How to Create Good Habits and Quit Bad Ones

Based on science, how I made reading a habit and 345-day streak at Duolingo

You’ve probably been asked a question before and your answer was

That’s what I’m used to

And that’s because there is already a habit formed, but what is a habit? And when to tell there is a habit involved? And how can you create a new habit and quit a bad one?
Before answering such questions, we need to know why a habit is important, and can anyone develop one?

The importance of a habit

Habits are important since if they are good, they can lift you and make you more productive while keeping modest because you’re doing small increments that you can’t even consider a big deal as it becomes a behavior you’re used to and your brain is programmed to do.

Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives.
~ Gretchen Rubin

And if these habits are bad, they can make you stumble and prevent you from achieving your goals. Bad habits are crucial to your health, mentality, and feelings and once you break them you’ll feel like a newborn.

So if you knew how to keep the good habits and create new ones you’d find that you’re developing yourself without even thinking about it however your life is normal and if you meet someone who has bad habits, they’ll feel a very large gap between them and you.

Habit components

An interesting experiment at MIT was conducted on a rat placed in a T-shaped maze and at one end there exists a piece of chocolate.


The rat starts to run when there is a click and the gate is open and meanders around until it gets the chocolate. This experiment is run multiple times. Once the rat hears the click, it runs much faster than the first time to get to the chocolate and eat it.

For the first few rounds, the neurons inside the rat’s brain have activity starting from the click going through the maze until reaching the chocolate.

But after several rounds, researchers notice a considerable low activity in the brain between the click and the chocolate — these two spikes at the beginning and the end of the maze determine the start and finish of a habit.

The brain spends a lot of effort at the beginning of a habit to start realizing there is a trigger that it understands to start a certain behavior. After the cue is triggered, the routine is established and you don’t need much brain activity because you trained enough to make it a routine.

The brain activity goes high again when it feels the dopamine is fulfilled and the pleasure of the habit is completed.


So habit consists of 3 factors: key 🔑, routine, and reward

1. Key: The cue from which you know that time of a habit has come and you can execute it.

2. Routine: The behavior itself ingrained in your brain specifically in basal ganglia — the part associated with habit learning.

3. Reward: The feeling that you get after the habit is done.

These 3 components form a habit loop starting with the cue until the behavior is done and then getting the reward.

Who can develop a habit

At the base of the forebrain exists basal ganglia; a group of subcortical nuclei associated with a variety of functions, including voluntary motor movements, emotions, and habitat learning.

Basal ganglia (red): Wiki

Scientific experiments have been done on patients who had Anterograde amnesia (which is a loss of the ability to create new memories after the event that caused amnesia). They can’t even remember the simplest details in their life but researchers have found that those patients have habits.

Larry Squire, a professor who had been studying the neuroanatomy of memory since the 1980s, went to Eugene — an anterograde amnesia patient who could only remember prior to 1960 (Everything after that year was erased from his memory). Squire asked Eugene, in his house, to draw the path to the kitchen on paper.

But Eugene couldn’t!

Surprisingly when Eugene felt hungry he went to the kitchen by himself to take snacks!

So someone like Eugene who had trouble recollecting recent events in his life and couldn’t remember his own grandchildren

can develop a habit!

How to build a new habit

A psychological study, done by BJ Fogg — a social scientist at Stanford, called the Behavior Model says if you want to become consistent and develop a daily habit you should do it after a habit you already have.

So you start with the simplest level that you’re able to do and be persistent in doing it for some days until you’re used to it. After your confidence level is increased, you can build upon it and start tuning in the ability axis and make it harder until you reach a level that you can do it on a daily basis.

I have applied the behavior model to reading and here is a story explaining it:

Forget Reading a Whole Book — Thoughts on the Behavior Model
How to develop the habit of reading and the secret in the 3rd component

This model allowed me to create a new habit of reading and now I’m reading at least half an hour a day!

What I did is that I said to myself I’d go ahead and read The Power of Habit (which is the book I’m motivated by to write this story) after I brush my teeth — before sleeping. Brushing teeth is a habit I already do every day so it became the cue. The new habit I wanted to create is reading books so I put that new habit after the old one and increased the amount I read day by day from 10 minutes to 20 minutes until, sometimes, I read without the need to check the clock.

The secret here is in the cue and it can be time, location, visual trigger, or anything. For example, making it to the 345th day on Duolingo:

Screenshot by Ezz

needs a cue which is when I see the clock is 11.30 PM or sometime after 11 PM I go ahead and open Duolingo because it’s Duolingo time and it has finally become a habit and in a few days it will complete a whole year. But don’t be misled by being consistent!

The Misleading Joy of Consistency
The Downside of Consistency in Duolingo

How to break a bad habit

To break a bad habit, you have to replace it with a good habit. To achieve that, it’s important to keep two components of the 3 that form the habit loop — you need to keep the cue and reward and replace the routine; This is known as the Golden Rule of Habit in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

You have to keep the key because this is the trigger to make the habit and it often exists so keep it as it is especially if you don’t have control over it.

The second component that you should keep is the reward and this is felt with expecting the influence of habit on you and the good result and feeling you get after finishing it.

The component you need to replace is the routine which is the behavior itself.

For example, if you smoke you’ll find the cue or the first thoughts that urge you to fill your brain with nicotine. Once you get that feeling, expect the mood that you’d feel when you finish the cigarette.

And then do a cup of coffee or any hot drink that can change your mood and get you the feeling that you thought it could be only due to smoking.

It might sound simple and trivial but it really is great and worth it when you train your brain on the other behavior and it surely takes time depending on you and how much effort you put to train your basal ganglia.

Final thoughts

Habits can be changed if we understand how they work especially if we focus on the hardest component of the habit loop which is the cue/trigger.

And it’s important to create new habits since they really form our lives and affect our health and mentality.

Habits can get you out of your own ego and you’d feel you don’t really seem to be doing something big although it could be.

This article is mainly motivated by The Power of Habit

Source: Amazon
Disclosure: The Amazon links for the book (in this section) are paid links so if you buy the book, I will have a small commission

This book really helped me realize how I can develop my habits and take them to the next level. It taught me many things about human behavior on why we do what we do in life and business.

It can truly shift your mindset into using habits as a great tool in your life to improve yourself for the better and even improve other lives through influencing them by a habit you crave that can be formed within their brains.

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Published on my new medium publication: Brainwave

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