Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I love this quote. It is a reminder that success comes from doing the little things, consistently, over time. I’ve written before about 11 habits that cultivate excellence, but many people struggle to develop habits in the first place.
We Run On Habits
The truth is, we all have habits. Some are good for us and others aren’t. According to a study published in 2006, nearly 40% of our daily actions are a result of habit, not conscious choice. Whether we like it or not, our habits form a large chunk of our behavior, decisions, and performance.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains a habit as formula that our brains have learned to follow: “When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order get a REWARD.” Ideally, our brain develops these pattens to make life easier by putting certain behaviors on autopilot.
How I Became A Morning Person
I used to sleep in as long as I could. After hitting the snooze alarm two or three times, I forced myself to put my feet on the floor. Then I’d spin around like the Tasmanian Devil getting a shower, eating breakfast, and whirling out the door.
I wanted to do more, be more, accomplish more. I decided to become a morning person. My wife didn’t think it would last a week. It was going to be tough. But I did it – for a week. Then another week. More recent research says it can take 60 days to form a new habit. Now, five years later, I’m a morning person. I get up at 5 o’clock every weekday morning (with rare exceptions of course).
Understanding the Habit Loop
In my case, I needed to change a habit. Hitting the snooze button and dozing off was the old habit. Getting up for self-development was the new habit. Let’s explore 3 components of Duhigg’s habit loop to help you learn to establish a new habit and help you cultivate excellence.
There are three parts to every habit:
Going back to my early riser example, the alarm was my cue, hitting snooze was my routine, and the reward was the joy of rolling over for a few more z’s.
How to Create a New Habit
“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine,” according to John C. Maxwell.
What habit do you want to change? What habit do you want to develop? What habit have you tried and failed to start? Dissect the habit loop and finally make the change you want to see in your life.
As Stephen Covey taught us, we have to begin with the end in mind. What is the routine (read habit or behavior) you want to create?
Do you want to exercise more consistently? Do you want to skip dessert? Do you want to respond differently to your kids?
What do you want the new behavior to look like?
In The Power of Habit, Duhigg encourages us to experiment with rewards. Every habit has a reward, even if it is to avoid the pain of getting up off the couch to exercise. The reward is enjoying your favorite TV show or just relaxing instead of doing the hard things that lead to success.
To reinvent a habit, you’ll need to find a suitable reward. Rewards can be tricky. For example, do you struggle to get off the couch because you just hate running, because you need to elevate your blood sugar with a snack, or for some other reason?
Remember that we often trade short-term comfort for long-term success. It feels good in the moment but we regret it later.
For your new habit, experiment to find the reward that will work best for you. It may be tangible. Or it may be the personal satisfaction of knowing you’re getting better everyday.
Lastly, you need to identify the cue to kick off your new habit. It turns out that we’re wired for certain types of cues.
Use these 5 types of cues to set yourself up for success:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately Preceding Action
For example, I’m much more likely to exercise if my immediate preceding action is changing into my running clothes. And that is more likely if I’ve had a snack and bottle of water in the past hour. These cues can work for me or against me when it comes to getting my workout.
Together, an intentional cue and a compelling reward vastly increase your chances of executing your habit. Now put the habit loop to work for you day in and day out until it becomes automatic.
Leverage the Habit Loop
In order to cultivate excellence in sports, work, or life, you’ll need excellence building habits on your side. Legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi said, “You don’t win once in a while, you don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit.”
Leverage the habit loop to cultivate excellence in your chosen arena. What separates the good from the great is often consistency. Habits build consistency. Excellence is a habit.