Good habits and goals: how to create and keep them.

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How to create good habits and goals

How to create good habits and goals

Every New Year, we want to make a change for the better.  We want to establish good habits because, well, they're good for us.  The healthy diet, a new exercise regime, saving money, or flossing more.  We are excited and stick to them at the beginning of January.  But by mid-February, most of those New Year's resolutions fail.  Why is it hard to keep good habits and goals?

What is a habit?

The Merriam Webster definition of a habit is:  "an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary."

The American Journal of Psychology defines it as:  "habit, from the standpoint of psychology, [as] a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience.  Old habits are hard to break and new habits are hard to form because the behavioural patterns which humans repeat become imprinted in neural pathways, but it is possible to form new habits through repetition."

Basal Ganglia

The basal ganglia is located deep within the brain in the upper part of the midbrain.

It is responsible for processing voluntary motor movements, procedural learning, eye movements, cognition, emotions and habit formation.

When a behavior and pattern is automatic, it becomes a habit.  Your brain no longer has to fire certain neurons to process the new information.

How to form good habits.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explained the framework of how habits work.  The problem is, there is no one formula for changing habits.  There are thousands.  This is because every person is different.  Each person has a particular habit they want to break.  Therefore, there are lots of different ways to approach them.

Researchers at MIT discovered a habit loop at the core of every habit.  They are a cue, a routine and a reward.


The first step is in identifying the routine.  This is the behavior you want to change.  Let's pretend that, in the late afternoon, you make a fresh pot of coffee at work because you feel tired and want to perk up.  This gives you a chance to take a break and chit chat with your friends.  But you know that you will regret it later on because you will have a hard time trying to sleep.  Yet you do it anyway.  Eventually, it becomes a routine.  The coffee routine in the afternoon is the behavior you want to change.


The next thing to identify in the loop is the reward.  A reward satisfies a craving.  In the coffee scenario, identify what it is that drives the craving.  Do you want to take a break because you are tired?  Are you bored and crave that social time with your friends?

Write down each craving that you think is associated with your reward.  This may take a few days of experimenting.  If you feel tired in the late afternoon at work, go out for a walk instead.  Sit back down at your desk and write your thoughts, feelings or the first 3 words that pop into your head.  The first 3 words can be, air, energy, trees.  Time yourself for 15 minutes.  If you still crave the coffee, try the next day to chit chat with your friends.  Write down your thoughts and time yourself.  If you no longer crave the caffeine and really just wanted the social time, then that was your reward.  That was what drove you to crave the coffee.


The cue is the thing that triggers the behavior.  Studies have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of 5 categories:



Emotional State

Other People

Immediately preceding action

So when you are looking for the cue, write down the 5 things as soon as the urge hits you:

Location:  (sitting at my desk)

Time:  (3:00 pm)

Emotional state:  (bored)

Who else is around:  (just me)

What action preceded the urge:  (just answered a call from a disgruntled customer)

Let's say you repeat this for the next few days and you notice a pattern.  The cue for the coffee is the urge for an energy boost each day at around 3 pm.


Now that you've identified your habit loop, you can begin to change your behavior.  Make a plan and stick to it.  Set an alarm for 3:00 pm.  When your alarm goes off, you get up and go chat with a friend for a few minutes instead of going for the coffee.  This may take a while to get used to.  Do not be frustrated if you don't stick to the plan everyday.  Just try again.  Eventually, you will keep repeating the new pattern until it becomes automatic and turns into a habit.

How long to form good habits?

A habit can take anywhere between a few weeks to a few months to become established.  Factors depend on several things.

  1.  If the learning process is easy, it will be relatively quick to form good habits.
  2. When it is difficult, it will take longer.
  3. If a person is motivated, the behavior is adapted quicker.
  4. When a person loses motivation, the habit will take longer to establish.

New settings can help break a habit

One way to break a habit it to go on vacation.  A new environment forces one to change a pattern.  This is a great way to start a new habit.

What are my habits?

Ask what purpose does it serve you?

Do you have recurring thoughts?

What is the root of the thought?

Start a gratitude journal.

Make goals.

Make a list of what you want.

Try mindfulness meditation.

Do not judge your thoughts and actions.  Be curious.  Say affirmation and then let go.  Trust in the process.

If you feel stuck, bring yourself to the present moment and be still.  It can get worse before it gets better.  But at least you are moving.  The best place to start is to be willing to release all fears that caused it.  Focus on the elevated emotion.  When negative thoughts come up, just be curious and don't react or judge.  If you hate the situation you are given, you believe you don't have enough and it will be true for you.

You can create your own experience.  You are not a victim.  A habit is learned.  It's a belief you have about yourself.  So are your experiences.  If old patterns come up say affirmations.  Affirmations are something you want that you don't yet possess.  They are stronger when your energy is high, you are in a calm and peaceful state.  It also helps to say them out loud.  Accept and then let go.

Make a plan to create good habits

  • Plan. Identify unhealthy patterns and triggers. Set realistic goals. Write down steps to help you achieve them.
  • Change your surroundings. Find ways to make healthier choices easy choices. Remove temptations. Work for changes in your community, like safe places to walk.
  • Ask for support. Find friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, or groups for support or ask people to join you.
  • Fill your time with healthy activities. Try exercise, a favorite hobby, or spending time with family and friends.
  • Track your progress. Record how things are going to help you stay focused and catch slip-ups.
  • Imagine the future. Think about future benefits to stay on track.
  • Reward yourself. Give yourself a healthy reward when you’ve achieved a small goal or milestone, like a massage or personal time.
  • Be patient. Improvement takes time, and setbacks happen. Focus on progress, not perfection.

Goal directed behavior

Goal directed behavior requires more cognitive effort.  It involves memory and complex decision making skills to achieve a desired outcome from different scenarios.  The behavior executed is the one predicted to deliver the most fruitful result.

Goal directed behavior allows for flexibility and little training.  It is useful for mapping out complex, long term plans.  Habitual behavior, on the other hand, is not as flexible and requires training.  But uses little effort once the desired outcome is achieved and automated.

Behaviors that are goal directed may be used to suppress habitual behaviors.  On the other hand, goal directed behaviors become habits once desired outcomes are experience time and again.  Also, the rate of favorable outcome determines which process (habit or goal directed) dominates in any given situation.

Importance of goals

A 2015 study done at the Dominican University on goals revealed the importance of writing them down.  The groups that wrote them down accomplished what they set out to do with more success than the group that did not.  Furthermore, the groups who showed more commitment and accountability to their goals were more likely to accomplish them than just writing them down.

One group with the highest success rate had 3 key factors.  They were asked to formulate action commitments, and send their goals, action commitments and weekly progress reports to a supportive friend.

To have the most success with your goals, you need to:

  1.  Write down your goals and action commitments
  2. Find a supportive friend to send them to
  3. Send the friend weekly progress reports

If you want your goals to be successful, write them down and create an action plan.  Find a friend who will support you and keep you accountable.  Then send them periodic updates on your progress.

How do I set up a goal?


You need to make goal setting more meaningful to you.  Simply writing them down is an important first step, but has its limits.  Studies have shown taking ownership of goals and rating satisfaction in different aspects of your life give the goals greater significance.

Ask yourself:

Why do I want to set these goals?

How will they make my life better?

What areas of my life will improve because of these goals? Use the following categories as a guide for setting up your goal.

  1. Personal
  2. Spiritual
  3. Financial
  4. Social
  5. Family
  6. Business

For each category, assess how you feel and write specifically what it is you want to accomplish within each one.

How will those specific areas of my life improve because of my goals?

What are my strengths?  Identify your set of skills or areas of aptitude in relation to your goal.  How will you apply them so you will succeed?

What action do I need to take in order to accomplish my goals?

Making your goals more meaningful will help you to stay on task rather than simply writing them down.  It will set you up for success because you see the values more clearly.  This keeps you primed and pumped to see it to the end.


Find someone you trust and know will support you in your goal.  It can be a loved one, a coach, or a trusted friend.  Update them periodically on your progress.  This will help to keep you accountable because someone is "looking over your shoulder."  The person you choose can also be your personal cheerleader.  They will celebrate your wins with you and keep you on track when your motivation is low.

Set a date

Set a finishing date for your goal.  Be realistic.  You know you may have bumps in the road.  So make a note of any possible setbacks.  This way, you won't feel so frustrated when you are working on them.  If you are working on a large project, break it up into smaller goals.

Celebrate small wins

Studies have proven the effect of celebrating small wins.  This is especially helpful when you have a project that takes a significant amount of time.  Break the project up into smaller, easily attainable goals.  When you finish one, celebrate.  The positive emotion you associate with finishing a task will carry you forward.


When you accomplish each goal, ask yourself these questions.

  1. Did I stay within my time frame?
  2. What were my roadblocks?
  3. How can I improve next time?


Life is unpredictable.  Do not be hard on yourself if you don't finish your goal by the date you set up.  Reassess and re-evaluate the steps you took before and then restart them.

Good habits take time to establish and become automatic.  But they can also be changed.  You first have to identify the cue, reward and routine.  Once you do this, you can create a plan to change it.  Goal directed behavior, on the other hand, requires more cognitive effort and is even necessary before you can create a habit.  Both of these cognitive and behavioral processes can be used to influence your life in many, positive ways.

Christine Songco is the creator of Third Bliss and is passionate about helping others thrive holistically by finding passion, meaning, and purpose in life. Christine has been featured in WebMD, Authority Magazine, Philips Lifeline, Owl Guru, and The Lifestyle Blogger UK.

1 Comment

  1. […] that are aligned with personal interest are linked to greater well-being. People are more likely to pursue goals […]


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