(CNN)Most of us assume those hyper-achievers who are always able to squeeze in their workout, eat healthy foods, ace their exams and pick their kids up on time must have superhuman self-control. But science points to a different answer: What we mistake for willpower is often a hallmark of habit.
How to build a habit in 5 steps, according to science
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People with good habits rarely need to resist the temptation to laze on the couch, order greasy takeout, procrastinate on assignments, or watch one more viral video before dashing out the door. That's because autopilot takes over, eliminating temptation from the equation. Having established good habits, little to no willpower is required to choose wisely.
Sounds great, right? The only catch is that building good habits takes effort and insight. Thankfully, science offers both guidance on how to begin and strategies to lighten your lift. Here are a few research-backed steps sourced from my book, "How to Change," that can set you on the path from where you are to where you want to be.
The way you define the goal you hope to turn into a habit does matter. Goals like "meditate regularly" are too abstract, research has shown. You'll benefit from being more specific about what exactly you aim to do and how often.
Don't say "I'll meditate regularly." Say, "I'll meditate for 15 minutes each day."
Having a bite-size objective makes it less daunting to get started and easier to see your progress.
Now that you have established a specific goal, it's time to think about what will cue you to follow through. Scientists have proven that you'll make more progress toward your goal if you decide not just what you'll do, but when you'll be cued to do it, as well as where you'll do it and how you'll get there.
A plan like "I'll study Spanish for 30 minutes, five days a week" is OK. But a detailed, cue-based plan like "Every workday after my last meeting, I'll spend 30 minutes studying Spanish in my office" is much more likely to stick as a habit.
Making this kind of plan reduces the chances you'll forget to follow through because the when and where in your plan will serve as cues to action that jog your memory. Even better: Put your plan on your calendar so you'll get a digital reminder. An established, hyper-specific plan also forces you to anticipate and maneuver around obstacles and makes procrastination feel more sinful.
When we set out to build a new habit, most of us overestimate our willpower and set a course for the most efficient path to achieving our end goal. Say you hope to get fit by exercising regularly -- you'll likely look for a workout that can generate quick results like grinding it out on a treadmill. But research has shown you'll persist longer and ultimately achieve more if you instead focus on finding ways to make goal pursuit fun.
When it comes to exercise, this might mean going to Zumba classes with a friend or learning how to rock climb. If you're trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, it might mean swapping doughnut breakfasts for tasty smoothies, which can combine multiple servings of fruits and veggies in one delicious drink. Because you are far more likely to stick with something you enjoy and repetition is key to habit formation, making the experience positive is critical, but it's often overlooked.