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November 21, 2018
3 mins read

Baby steps to building better habits

Every night, I set my alarm with the intention of getting up early. With the extra time, I plan to seize the day…but every morning, I run for the bus because I hit the snooze button 5 times.

It’s easy to forget that building good habits doesn’t happen overnight. Just like it’s taken you about 2 decades to grow into the amazing person you are, changing habits comes from taking baby steps and trying new things, bit by bit.

The big little things

Little actions we take daily make the biggest difference in the long run. A single good habit has the power to improve many parts of your life—even unexpectedly!

Just waking up an hour earlier each day could grow into a healthier sleep schedule, a higher level of productivity, the motivation to start exercising with your free time, and an overall better mood.

Or, the simple habit of reviewing class notes for a few minutes after lectures could save you hours of studying before exams, allow you to learn more efficiently during class, and get you closer to your academic goals.

When we asked UBC students, they said that having a routine is one of the top ways they stay happier and healthier.

The habit loop

Here’s a real process you can use to form habits, based on Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. It’s called The Habit Loop, and has 3 steps:


This is the trigger or signal that makes you take a certain action. For me, my morning alarm is the cue that triggers me to hit snooze (without even waking up or thinking about it).

Cues can include the time of day, an emotional state, or a preceding action.


Routine is the stage when your cue response becomes regular. If the cue happens consistently (like one or more times a day), and you react the same way each time, you’ve created a routine.


The reward is the incentive we get for the habit. This could be obvious (like snacking because your sweet tooth is calling), or subconscious (like sitting up straighter because you want to impress your crush).

When I hit snooze in the morning, my body is pulled by the reward of a few extra minutes of sleep (which, thanks to my soft bed, is almost irresistible).

With the cue, routine, and reward in place, a habit is formed.

How to build better habits

Identify your long-term goals

What are you trying to change or achieve? Is it better grades? Better control over your stress levels? The ability to travel the world at 30?

Keep this goal in mind while building new habits—and use it to push yourself whenever you feel unmotivated.

Identify small changes that can help you reach that goal

What baby steps can you take to achieve your goal? Is it spending 10 minutes preparing for class each day? Taking 5 minutes to meditate before you sleep?

Keep in mind that these should start off small; as time goes on, these habits will evolve.

Identify cues that would trigger this good habit

Train your mind to react the way you want it to when a certain cue occurs. It may feel unnatural or frustrating at first, but that’s the process of change.

Maybe you can walk past your favourite study spot during a long break to tell your brain that it’s time to study. Maybe you can lay your yoga mat by your bed, so you remember to use it. Or, even more bluntly, you can set a daily alarm with a reminder like “TIME TO EAT AN APPLE!”...and before you know it, you’ll be holding that fruit before the alarm goes off.

Identify or create rewards for yourself

Rewards can come in different forms, like...

“If I wake up at 7:00 am, I will:

  • Treat myself to a smoothie, or
  • Be able to go through all my emails, or
  • Feel more prepared for the day.”
Develop a SMART plan

SMART Goals might already sound familiar to you. This approach to developing a plan will help you stay on track and measure your results.

Combine your ideas into a plan that’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Paste this on your wall, make it your desktop wallpaper, or input it into Google Calendar, and...

Follow your plan!

Then you’ll be well on your way being the best version of you.

Staying on track

If you miss a day, or don’t follow your plan exactly, don’t feel discouraged! Plans are made to be revised as you discover what really works for you.

After all, miracles don’t happen overnight. You might not see results within the first few weeks, but a year later, you’d be amazed at how far you’ve come since day one.

Whenever you feel unmotivated, remember that long-term goal you’re working towards.