

      3. Work on making your Friday mornings as pleasant as possible. Lay out your clothes the night before. Prepare for breakfast ahead of time. Plan little rewards before you get to the gym, because that’s where you need the boost. Don’t underestimate the power of something “small” like laying out your clothes. This reinforces your expectation to go, which helps prevent the idea that you could opt-out if you’re extra tired.

      4. Exercise Thursday afternoon for better sleep Thursday night.

      5. Don’t view Friday mornings as a decision. Make it an expectation. It’s not, “I hope I can get up for spinning class tomorrow.” This thought sets you up for a difficult struggle in the morning. Decide firmly beforehand and don’t make it an option not to go. This reframing of the mind can do wonders!

      Each situation is different, but the concept is the same – increase reward and decrease resistance. That said, once a week means you’re NOT doing this six days for every one you do it. That makes it tougher for your brain to pick up on the pattern if you’re getting up at a different time on other days.

      I hope that helps.

      Cheers,
      Stephen

      • MrsZ

        Thanks Stephen they are great tips – my 3 year old gets me up at the crack of dawn every morning so I guess the key for me would be getting to bed earlier so I get enough sleep. Preparing in advance sounds like a good plan as thinking about it I think the rush to get the household up, breakfasted, dressed and out in time is a struggle in itself and that goes for other days in the week too!

        • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

          My pleasure Mrs. Z! Haha, that’s an effective alarm clock. :-)

          Ah, it sounds like the burden of preparing your household for the day is a resistance factor too. I would try to streamline that whole process to make it as pleasing as possible. If you did that and got some sleep, I bet you’d feel more in control and with more energy and excitement to start the day. Your whole morning routine could become a pleasing habit. I strongly recommend starting small though – choose one aspect of the routine to change first (sleep, dressing, breakfast). Trying to do it all at once rarely works because it’s tough to change even one thing.

          I’d love to hear how it goes! You can send me an email at http://deepexistence.com/contact/ if you wish. Good luck!

  • Santhosh Rao Mennani

    Nice article, first of this kind of artcile I ever seen about knowing new habit.

    • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

      Thank you Santhosh. :-)

  • Josh Emmanuel

    awesome! the power of habit is so incredibly strong.

    Love the idea of starting small. For the habits I have I started ridiculously small – 1 to 2 minutes per day on the habit. And slowly built up. Im still in the early stages, but in the pursuit of my life’s purpose. Im up to 2 and a half hours a day!

    Really good advice. This stuff is so powerful!

    • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

      That’s great Josh! I’ve heard so many examples of people starting small and finding success. Cheers!

  • Chatty Hattie Vanella

    I think this is fantastic advice! Go Brain and it’s amazingness!

    • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

      Thanks!

  • http://rpsmiles.com/category/latest-news Del Mar Dentist

    Awesome! Now I know that I haven’t developed good habits yet, thanks for this post! I will definitely do this from time to time. How about writing an article on how to break bad habits?

    • http://deepexistence.com Stephen Guise

      Actually, I’m writing a book on how to break bad habits. There’s a lot to say and a lot of research to cover. :-)