Lucas Brenner » Articles » How to Improve Your Habits

The Structure of a Habit

A habit is made up of a reminder or trigger, the craving, the response, and the reward.[1] These four factors cause a habit to be burned into one's behavior. To take advantage of this effect, one must first understand the science behind the human psyche.

The reminder provides the trigger for the habit. Just about anything can be a habit reminder: the candy on the kitchen table, but also your running shoes. The key here is to make good habits as obvious as possible and remove the triggers of negative habits.

Cravings cause the brain to want to perform the habit. The brain expects an energy boost from candy; but it also knows it will feel satisfied after going for a run. Therefore, positive habits should be made as attractive as possible.

The response is the execution of the habit. It is the culmination of the first two phases. The simpler a habit is, the easier it is to execute. This does not mean that the task should be simple, but that the mental energy needed to start the task should be as low as possible.

The reward causes the brain to repeat the habit. If the brain receives an appropriate reward, it is likely to repeat the habit the next time. Rewards don't always have to be something sinful: feeling balanced and less stressed after exercise is also a reward.

There is a conflict between immediate and delayed rewards. Evolutionarily, our brain prefers immediate rewards. Sweets lead to an immediate sugar spike, whereas muscle training is not attractive in the short term. But delayed rewards are not only greater, they also ensure long-term health and productivity.

Below are some of the best techniques you can use to improve your habits.[2] Self-help seminars will not help with the changes.

Focus on the Process

If you have the goal to become more athletic and run five kilometers in a certain time, you will probably be disappointed if you are still far from your goal after the first three rounds of jogging. This is normal, but it doesn't have to mean that you should be demotivated! Big goals lead to motivation and hard work, but they can easily lead to giving up if you don't reach your goal as quickly as expected, too.

It helps to focus on the process itself instead of a specific goal. You should celebrate that you have run regularly over the last four weeks, even if you didn't beat your best time. Only those who perform a habit regularly will ultimately achieve their goal.

In doing so, focus on your weaknesses first instead of your strengths so you can make faster progress.

Changing Your Identity

Habits are based on your identity. Someone who identifies as an athlete is more likely to go for a run. On the other hand, those who see themselves as lazy will inadvertently give their subconscious the command to do less exercise.

To stay on track and maintain the new habit, change your identity first. The habits will follow.

Changing your identity creates the motivation to change your behaviour and it sends clear signals to your subconscious.

Good Habits Should Be Easy, Bad Habits Should Be Hard

As I mentioned above, simple habits are more likely to be performed than difficult ones, because the effort to overcome the initial resistance is much smaller.

By making bad habits more difficult, you make them less likely to be performed. If you don't have sweets in the house, you will snack less often. If you log out of your social media account, you have to log back in to use the service.

Use the 2-Minute Rule

The 2-minute rule states that a habit should last no longer than two minutes. This technique also simplifies your habits. Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to do it for longer.

If you promise yourself to exercise for only two minutes or read for only two minutes, you are reducing the amount of energy you need to do it. The resistance you have to overcome mentally to get started is significantly lower.

But the genius of this technique is that after two minutes, you're usually so absorbed by the task at hand that you want to keep going. And even if you only read for two minutes, that's better than not reading at all. But it's much more likely that the two minutes will turn into more.

Visualize Your Progress

Your own progress is the only parameter you should measure. Comparisons with the past self are always productive and instructive, while comparisons with the ideal future only trigger negative emotions.[3]

Visualizing your progress can help encourage these comparisons with the past and generate motivation. Making progress is more important than being perfect.

Visualizing progress is easy. You can print out a calendar and mark each day with a big X when you have accomplished the desired habit. There are also numerous apps like “Streaks” that help you with the visualization and add numerous metrics and analytics.

I personally use my journal to visualize my habits.

Alternatively, you can team up with a friend and develop the habit together. Having another person makes you feel more committed, and you also have more fun because of the social aspect.

If you want to take it a step further, you can also bet money or other things. This way, you avoid throwing away all your progress and giving up because of one bad day.

Link New Habits with Old Ones

It can be very helpful to link new habits with already established ones. That way, the reminder that triggers the habit is automatically there. The older habit acts as a support for the new routine.

If you combine this method with one of the other tips, it is even more effective. However, it is also important here not to commit to too much. The consequence of this overload could be the end of both habits.


[1] James Clear goes into detail about the science behind habits in his book, “Atomic Habits.”

[2] Graham Mann also covers habit formation in his e-book “71 Tips For Living A Better Life.”

[3] Dan Sullivan further elaborates on how exactly to measure progress and success in his e-book “The Gap And The Gain.”