You may have heard of the phrase “you are what you eat” – but have you heard that who you are is determined by what you repeatedly do? Your habits make up who you are – your success, happiness, and more. In fact, about 40% of our daily lives are the result of habits. This idea might seem scary – you spend almost half of your day on autopilot, doing the same things. However, if you understand the science of forming habits, you can also use this knowledge to greatly improve your life. Plus, habits allow you to focus your limited energy on the things that matter most. Habits will carry you through everything else.
Habits are simply the activities you do each day, typically in the same location or situation, without much thought. The process of forming these habits has been studied for many years by psychology researchers, who developed the 3 R’s. In recent years, this framework has been popularized by James Clear, author of New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits.
Any habit you have comes down to the 3 R’s:
- Reminder – What initiates the action?
- Routine – The behavior or action itself.
- Reward – The benefit of the action.
This is the scientifically proven anatomy of any new or existing habit, whether good or bad. You can use this framework to your advantage when breaking old habits or forming new ones.
Here’s how to apply the 3 R’s when getting rid of old habits or creating new ones.
If you’re replacing an old habit with a new one, figure out what’s triggering the bad habit. For example, if you always stop for late-night fast food after a late work shift, look for what factors remind you to do it. Is your stomach growling when you get in the car? Does your route home go directly by your favorite drive-thru? By targeting these reminders, you can figure out ways to avoid them. Perhaps your new habit is to pack a healthier snack for the car ride or take a different route to take home.
On the flipside, creating new habits also depends on reminders – things that you already do. You can figure out what actions could trigger new habits by making a list of your daily activities. Include everything from making the bed to walking the dog. Then, tie the habit to the current activity. For example, after I brush my teeth, I will work out.
It’s important that you set a sustainable goal or routine. It’s tempting to start off with a massive goal and say you’ll work out six times per week for two hours at a time. If you start a new habit with a huge goal, it can actually be demotivating. Instead, set small habits that are attainable.
Going back to our example, after you brush your teeth, you commit to doing just 10 minutes of an at-home workout video. This way, the new routine is so easy that you simply can’t say no. Over time you can ramp up the habit to meet those bigger goals. First, you must ensure that it’s an activity you can repeat over and over.
Each time you perform your new habit, you must celebrate it. This is because we only want to do things that make us feel good. New habits don’t always feel good, so the celebration or reward must keep us coming back.
As time goes on, working out will likely feel good, but when you first start out it might be uncomfortable. Take time to celebrate the fact that you did it – tell yourself that you did a good job. Acknowledge your progress. It is this celebration that will keep you returning to the habit. It’s important to note that rewards shouldn’t detract from the progress you’ve made. Choose healthy celebrations, perhaps like buying yourself a new workout top, to celebrate.
Ultimately, forming habits is a simple formula – reminder, routine, and reward. When you break down large life goals into habits, and then break those habits down into the 3 R’s, you’ll find that you can succeed at anything.