Seven Steps to Build Good Habits to Transform Your Life

by @deanyeong | Sign up to weekly newsletter here

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, is not an act, but a habit. – Aristotle

This is a powerful quote by one of the greatest Greek philosophers and scientists, and the ultimate truth. That’s the power of habits.

  • To lose weight: You need to workout regularly and have a healthy diet pattern.
  • To have a better relationship: You need to practice good communication with your spouse.
  • To make more money: You need to work hard, learn and expand yourself in term of skills and network.

Habits formation is a natural human behavior to reduce the workload of our brain, by removing the needs of making decisions constantly. If we need to make the decision for every single thing from how to breathe to what route to take to work, we will go crazy pretty soon.

Some habits form after we practice that particular behavior for a certain period of time, but most habits form without us noticing and out of our control. The question is – how to build good habits that help us to perform better and achieve more in life?

Step 1: Use Your Willpower Wisely

To make any behavior change, we need a certain level of willpower. Simply put, we need to constantly make decisions for something we’re not used to do or something we don’t like to do. That’s why we need willpower – to push ourselves forward. But willpower is like a muscle, it gets tired after time. That’s why we need to use our willpower wisely.

Why most people can’t stick to their workout plan after work? Because after a day of work, they are tired and so is their willpower. There is a reason why most people choose to sit on the couch and watch a TV show rather than hitting the gym. We prefer doing the easy things instead of what we need to do when our willpower is low.

Understand when is the peak time for your willpower. Usually, our willpower is at its peak in the morning after a good night rest, but it might be different from person to person. Besides, prioritize what’s important for you and do what matters the most first.

Step 2: Know Your Why

Before you start setting up a new habit, whether to start a new diet plan, hit the gym every morning, or stop procrastinating, you need to know why. Everything we do is directly related to our pleasure and pain, regardless if those are good or bad behaviors.

We want to be more confident and stand out in networking events, but we unconsciously become the quiet ones, standing at a corner talking only with those who we know well. That’s because subconsciously, we’re leaning toward the pleasure to feel safe and avoiding the pain of possible embarrassment.

To break through these barriers, we need to know why we’re doing something. Understand why you are keen to change, and make that why bigger than any excuse you might have.

Step 3: Identity Keystone Habits

Keystone habits are some habits that bring the biggest impact to your life because they will lead to more behavior changes and good habits to form. Everything in our life is connected. Every single action we take or decision we make is going to affect some part of our life directly or indirectly.

You might start off with one simple decision to smile more often every day, and then you find yourself feeling more positive and having a better communication with the people around you. And suddenly you start feeling more confident.

They lead to small wins, and small wins are a steady application of a small advantage. Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favors another small win. Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.

That’s the power of keystone habits – identify yours. It doesn’t have to be a big change. It can be a kind act to help a stranger a day or personal development action to read for 15 minutes every morning.

Step 4: Destroy The Kryptonite

After you have found your keystone habits, you need to destroy the kryptonite in your life. Observe your life and find out what habits are holding you back from achieving your goals.

Never underestimate tiny behaviors such as craving for dessert after dinner, or feeling pissed off by small matters. Negative behaviors work the same way like keystone habits, they are going to affect every part of your life directly or indirectly without you even noticing.

Besides, these habits that hold us back are going to wear us out at some point in time. How will you feel if you have been working out for 15 years but there have been no results? You’ll give up! But the problem might not be your workout routine; it might be a bad diet pattern you were simply not aware of.

Step 5: Understand The Trigger

Finally, we come down to the first part of building a good habit. Complete all the 4 steps above before you get to this, you should have a clearer goal and strong foundation to start by now.

When most people talk about building a habit, what they mean or think is simply squeezing in a new behavior into the existing pattern or schedule. Will that work? No. The truth is that every behavior has a trigger.

  • Brush your teeth (behavior) after you get out from the bed (trigger)
  • Smoke (behavior) after dinner
  • Get to work (behavior) every 9 am (trigger)
  • Feeling happy (behavior) when you see your lover (trigger)

Therefore, to build any habit (or break any habit), you need to understand your trigger. If the behavior is totally new for you, set up your trigger. You can set your workout routine after you get back from work or before that or say “I love you” to your husband every day before going to bed.

Step 6: Design A Reward Plan

After identifying and setting up the trigger for the new behavior, what we need to do is to design a reward plan. Again, the human brain automatically craves for pleasure. Having a reward plan will teach your brain to perceive the new behavior as an action to gain pleasure.

That will further complete the habit formation loop from trigger to routine to reward. So the next time when we see the trigger again, we will automatically get into the routine without much thinking.

One very important thing to remember is that to never set a counter-progressive reward. For example – Rewarding yourself to have 5 donuts after 2 days working out will never help you to lose weight.

Step 7: Focus on Progress

Finally, focus on progress. There are many people that will give you the advice to focus on your goal or your vision, but this doesn’t always work. Sometimes, our goals seem too big and impossible to reach.

And there will be times when things get rough, then our minds will focus on the negative (that’s how our brain works) and we will lose hope and give up on our goals.

A better solution is to focus on progress. If it’s possible, measure and record your progress with the right progress parameter, focus on making tiny improvement once at a time. When things get hard, you’ll notice how far you have come rather than how far you still have to go. Besides, we all knew tiny improvements are going to have a huge impact in the long run.

Achievement Takes Time

You can go through each step yourself or with someone else to make you even more accountable. Remember to give yourself enough time to justify the effectiveness of your new behavior. Most of the time, it’s not about the wrong way we take, it’s just that we give up too fast.


  1. This article was first published on Motivation Grid as 7 Steps to Build Good Habits & Excel in Life.
  2. I learned about the Habit Formation Loop from the book – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It’s one of the most recommended books to read about human behaviors and habit formation. The ideas and implications go beyond the individual level, it also gives practical techniques (and research-backed findings) on how to create organizational changes and social movements.

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