The Secret to Self-Control – How to Build a Habit

Wondering what it takes to build self-discipline? Want to remove and replace the bad habits from your life? Want habits that build you up, rather than tear you down? Fortunately, the solution is very simple: habits!

This article is especially for you if you have find yourself stuck in a rut, feeling stuck in life, feeling like you are living life on autopilot, or if you simply want to change bad habits in your life.

Gaining control over your life starts with identifying your habits. Identify the habits you want to replace. (We cannot remove habits from our life, because doing so would literally mean removing neurons from our brain. Not exactly what we want to do!)

The solution is easy, though. When you understand how habits are formed, you can more easily replace your bad habits with ones that help you develop self-control.

Here is a visual image of how habits work.

Step 1: The Reward

Write down your answer to the following questions, that way you can easily remind yourself if you forget:

Why do I want to build this habit?

What is the great pleasure you will gain and the great pain you will avoid by building this habit?

Knowing why you are doing something is the greatest motivator of all. Let this be the reward that helps you with building this habit.

Step 2: The Cue

You must identify the cue of the habitual action you want to change.

There are five types of cues:

  1. Location (e.g., getting out of bed or stepping into your home)
  2. Time (e.g., as soon as you wake up, as soon as you finish work, or 11pm)
  3. Emotional state (e.g., anger, sadness, or fear)
  4. Other people
  5. The immediately preceding action or thought (e.g., getting out of bed, opening the curtains, or finishing your meal)

Be as specific as possible with the cue of your habit.

For example, “When I feel frustrated after someone interrupts me while I am working.”

Here is another example: “When I am feeling frustrated by someone who cut me off in traffic.”

Step 3: The Action

Write out the old habit. Here, you are identifying what it is that you want to stop doing.

For example, “I used to insult the driver, honk my horn, and flip him the bird.”

Now, define the new behavior. Pro tip: make sure it takes less than thirty seconds to complete.

For example, “I will remind myself that he is in a hurry and that I am grateful that I get to drive at a leisurely pace. I will then focus on my Here and Now: driving safely to where I need to go.”

Step 4: Deep Practice

This step is basically practicing your habits in small chunks, one step at a time.

If it is something that is outside of your control, like getting cut off in traffic, you can visualize it happening and visualize your response. Visualize the action, one piece at a time. To follow the example I gave, first visualize reminding yourself that he is in a hurry, then visualize gratitude, then visualize shifting your focus back to the present moment.

If it is something that is within your control, such as getting out of bed, you can just physically practice it, instead of visualizing.

Remember, repetition is the mother of skill. Practice makes perfect.

Pro tip: visualization counts as practice (it is just as effective, if not more effective than physical practice).

What helps to deeply ingrain this in your brain is to switch it up a bit during practice. You can do it slow, do it fast, and you can even do things that make you giggle, (e.g., a super deep voice, a funny accent, etc. If you are not having fun with this, you are doing it wrong).

Be mindful during your practice. Notice when it goes well and celebrate the successes, however small (e.g., “aw yeah bay-beh!”, fist-bumping yourself, laughing like Gru, and so on).

Step 5: Getting Back Up When You Fall

In the first couple of weeks of building a habit, it is normal and expected to slip up. It is completely normal to either repeat the old habit you are trying to replace, or simply forget the new habit you are trying to build.

Make it obvious and easy how you plan on getting back on track when you slip up.

To continue the example of getting cut off in traffic, if you insulted him as soon as it happened, you can simply say something like: “oops, I called him an asshole again, when he is probably just in a hurry. I am grateful that I get to drive as slowly as I want.”

Additional Tips for Success

Here are some tips that will help you with building habits:

  1. It usually takes anywhere from 21 to 90 days to build a new habit. The more positive the reward, and the more you practice (or visualize), the faster your habit will become automatic.
  2. Make the new habit as easy as possible to succeed with. Do not make the habit unnecessarily difficult. You will eventually find yourself burnt out and returning to your old ways if you do.
  3. Do not try to build more than two habits at a time. No matter how easy they might be, if you try to build too many habits at once, none of them will stick. I learned this the hard way.
  4. Ask someone to help hold you accountable (this is one way I help the people I coach the most). It is easy for us to let ourselves loosen up on the behaviors we are trying to build. One day skipped becomes two; before we know it, we are back to our old habits. Having someone else is not necessary, but it will make your life tremendously easier, especially when you have someone to celebrate your successes with you, and help you when you are stuck. Why not make life as easy as possible for your success and personal growth?

I go into greater depth about building habits and self-control in my book, realizing my Self in the psychiatric ward, which you can find here on Amazon.

Hope that helps!

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