Six Steps to Developing Constructive Habits

A habit is simply a set of actions that one takes when certain conditions occur.

In other words, when this happens, you do that.

Replace “this” with “specific conditions”, and “that” with “responsive set of actions”.

Some examples:

  • When I am hungry, I eat.
  • When I wake up, I check my phone.
  • When I am stressed, I go for a run.
  • When I can’t complete my work, I get angry.
  • When my child refused to eat his greens, I do nothing.
  • Whenever someone doesn’t show up on time, I think that person is not reliable.
  • When someone keeps her promise, I think highly of that person.

So, how can these examples help you and me?

They illustrate an important point.

Habits are not just actions. In fact, thoughts I think about and feelings that I have on a regular basis are also habits.

Hence, whenever specific conditions occur, how I think, feel, and act on a regular basis are all habits.

Destructive and constructive habits

It is also interesting to note that some of these habits are destructive; while others are constructive.

For example, people deal with stress in ways different from you and I.

Some may choose to go for a run; while others may smoke a cigarette. Some may start yelling at their subordinates, family members, children; while others may bring their family out for a nice meal.

The question is, how can you respond (your thoughts, feelings, actions—habits) in a way that is constructive?

How habits are formed

In his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg offered a three-part framework for habits: cue—routine—reward.

He argued that while the cue alone may cause someone to engage in a particular routine, in order for that routine to become a habit there must be a reward attached to it.

That made a lot of sense because for years, whenever I am stressed (cue), I would smoke a cigarette (action) and that would calm me down (reward).

As a result of that reward, I would continue to take the same action (smoking) over and over again until it becomes a routine, a habit, if you will.

The interesting thing to note was that the reward was not smoking. All I wanted was to be calmed. I mean, after all I am stressed right?

However, what I chose was not only a destructive and expensive habit; it also does not address my feeling stressed.

How to form constructive habits?

So how can we form constructive habits?

Based on the three-part framework, we must first identify the set of conditions (cue) that trigger the specific actions taken on a consistent basis (routine), which in turn bring about some form of rewards (reward).

Here’s what you need to do:

  • Step 1: What is a habit that you want to replace?
  • Step 2: What is the cue that trigger this habit?
  • Step 3: What is the reward or satisfaction associated with this habit?
  • Step 4: Brainstorm a list of actions you can take to achieve the same reward or satisfaction
  • Step 5: The next time the same cue occurs, take those replacement actions instead
  • Step 6: Repeat step 5 until the actions become a habit

Question: what constructive habit do you want to form?