How to build good work habits (and finally get rid of your bad ones)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

As Pulitzer Prize-winning author and philosopher Will Durant explains, good habits are the foundation of a meaningful life. Unfortunately for us, however, their very nature makes habits hard to control.

As the brain takes in more and more complex information, it looks for any repeatable tasks it can put on autopilot to free up mental energy. According to researchers at Duke University, up to 40% of our behaviors on any given day are driven by habit.

Which is fantastic if we’re doing the right things, but what happens if we’ve mistakenly programmed the wrong behaviors? (Which I’m sure most of us probably have).

Bad habits are rampant in our lives, from eating poorly, to spending too long on distracting websites or watching tv, to showing up to a job you hate. But with half our days spent on autopilot, it’s essential that we build healthy, good habits that make us more productive at work and improve all parts of our lives.

In this guide, we’ll go over exactly how to make those changes and promote better habits that improve all aspects of your life, from your health to your happiness and contentment at work.

How to build good work habits

Making your good habits stick

How to break bad habits

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How to build good work habits

work fist bump

Everyone loves a good rags-to-riches success story. We want to know about the scrappy young entrepreneur who came from nothing and built a billion-dollar empire or the dishevelled street scrapper who grew up to be a prizefighter.

But while these stories have a clear beginning and an exciting end, where they always fail is in the middle (where all the real work happens). To start building our personal success stories, we need to make sure that we’re doing the right things every single day to get us closer to our dream ending.

So, let’s start with the basics around how to build good habits into all aspects of your life.

The difference between habits and goals

“Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We’re proud of you for having them. But it’s possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that’s really frightening you—the shift in daily habits that would mean a re–invention of how you see yourself.”

We often think of goals and habits as part of the same beast. But as entrepreneur Seth Godin explains above, goals can actually get in the way of making that first step towards them.

When we’re obsessed with hitting a certain goal, it can be all too easy to fall into a desire to reach our destination—one that fools us into thinking the result is the prize. Instead, we need to switch our focus to our daily actions. Remove the emphasis on the end goal and start focusing and getting excited about the process.

It’s a small switch, but one that takes the pressure off hitting that audacious life goal, and puts it on something more manageable: your daily habits. As author James Clear says:

“It’s so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making better decisions on a daily basis.”

While goals are important for keeping us motivated and moving in the right direction, our life’s journey only happens if we repeatedly put one foot in front of the other, day after day.

The science of how habits work

Whether it’s reaching for a cigarette, how you communicate with your colleagues, or mindlessly opening your phone, there are behaviors we do on a daily basis that we’d like to change. Change comes from understanding, and luckily, while all of these habits are personal and different, they all follow the same mental framework.

When behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg started to research how we form habits, he discovered a chain reaction that make behaviors shift from a choice to a habit:

  • Reminder: The trigger than initiates the behavior
  • Routine: The behavior itself; the action you take
  • Reward: The benefit you gain from doing the behavior

Author Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explained it further, replacing the work ‘reminder’ with ‘cue’:

“A habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”

Habit Loop

Seems simple enough in theory, but how does a habit work in real life? Let’s start with one we’re most likely all guilt of.

  • Reminder: Your phone buzzes in your pocket, alerting you that some new notification or update is available.
  • Routine: You take your phone out of your pocket and look for where the notification came from. Email? Text? Tagged on Twitter or Instagram?
  • Reward: You find out what the notification was and satisfy your curiosity that was triggered when your phone buzzed.

And the result of these actions? If the reward is positive, it creates a positive feedback loop that tells your brain to do the same actions the next time it’s triggered by a buzz from your phone. Once you go through this loop a few times, you’ll stop thinking about it and will act automatically.

Habits are built on choice, but sustained through consistency.

How to start building new habits (and why it’s so hard)

If we know how habits are built, then we can start looking at how to build the ones we want in our life.

Building a habit that sticks is a long, tough road, but you can make it easier and give yourself a better chance of success if you approach it the right way. Simply saying ‘I’m going to do things this way from now on,’ is a surefire way to fast-track yourself to failure. Instead, we need to embrace the habit forming framework we learned above.

Here’s a few tips:

Start by scheduling your reminder: The cue that triggers your habit sometimes needs a little help getting started. It’s all well and good to say you’re going to eat healthier, but actually following through is another thing. There’s a few ways you can set up your scheduled reminder:

Actually schedule it: If you want to eat healthier snacks, set a daily timer for when you’re most likely to snack. This way you’ll both be building a new, good habit, while helping get rid of an unhealthy one.

Create ‘if-then’ statements: If your habit isn’t necessarily time-based, you can still schedule it by creating ‘if-then’ statements for your reminder. For example, you could say, “if it is lunchtime, then I will only eat vegetables and meat.”

Make your routine as easy to do as possible: Most new habits fail because we’re over ambitious in what we can achieve. However, the power of good habits is in their compounding ability. The more you keep them up, the bigger the return.

So, start small when you’re building a new habit. Instead of working out 5 times a week, which involves scheduling, travel, showering, and cleaning your gym clothes, start by doing 5 pushups or squats, or going for a 5-min walk around the block. As BJ Fogg said:

“To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.”

Eliminate all the other options: Until a habit becomes automatic it’s still a choice. Which means every time you try to engage it there are unlimited options of other things you can do. It’s lunchtime and you had a bad day? Just go grab a slice of pizza today instead of eating your healthy lunch. You deserve it!

When social psychologist Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues studied the effects of self-control, they found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant. So, when you’re trying to build a new, good habit, don’t even give yourself an alternate option.

Don’t want to eat unhealthy food? Don’t keep it in the house. Don’t want to go out for food? Pack your lunch every morning and leave your wallet in the car. The more you can make your routine not only the best option, but the only option, the more likely it will become automatic.

How to build good habits without getting overwhelmed

At this point it can seem like bringing new habits into your life is a monumental task. And it can be. As we said before, up to 40% of our daily activities are based on habits. So when you change your habits, you’re in all honesty changing your life.

While this might sound like some grand statement, it’s actually slightly freeing. No one expects you to change your life overnight. And one of the basics of building new habits is to build and grow them slowly over time.

In fact, we know that multitasking is a myth. So, if we’re trying to change our lives, build good habits, and get rid of our bad ones at the same time, we need to focus on one thing at a time.

Luckily, thanks to ‘keystone habits’ the small work we do to change one part of our life can have far-reaching benefits. A keystone habit is an action or behavior that sets off a chain reaction that encourage us to build other healthy habits without trying.

Here’s an example: For many people who want to be more healthy, they know they need to exercise, eat better, get more sleep, and be more productive at work to have time to hit the gym.

However, rather than building all of those habits individually, we can look at just exercising as a keystone habit. When we exercise, we’re more inclined to eat better, we fall asleep faster, and have more energy throughout the day. The one habit builds others simultaneously.

For others, it might be the simple act of making the bed, which has (somewhat strangely) been shown to correlate with higher productivity, more success at sticking to a budget, and even a greater sense of well-being.

Here’s how author Charles Duhigg describes the power of keystone habits:

“The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self image. Basically, anything can become a keystone habit if it has this power to make you see yourself in a different way.”

Making your good habits stick

Desk with Schedule

Starting down the path to building good habits is one thing. Keeping up with them until they become a part of your life is another.

I can’t even estimate the number of times I’ve dropped a new, good behavior after a few weeks and found myself back on the familiar path of not exercising, wasting time at work, or binging Netflix before bed. So how do we protect our newfound habits?

Let’s look at a few of the biggest issues that get in the way of keeping your habits going strong, and what you can do to make good habits stick.

Common mistakes that can break your good habits

Awareness is key to building good habits. And there are certain red flags you can look for if you feel yourself slipping or think your bad habits are creeping back into your life:

  • Focusing too much on the end goal: Best-selling author Seth Godin calls these ‘crash diets’—where we put all our energy on looking for the quickest route to our goal, rather than starting small and building our good habits. Instead, think about the actions you’re taking rather than where you’re going.
  • Taking on too much at once: Look at your to-do list. I’d wager there’s more there than you could do today, let alone in the next 2 days. When you’re building good habits, taking on too much gives you an easy excuse to put off the behaviors you’re trying to make routine.
  • Procrastinating before we even trigger our habit: The first step in building habits is to trigger them with a cue. But what if you can’t even get that far? Procrastination doesn’t only stop us from doing meaningful work, but can prevent us from working towards building our habits. For tips on overcoming procrastination, check out this article.
  • Creating a deadline, not a schedule: We already spoke about the difference between goals and habits, and this is very much the same. When you set a deadline for building your habits, you’re setting yourself up for failure and disappointment if you don’t hit it. Instead, commit to a schedule. If you want to be healthier, say you’ll exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you want to get more done at work, say you’ll write 1000 words every morning. The power is in the process.
  • Not being excited enough about the reward: Countless studies have shown that a trigger and a reward aren’t enough to build a new habit. To build one that lasts, your brain needs to start expecting and anticipating the reward. Make sure that whatever reward you’re getting—whether it’s the rush of endorphins from exercise, or the pride of publishing—you think about it regularly and build up excitement.

The power of motivation and willpower

At this point, you’re most likely starting to understand a few things about good habits. They’re extremely powerful and even life-changing, but not so easy to get going with. To make sure you’re making your good habits stick, we need to be aware of 2 contributing factors:

Willpower: Without willpower, our ability to make good decisions and therefore build good habits, goes out the window. Willpower is what makes sure you don’t procrastinate before triggering your routine and what ensures you don’t make excuses as to why you shouldn’t do it.

While there has recently been contradictory research into willpower and how it works, most studies agree our belief systems play a large role in it. If we believe we have the willpower to make the choices we want we’re more likely to feel mentally stronger.

Motivation: Along with willpower, how much motivation we have can also hinder our ability to maintain good habits. Motivation is a tricky beast and can feel like it comes and goes without warning. However, researchers have found a few ways to increase internal motivation. First, reflect on your performance and the pride you find in completing your good habits.

If this doesn’t work, try reminiscing about your past performance. Think about the last time you exercised or ate well. According to research, it doesn’t matter whether this is a positive memory or negative, the simple act of recalling can help boost motivation and keep you on track with your habits.  

Using reviews, feedback, and tools to track your progress

Habits by their very nature are consistent actions. To keep ourselves on track and move our habits from decision-based actions to automatic responses, we need to be able to keep track of our performance.

There are 3 main pieces that will help you keep your habits in check:

  • Feedback loops: These are quick and easy ways to track your actions and give you feedback on ways to improve them. This could mean having an app track your habit-building efforts or even just a friend or partner who checks in with you.
  • Weekly, and monthly reviews: Regular reviews are great ways to see if you’re keeping up with your habits. Here’s a list of what to include in both weekly and monthly reviews.
  • Tools to track your actions: Both of these practices involve self-awareness of how you’re spending your time. Which can be hard to track on your own. RescueTime is a hands-off approach to monitoring your digital activities that helps you build stronger habits.

How to get back on track when you slip up

How many times have you been good about following your new habits for 5–6 days and then something got in the way? Life is chaotic and we can’t always stick to our new goals. However, the worst thing we can do at this point is to simply stop.

Habit formation hinges on your ability to bounce back. And the best strategy isn’t just to avoid failure, but to plan for it.

Here are a few proven techniques for helping you get back on track if you slip up and miss your habits a few days in a row:

  • Find an accountability partner: Habits built in silence are easier to break. Instead, bring in a partner or a group and tell them to keep you accountable to your plan. You can even go so far as to set up a service like Beeminder that changes you if you skip your habit 2 days in a row.
  • Don’t fantasize about the end result: A variety of research has shown that excessive fantasizing about the results of your new habits can actually be detrimental to the stickiness of that habit. Instead, those who visualized doing the work (eating healthy, studying a language, working out at the gym) were more likely to stick with their habit.
  • Create a supportive environment: Our environment can make or break our habit-building efforts. If you find yourself prone to bad behaviors, get rid of them. For example, if you smoke whenever you drink and you want to stop, don’t go out drinking. If you watch TV in the afternoon instead of working, block Netflix on your laptop until 6pm.
  • Write your habits down on the calendar: Just like an accountability partner will help keep you on track, the act of writing down your habits and seeing them on your calendar can jumpstart them.  
  • If you can’t do your habit, just do something: Missing one of your routines isn’t terrible, it’s trying to come back when you fell off the wagon 6 weeks ago. That’s why it’s critical to stick to your schedule. And if you can’t? Just do something. If you want to build a habit of writing 1000 words but don’t have time today, write 500, or 200. If it’s a healthier lifestyle and you can’t make it to the gym, do some pushups or squats.

How to break bad habits

man on beach

With a solid understanding of how to build and maintain our new, good habits, let’s briefly talk about the other part of the equation: Getting rid of those pesky bad habits that just won’t go away.

Replacing bad habits with good ones

The modern world is built around capturing your attention, and app developers, entrepreneurs, and businesses of all kinds know how to make using their products one of your habits.

Which is why building new, good habits, is so hard. There’s no secret formula for instantly changing your habits, but now that we understand how they work, we can use that framework for our own benefit:

Step 1: Discover what sets off your bad habit

Start with the trigger. What is it that sets you off on the path to your bad habit?

Almost all habitual reminders fit into one of these categories:

  • Location
  • Time
  • Emotional state
  • Other people
  • Immediately preceding action

When The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg was trying to figure out the trigger for his bad habit of eating a cookie in the afternoon, he started tracking each of these factors the moment the craving hit.

After a few days, he noticed that while most factors changed daily, the time stayed pretty much consistent. With that information, you can start to counteract your bad habit before it even kicks in.

Step 2: Understand the craving your habit satisfies

In all of the examples of bad habits we’ve used so far—checking your phone, eating poorly, watching TV, etc—we’ve had a pretty clear idea what the reward was that our body was after. It could be a distraction, a hit of sugar, or just something conditioned by repeat use. But what happens when that reward isn’t clear?

It’s nearly impossible to quit a habit cold turkey, and so in order to get it out of your life, you need to replace the routine, but replicate the reward.

Start by experimenting with different rewards. Keeping with Duhigg’s cookie example, he knew his reward could be anything from the hit of sugar in the cookie, to satiating his overall hunger, to the social aspect of walking into the cafeteria to get it.

So he started experimenting with different rewards—eating an apple or a donut or just getting up and talking to a colleague. When he’d get back to his desk, he’d immediately write down the first 3 things that came to his mind and then set a timer for 15 minutes. When it went off, if he still felt the craving, then he knew the replacement reward wasn’t right.

For example, if he ate a donut instead of a cookie and still felt his craving, he knew it wasn’t the sugar that his mind wanted as a reward.

Step 3: Switch the routine with something more beneficial

With our trigger and reward mapped out, it’s time to replace the routine itself.

For Duhigg, he discovered that between 3–4pm, his mind craved a bit of social interaction, which had manifested itself in his cookie trips. Instead, he set a timer for 3:30 and got up and talked to a colleague. For you, it might be browsing social media as a distraction in the afternoon.

Try setting a timer and reading a book instead, or calling a friend. The key is to understand the reward you’re after and replace the routine with something healthier.

How to slowly eliminate bad habits from your life

For those bad habits you want to completely eliminate, we need to be more clear cut with what we will and won’t do. Author and entrepreneur James Clear suggests setting what he calls ‘Bright Lines Rules’.

These are our clearly defined rules or standards that we give little to no wiggle room on. For example, instead of saying we’ll check email less frequently, ask yourself:

  • What does it mean to check less frequently?
  • Is it only on specific days?
  • At specific times?
  • Is it on the weekend or not?
  • Will you use your phone or just your computer?

With those answers in place, we might make a rule that we ‘only check emails on weekdays between 10am–5pm on our laptop.’

Having a hard steadfast rule in place changes the decision from ‘I won’t’ to ‘I can’t’—a simple change, which researchers have found has a profound impact on our ability to stick to our choices.

Setting boundaries for your actions is the first step in controlling your decisions. Control your decisions and you control your habits.

Our lives are built on habits, so it’s in our best interest to make them as positive as possible. Give yourself time, check in regularly on how you’re doing, and slowly move from bad to good habits.

Because, as Durant continues from the quote at the beginning of this guide:

“as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.


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