Student going up the stairs
January 5, 2022
3 mins read

Baby steps to building better habits

It’s easy to forget that building good habits doesn’t happen overnight.

Just like it’s taken you about two 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!

Waking up just an hour earlier each day could result in 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

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes about the habit loop, which consists of 3 components that lie at the heart of any habit: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Understanding this habit loop can help you create new habits, or modify old ones: 

1. Cue

This is the trigger or signal that makes you take a certain action.

Cues can include the time of day, an emotional state, or a preceding action. For me, my morning alarm is the cue that triggers me to hit snooze (without even waking up or thinking about it).

2. Routine

This 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.

3. Reward

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, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. 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 of being the best version of you.

A student with calendars and schedules hanging on a wall behind

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 might just be amazed at how far you’ve come since day one.

And if and when you feel unmotivated, remember that long-term goal you’re working towards.