How to make success automatic: the power of healthy habits

What if every time you drove a car it took the same amount of effort as your first time driving?

Our brains are unbelievably incredible tools. When we first try to learn something new it requires incredible effort from our prefrontal cortex, the “executive function” of our brain.

However, once we start repeating a procedure for a while – Maxwell Maltz discovered it took a minimum of 21 days – we outsource the repetitive task to the basal ganglia, a small mass located in our forebrain. This essentially frees up our prefrontal cortex to focus on tasks that are difficult or new.

This process can create healthy habits but it can also create addictions if we’re not careful.

However, since mental toughness, or Grit, makes a larger impact on success than either intelligence or talent1 it would be great to outsource tasks that need to be done, but we don’t want to do, to our basal whatchamajigger wouldn’t it?

Thankfully, it’s actually rather easy to do.


How habits are formed

To understand how to make success automatic, we have to understand how habits are formed. Our basal ganglia is rather… primitive. Think Pavlov’s dogs and you’ve got the basics.2 Habits are formed in three steps:

  1. Cue. What’s the scenario? Sitting down in the driver’s seat? Getting on the computer? Waking up? That’s the cue. It’s “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.”3
  2. Routine. This is the “what you do” part of a habit. For example, if your cue is triggered by waking up, the routine might be “hit snooze” or, if you’ve created a positive habit, it could be “jump out of bed, put on gym clothes, and brush teeth”.
  3. Reward. Somehow the routine must create a pleasurable moment for us. When it does, our brain wants to experience the reward again. It’s the pleasure that tells our brain a task is worth repeating. Stronger, more visceral rewards reduce the time it takes to create a strong desire for having the experience again and thereby creating a habit.


The power of healthy habits: Making success automatic

The first step is to remember, there must be a tight cue-routine-reward connection to create strong positive habits.

One of the reasons eating healthy is so difficult is the cue (I’m hungry), routine (eat quality food), and reward (lose weight) are highly disconnected – it just takes too long for a strong association to form.

If you’d like to “install” the healthy habit of eating well you could create the reward as feeling good about yourself for succeeding at this meal. Eg. preemptively tell yourself “when I eat healthy I will be very proud of myself for making such fantastic decisions.”

Some starting suggestions for healthy habits

Jumping out of bed. One of my more useful habits recently has been “when my alarm goes off I stretch, jump out of bed, get dressed in gym clothes, brush my teeth, and wash my face.” My reward was that I finished a few things that I didn’t enjoy doing while I was still too groggy to process that I was doing them.

Workout every weekday. I’ll admit, my cue is not strong here and writing this makes me realize I could have a stronger cue to make this easier. However my routine (I go to the gym) and reward (I’m more focused, energetic, and efficient at work) are strong. There are few things more beneficial than regular exercise – make going easy.


Making the initial push easier

Though this is better suited for a post in itself, one major trick I, and many others, have found is start small. Make it stupid easy to succeed in the early days.

For example, I wanted to work out 5 days a week but kept telling myself that it would take too much time. So I started with “if I get changed, get there, and stay for at least 5 minutes I’ll be proud of myself”.

Naturally, I never left at 5 minutes because it took me 15 minutes of driving to/from the gym! But it got the ball rolling and I’ve been regularly working out for 19 months and counting.


Create healthy habits to simplify life

To wrap things up, remember:

  • To create a habit you need a cue, a routine that you’d like to program, and a powerful reward that’s closely linked to your actions.
  • Decide that you’ll feel good about yourself when X happens.
  • Start stupidly simplistic at the beginning and allow yourself to feel good when you pass the low bar.
  • It takes time for healthy habits to form – as little as 21 days and potentially 9+ months. Just keep at it. You’ll know it’s habit when you feel sad if it doesn’t happen.

What habits would you like to cultivate? Let us know in the comments below!

Be driven.


PS. If you liked this post and feel there’s quality content, please like or tweet about it so that your friends can benefit as well. I’d also be thrilled to know what else you’d like to know: ignitethedrive [at] garrettdunham (dot) com.

  1. Duckworth, AL. “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” 2007.

    Link to study (PDF)

  2. Pavlov got dogs to associate “bell rings = food is coming” – thereby discovering classical conditioning. Here’s an overview of the experiment and classical conditioning.
  3. Said by Nathan Azrin during an interview with Charles Duhigg for The Power of Habit

About Garrett Dunham

Garrett Dunham is a Silicon Valley born-and-raised entrepreneur, keynote speaker, and startup advisor. His companies have been featured on the New York Times, NBC, TechCrunch, Fast Company, and Venture Beat, among others. He spends his days mentoring startups at Start-up Chile and Singularity University, building products, and blogging about entrepreneurial success and self optimization.

One thought on “How to make success automatic: the power of healthy habits

  1. I am working on trniyg to eat healthier by making smarter choices and planning. If you don’t plan then you have the fast food rest. knocking on your door. I also plan on preparing and eating fresh foods and stay away from the processed foods as much as possible. My son who watched Food Inc. even suggests we try and purchase our fruits and veggies from the farmer’s market and not the grocery store. I am also trniyg to incorporate working out at least 5 times a week. Whether it is bootcamp, running, biking or even walking the dog. If you throw exercise into your daily schedule, I think it helps you clear your mind and helps you eat healthier and feel better about yourself overall. You always feels better after a good work out and good healthy food. (I believe it gives you more energy). One last thing I am going to incoporate into my daily life is a positive and healthy mind set of the way I think.

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