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The Science behind Habits and How to Make Them Last

In our last lesson we talked about what could block your ability to create lasting, good habits and therefore stay less productive. Today, we're going to talk about why habits give you the ultimate freedom and how to build up your capacity to stick with them consistently.

Why Habits?

Almost everyone wants to develop better habits. Yet, most people won't do what it takes to make those habits a reality.

Many of us struggle with motivation, self-discipline, or a real direction in life. We may have a desire to achieve our goals. But we get distracted and lose all energy and desire and find ourselves back at the fridge or distracted among our emails.

Three years ago, you couldn't get me out of bed before 9 am. I felt aimless. That is until I started changing my habits.

It didn't happen overnight, but the change happened with consistent action. Then those actions compounded into bigger change.

Sometimes people avoid habits out of fear that they'll feel restricted. Many of my creative clients have come to me saying, "I know my habits are the reason I'm not getting things done, but I also feel like I can't be creative or free-spirited if I put systems in my life."

James Clear says, "Habits do not restrict freedom. They create it. In fact, the people who don't have their habits handled are often the ones with the least amount of freedom." Think about it...when your brain is too busy trying to figure out what to do next, you become a victim of your thoughts. When you haven't created habits that foster growth and creativity, your desire to lay on the couch wins every time. That isn't a deliberate choice. Instead, you're constantly living in a reactive state instead of a pro-active one. Then your energy gets so drained trying to catch the wave of every whim that you don't get much done. That isn't freedom.

James Clear also says that, "Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks." By having solid habits in place, you allow your brain to operate on a higher level by removing a lot of daily choices. Having to make choices everyday about what to do when you wake up or how to spend your time is draining. But when you have habits in place and systems, it's like having your own assistant who tells you what you have planned every morning and how to proceed with your important work.

It's time for you to think like you're the leader of your life.

Habits are so important because they define you as a person and where you're going in your future. They're the small actions your mind defaults to when faced with various situations.

You may have signed up for this class because of lack of motivation, self-discipline, or real direction in life.

Or you may find yourself not being able to fully commit to things you want to do.

Your current habits are most likely to blame.

How Habits Work?

There are two main reasons the brain develops habits.

Reason 1: Habits are efficient.

For every situation or emotion we encounter, the brain craves efficient responses. It wants to be able to predict the reaction we need to have at all times.

For example, when you see a stove turned on, that becomes a cue that tells your brain, "We'll get burned if we touch that."

And so, without question, you don't touch it.

Your brain has this reaction on speed dial based on past experience.

Habits serve a functional purpose in the brain. Our brain obsesses with optimizing and using as little energy as possible for every task we do.

In an article by Niklas Göke, he mentioned an interesting study from Charles Duhig's book The Power of Habits.

One where "rats [were] in a maze as they searched for a piece of chocolate. If the path remained the same for a week, their brains would show minimal activity while running towards the chocolate.

Mental effort spiked only at the beginning and end of the loop, which indicated a learning experience and reinforced the behavior."

AKA: When a behavior is new, the brain exerts extra energy.

When a behavior is familiar and learned, the brain uses hardly any energy.

Which can be a wonderful thing.

It's when we choose a bad habit as our go-to reaction to certain emotions or situations that we get in trouble.

Feeling anxiety?

Some people reach for junk food, others go for a run.

Feeling unloved?

Some people scroll Instagram for an hour, others play outside with their dog.

Either way, each of us has a habit we wish weren't connected to a certain emotional or situational trigger.

The good news is we can unlearn old habits and replace them with better ones. It's a matter of associating the same cue (emotional or situational trigger) to a new and better reward.

Reason 2: Your brain wants constant reward.

We form these habit loops where certain cues will trigger a craving. Then that craving inspires us to respond to ultimately give us the reward. Then the whole cycle starts again.

Our brains are constantly scanning the environment for ways to get rewards.

The beauty is we can create our own cues and get the rewards we want. It requires a lot of conscious awareness.

What's the best way to start changing this?


There are many studies that reveal how much humans have a need to act congruent to their internalized identities. When you hold a certain identity for yourself, it compels you in a way that "earns that image."

Ryan Holiday says, "…it is essential to my understanding of the kind of person I am that I am punctual. I also have DECIDED that I am the kind of person who does not miss deadlines. That I see myself as a writer is also valuable because if I'm not writing, I'm not earning that image."

Most of us won't consider something as part of our identity unless we're "earning that image."

I'm less likely to call myself a writer if I'm not writing often.

You're less likely to wake up early if you don't have a certain identity that calls for it. And notice how Holiday said he DECIDED he was a certain kind of person. You have the freedom to decide, too.

In Atomic Habits, there's an image of three circles within one another (like the Target logo) called the Three Layers of Behavior Change. Its purpose is to show how identity goes much deeper than setting a goal or outcome.

On the outermost circle is where your outcomes happen. The middle circle is where your processes happen. And the innermost is your identity.

This is like Simon Sinek's Golden Circle model, which caters more towards businesses but still has the same idea. He became famous for a similar diagram and Ted Talk about how companies who start at the core of WHY they're doing something makes the success of the outer circles more likely.

Changing your outcomes (the outermost ring) concern the results you want, like "losing weight, publishing a book," or starting a business. Clear says, "Most of the goals you set are associated with this level of change."

Changing your processes concerns "changing your habits and systems." Like "decluttering your desk for better workflow or developing a meditation practice. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level."

The deepest layer is changing your identity. At this level, you're "concerned with changing your beliefs." Like, as Clear says, "your worldview, your self-image, your judgments about yourself and others. Most of the beliefs, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level."

Most people focus on what they want to achieve, which leads to outcome-based habits. The outermost part of the circle. They don't have stickiness factor because they're not attached to a deeper meaning.

When we focus on who we want to become, that's when we create identity-based habits. These tend to have more lasting impact because the reason for having them goes much deeper.

For example, think of the difference between two people who are offered a cigarette and refuse it. One says, "No, thanks. I'm trying to quit," while the other says, "No thanks, I'm not a smoker."

The first person still identifies as a smoker. So, they're more likely to succumb because humans don't like to act incongruently to who they believe they are.

Whereas the person who said they weren't a smoker will most likely never touch a cigarette. To do so would be incongruent to their identity.

James Clear says, "It's hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behavior. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven't changed who you are."

What's the story you tell yourself?

What's the identity you've created for yourself?

Take a look at your actions and go beneath their surface to see what core beliefs you hold.

If you don't like what you see, then start to focus on who you do want to become. Allow your actions to align with that new vision.

James Clear writes,

"Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is [a sign] of the type of person you believe that you are - either consciously or nonconsciously. Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief."

The good news?

This isn't the type of situation where every single action has to be aligned with your identity in order for it to work. You just need a majority of your actions to line up with the person you want to become.

So if you mess up a few times and go back to an unproductive habit or a bad one, don't worry.

You only need the majority of your actions to vote for the person that you ultimately want to become.

Where Do You Start?

  1. Decide who you want to be. If you have trouble answering this question, think of the results you want. Whether it's to learn a new skill, to write a book, or have a certain amount of money. What kind of person would it take to accomplish those things? Work from there.
  2. Then take small steps that reinforce the desired identity. Which is what we'll talk more about in the next lesson.


You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. - James Clear, Atomic Habits.

This reminded me of a story about a grown elephant who was tied to a post with a tiny string yet didn't try to break free. It could easily do it, but the elephant chose to stay there because when it was young, the rope could hold it to the post. So, as The Unbounded Spirit says, "[When] they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free."

The elephant's system of beliefs didn't include the idea of freedom. So as an adult, those beliefs are what kept him bound to the post even when he was more than capable.


"We think the future is something that happens, rather than something we make." — Ryan Holiday

  1. Own the identity you want to have and create the systems and habits that match the identity.
  2. Until you change your underlying beliefs/ identity and focus on the systems in your life, nothing else you read about habits will have a lasting impact.

Ryan Holiday said it perfectly:

"We have to choose to make every moment a moment of alive time. We have to decide to be present. To make the most of whatever is in front of us."

In the next lesson, we're going to get into what habits you can create in order to get your energy right. Having good energy as a foundation sets you up for more focus and alignment, which breeds better productivity. These are great foundational practices to have no matter who you are or what kind of work you do. Are you ready to change your life? See you in the next lesson.

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Written by

Francesca Phillips