All of us have new habits we’d like to form. Like exercising or reading or even (ahem) flossing. Yet, habit formation doesn’t come easy.
That’s because forming new habits require repetition under similar conditions. Most of us don’t take into account the necessity to trigger new habits the same way each time. We might, for example, try working out in the morning one day, then the afternoon another. After awhile, we give up altogether. The reasons our new habits don’t take hold is that we forget the importance of tying them to a cue.
As Charles Duhigg points out in his book, The Power of Habit (read my review) habits follow an “if this, then that” routine, composed of three primary elements: the cue (“if this” happens), the routine (“then that” happens), and finally, the reward for doing it. If we have a habit of snacking from the refrigerator, for instance, we might discover that we do that we often do that when we’re bored. In that case, our “if this” cue is boredom, and our “then that” routine is wandering into the kitchen and opening the refrigerator to snag our “reward.”
With some mindful effort, it’s not hard to spot the “if this” cues to our bad habits. But how do we develop good “if this” cues for a new habit?
Jeremy Dean, in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, has a helpful suggestion to identifying a cue that’s more likely to trigger a new habit. Add the new habit to those that are already entrenched. As he puts it:
“Think about how large portions of your day are habits linked together in chains. What you want to do is add a new link in the chain where there is an open slot. You are looking for a time when you’ve just finished one regular habit and you’re casting about for the next activity.”
The beauty of that approach is that it’s easier to identify when we finish a habit chain and start “casting about for the next activity.” Tying a new habit to our most consistent chains will increase the odds of success. For instance, if you regularly have a cup of coffee in the morning but your routine varies right after that, pick up a book to read (if reading is the new habit you want to start). Soon, you’ll automatically couple reading with that cup of coffee. To be even more strategic in habit formation, identify the habits you can create to support your most important goals. Then evaluate where you might add those new habits to the habit chains you already have.
Merely by accident, I’ve discovered that the most effective new habits I’ve formed over the last several years have been when I’ve linked them to old ones, as Dean suggests. After reading his book, I wrote down my morning and evening habit chains to see where I might add new habits to be make more progress toward my goals and have found that tip to be the most effective way for me to add or replace new habits.
One thing that didn’t make it on that list: flossing. There’s gotta be room for that somewhere.
A version of this post originally appeared on learygates.com.