Best 5 Tools and Strategies on How to Learn New Habits
Perhaps you are not a big fan of habit formation psychology, and just want some practical methods on how to develop good habits in life. Well, then this post if for you! Because it describes four down-to-earth tips on how to learn new habits, or break old ones.
However, if you still want some theory to go along with the practice, read “Under the Subconscious Control of Habits”.
My previous article is the flip side of the issue, and it lists several ways of breaking bad habitual patterns. You can check it out and find several Ways to Break Bad Habits. My suggestion is to read that one first, since often you will need to stop yourself from certain compulsions, before figuring out how to learn new habits.
We all have unique behavioral patterns. I always admired people who could perform better than me at certain things. Because of that, I was blind at their personal failings, at which I outperformed them.
Strategic Tools – How to Learn New Habits
I don’t know what self-sabotaging and damaging habits are holding you back. Maybe you want to stay focused, learn how to stick to something, or how to develop a habit of waking up early. Whatever your personal profile is, you need to master your habits or allow them to master you.
Mastery means knowing how to learn new habits, how to break the bad ones, and being able to readily use and apply that knowledge for your own behavioral optimization. In conclusion, you become powerful and successful, when you can change unproductive and negative aspects of yourself, and of whatever flaw you see in your being.
Here are some methodical strategies on how to learn new habits and behavior.
Strategy #1 – Use Keystone Habits
Each of us has a limited set of very fundamental, all-encompassing habits which touch and greatly influence every little part of our life. From eating to the way we work. If we improve one of these keystone habits, then we will see and feel the positive effects of everything we do.
A keystone habit is like a motor that drives and controls many aspects of your life, many smaller habits and tendencies. One change, that can drives and cascades many other changes.
Keystone habits are easy to identify. You must take an honest look at your life, as if you are meditating, listening, and patterns will start to emerge. By making a change in one of these, it cascades into a lot of different areas in your life.
How Keystones can Change your Life
My keystone habit was: I easily succumbed to temptations. This was all-encompassing, and it affected every part of my life. Whenever something fun and pleasurable presented itself to me, my will would sink and all instincts would take possession of me. As a result, I ate fast food, sweets, chocolate, I over-played computer gamer. Going to the gym was a constant battle, I was easily discouraged by outdoor activities, uncomfortable weather, cold, heat …
I would easily put away my self-development work, just to watch the next episode of my favorite TV series. My issue was that I easily yielded to temptations of all sorts, and it affected every area of my life, from health, physical appearance, to success.
Learning how to stick to something was a keystone habit I had to learn. Because after an honest reflection over how I conducted my work, I saw that I did not follow it through all the way to the end. In fact, I gave up on most of my projects, without reaching the intended goal, so giving up was a bad keystone.
One keystone root cause can be responsible for fifty different issues in our lives, which seem unrelated. When I addressed my relationship with temptations, I took back some control. Albeit, I still have a lot to learn before I can myself a true Zen master!
Before reading on about how to learn new habits, you should scan your life for keystone patterns. Who knows, maybe change one or two of them will change a hundred of small, daily habits! Here is another example of a keystone habit. Some time ago I wanted to buy a pedometer, a gadget that displays your daily step count, calories burned, heart rate and so on … So, I was researching the internet for some user reviews, and I read a post from this woman.
This is her story. She was overweight and decided to buy a pedometer. Usually, these come along with online platforms connecting multiple users, and they show off their results, compete and get prizes and fame. This kind of reward can be a powerful motivator to improve weight loss and performance.
So, this started well for her, she was using the pedometer, counting the number of steps daily, sending the results, and getting approval and support from the other users. She started dieting as well, keeping a calorie and food journal, and she stopped eating junk food.
Her weight went down, and the rewards and challenges became more and more appealing, as she became increasingly fit and successful. In fact, she started going to work by foot, and took several breaks for a stroll in the middle of the day, including climbing stairs up and down. Everything becomes about doing more steps and getting a bigger kick out of it!
As a matter of fact, the new routines started to interfere with her personal life. Her realizations came one night after her husband and daughter went to bed. She found herself alone, climbing the stairs up and down, 100 times to finish the challenge. Finally, she stopped and asked herself “Why am I doing this? Is it worth it?”
Using a pedometer was a keystone habit, which worked for her, and a whole range of smaller routines followed:
- Sticking to a diet.
- Giving up junk food.
- Watching the caloric intake.
- Keeping a food journal.
- Going to work by foot.
- Changing the schedule to include strolls.
I only gave this example to show how powerful keystones habits can be. They have life-altering consequences.
Meditate for ten minutes and ask yourself the following questions:
- What are my keystone habits?
- If I am honest with myself and listen, what do I notice emerging across my life?
- Which general patterns seem to come up again and again?
- What about if I look at how I conduct my usual daily business?
- Which new keystones habitual patterns do I want in my life?
- How to learn new habits and turn them into these powerful and pervasive keystones?
If you truly listen, meditate and reflect on your life, the keystone habits will show themselves. You will identify them because they are pervasive and omnipresent in almost every part of your life. Just like my succumbing to temptations, and giving up on unfinished projects.
Strategy #2 – Reward Yourself
Behavioral studies and habit formation psychology clearly say that rewards and punishments are the best way to learn, form and shape new behaviors.
Every time you do something and receive a desired reward accompanied by a small kick of pleasure, the behavior becomes stronger. You are more likely to repeat it. Every time you do something and receive an unpleasant punishment accompanied by a small kick of stress, the behavior becomes weaker. You are more likely to refrain from it.
Those are the basics of Operant Conditioning, a practical psychological approach to training animals, from rats to chimps, and even humans. The girl with the pedometer followed through on her routines because of the reward, social recognition, which creates a positive, addicting feeling.
Rewards are powerful in the habit formation process. For further reading on how to develop a habit with a scientific approach using rewards, I recommend my article on Behavioral Conditioning.
To achieve our goals, we need to be diligent and consistent in taking action, working and making all the necessary sacrifices. The way we make sure we do all of those, is by rewarding ourselves, occasionally.
The question of how to learn new habits becomes how to reward yourself properly, for the right decisions and actions.
- If you work diligently for 4 hours, do what you want the most the next hour.
- When you wake up early at 6 AM, without lingering in bed, eat a small piece of chocolate.
- If you follow a diet consistently for 6 days, have a cheat meal on the weekend.
- When you work hard and earn money, use 10% of the income buy something.
You can reward yourself on random and unforeseen occasions, which will make the effect even more powerful, contrary to expectations. The rewards can be anything, just consult yourself to make sure they are sufficiently enticing to forge your behavior.
Strategy #3 – Punish Yourself
This is a very effective method on how to learn habits, and more importantly, how to break bad ones.
Who would punish themselves for doing the things they like? Those who want to stop habits with negative trade-offs but can’t pull themselves together unless they are under external pressure … People who can’t stop smoking, overeating, drugs, gambling, speeding, oversleeping out of their own accord need external stimuli to help them stop. Like the threat of a disease, or social pressure.
Studies suggest that people respond better to punishment than to rewards.
Whenever you do something and punish yourself for it, your brains are likely to associate the behavior with pain and stress. If that happens, the behavior will weaken and you will refrain from it eventually.
Let’s provide an example of how to develop a habit of waking up early. You want to want up and be fully alert at 6 AM. The gradual approach is to incrementally set targets and punish yourself when you fall short:
- 1st target 9:45 AM.
- 2nd target 9:30 AM.
- 3rd target 9:15 AM.
- … intermediary steps …
- 24th target 6:00 AM.
If you fail to immediately get out of bed, when the alarm goes off at the target time, you receive a mild punitive correction. The punishment can be something uncomfortable, painful, that you really want to avoid like:
- Pouring cold water on yourself (over the sink, after you undress).
- Doing push-ups.
- Doing some discomforting posture exercise.
- Humiliating yourself in public.
- Anything that you would work hard to avoid.
The punishment method is so effective, there is a company called SticKK, which offers these kinds of services in helping you achieve your goals. You make an account, set a goal and a target date, and put some money in your account. The company watches over you to make sure you stick to your goals and achieve them fully, and then you get the money back. Otherwise, they donate it to some organization you really dislike (you choose this at the beginning).
To figure out how to learn new habits and break some bad ones, reflect on what makes you truly uncomfortable, disturbed, anxious, and how you can incorporate these into a punishment.
Tool #4 – The Point-Based System
People don’t know how to learn new habits, so they try to force themselves into change and development. However, that almost never works. So, I created a practical method which uses the scientifically proven reward and punishment application.
I call this new approach the Point-Based System. It goes like this:
- Open a new bank account, or set up a money jar.
- Decide on a fixed sum of money, which you consider to be an appropriate reward for building the new habit.
- Rewards yourself, whenever you successfully stick to the new behavior. Put the money into the jar.
- Punish yourself, whenever you fail to stick to the new behavior. Remove money from the jar.
- Continue until the behavior turns into a habit. It usually takes a month or two.
- If there is no more money in the jar, the method failed and you should reflect on what went wrong and why it did not work. Be honest and self-aware.
How much should the reward be? It depends on the complexity of the routine. If the occurrence of the behavior is rare, you can reward yourself with a higher amount of money. On the other hand, if you shall be doing it several times a day, perhaps the sum should be smaller It should motivate you but not bankrupt you!
When you succeed, use the money to buy something truly valuable to you (within the price), as a final reward for having successfully learned a new habit, which will last a lifetime.
My personal example. I needed a new computer, with better performance, which cost about 1200 dollars. So, I wanted to develop a habit of following through on my schedule, rather than procrastinating and putting off chores.
In the reward system I used, I receive points whenever I complete a task on my schedule.
The easy and trivial tasks get 1 point, the harder ones get 3 points. Going to the gym, applying an NLP technique on myself gets rewarded with 3 points. Achieving a longer and more complex task is 10 points. Long-term sub-goals bring in an even higher score.
In this system, one point equals 50 cents, so in about 4 months I could reach the buying price of a good laptop.
Failing to complete a task, putting it off or procrastinating means subtracting points, losing money and moving away from the possibility of owning a laptop. That is the punishment part, which is meant to bring anxiety and put you back on track.
I found this method helpful and it can be adapted to any new behavior, routine. Additionally, you can replace money with other rewards you find more suitable. Be creative with this.
In trying to find better ways how to learn new habits and behaviors, I creatively designed this method, and I will be giving you the worksheet for the Point System here.
For more information, you can check this article which explains more about the Point System.
Tool #5 – The Zapper
This approach implies inflicting mild, discomforting pain using weak electric shocks. It is a form of punishment or negative reward. You can use mild shocks as an incentive to cease a bad, unproductive habit, or to trigger yourself into acting out a new, improved and productive habit.
This worked well when I tried to shape the habit of following a diet. First, establish a diet plan, and more importantly what eating habits you need to refrain from:
- Dinner after 6 PM.
- Binge eating between meals.
- Drinking sweet juice.
- Eating chocolate, sweets, carbs and so on.
Administer a small local shock to yourself, whenever you start doing one of the prohibited behaviors.
Repeat until your mind begins to associate those behaviors with pain. When this happens, your subconscious will stop you from engaging in those things in the first place, breaking some old, self-sabotaging habits.
I used a modified electric lighter, which releases a mild static discharge when pressed. It was small, so I could carry it around with me. In searching ways how to learn new habits, I used my technical know-how to create new torture devices.
The pain should be light but discomforting so that your brain wants to avoid it … If the reward you get from the unwanted habit is high, the pain must be even more discomforting. Otherwise, the punishment will not outweigh the reward.
The best way to use this method is to replace the old reward with a new, more beneficial one, while you extinguish the old habit. If you shock yourself to give up potato chips, eat strawberries instead.
Don’t use high electric shocks! They will damage your skin and health. Also, make sure you healthy for this, and consult a physician. Because I don’t want to make myself liable for things out of my control. Rather, I explained what helped me and I took all the necessary precautions.
I used this method to break my old habit of procrastinating, putting off important and unpleasant tasks.
As a result, whenever I found myself procrastinating, I would zap myself. Usually, I’d get back to work after one or two zaps, a minute apart.
This system works impeccably if you have the self-discipline to keep zapping yourself whenever you find yourself indulging in some doing something you dislike. Because the brain will associate the zapping with the behavior and refrain from it, to avoid pain.
The problem is that you can easily fall into the trap of not being consistent in punishing every occurrence of the unwanted behavior, by making excuses like:
- I don’t have the zapper with me.
- It must always be at my side.
- It’s too much trouble.
- People are going to think it’s weird.
That is your brain fooling you to avoid pain. We have an incredible affinity for self-deception … A part of you wants to use the zapper, to break the bad habit. However, another part is making excuses to avoid pain and keep the habit, for the side benefits.
It feels like there are competing parts inside you, and each wants a different thing … They pull you in different directing, as they sabotage each other and you stagnate, never reaching your goal.
In figuring out how to learn new habits and breaking old ones, you will inevitably clash with values, criteria, and parts. Because internal struggle is such a destructive force in our lives, I dedicated several articles to this:
In trying your best to become the person you want, you will find which strategies work for you and which don’t. Alternatively, you will use your creative element to design new and improved ways to do things better, faster and reach your goals.
The more you study about self-development and NLP, the more possibilities shall you conceive about how to learn new habits, transform your character, and transcend your current state.
Please share your creative strategies, tips, and trick, in the comment section below.