Why Creating Positive Habits is the Real Secret to Success

“ Without effort, your talent is nothing more than your unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”

Angela Duckworth 

Why Creating Positive Habits is the Real Secret to Success

So what creates success? In this blog, I explore the real secret to success and I know it probably isn’t what you think it is! What goes through your head when you think of success, getting your goals, and what successful people do? What creates their success? A lot of people would think it's things like education, willpower, motivation, perhaps who you were born to, what city you live in, or maybe it's down to talent or natural skill?

However, as I explain in this blog, it isn't any of those. What success boils down to is awareness and creating POSITIVE HABITS!

Now, I know you're probably thinking, "that's boring", but the simple truth is positive habits equal success. In this blog we are going to look at why ingrained positive habits are the secret to success, what a habit is, how habits are formed, how they work, and how we can create positive habits.

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New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg life-changing book, The Power Of Habit

What is a Habit?

The Oxford English Dictionary describes a habit as “a thing that you do often and almost without thinking, especially something that is hard to stop doing”. Habits are an ingrained behaviour. Your brain loves routine, so it always tries to make a habit of something as quick as possible. Your brain likes that routine, because it makes your life easier.

As the New York Times business reporter and author Charles Duhigg explains in his book,  The Power Of Habit, "Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often."

Now, you've got to think back to the caveman days when there was lots of danger out there. The simpler you could make something, the better, because then you'd have the capacity to focus on other areas (like worrying whether that red berry you ate was poisonous, if the fire you have stoked was big enough, or whether that noise was a sabre-toothed tiger). The same is for modern day life; you can drive a car and hold a conversation because the act of driving has become so habitual for you.

In a nutshell, habits are great! They get a double thumbs up from your brain (if your brain had thumbs). Brains like habits.

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Researchers at the Massachusetts of Technology (MIT) discovered the "habit loop"

How Are Habits Formed

When Dr. Ann M. Graybiel, Professor of Neuroscience at Massachusetts of Technology (MIT), started working on habits in the 1990s, she uncovered clues about why good habits are so hard to make and bad habits are so hard to break. As anyone who has ever tried to quit drinking or lose weight knows, habits do not come and go easily. As the University explained in their article, MIT researcher sheds light on why habits are hard to make and break, learning a habit is different from other kinds of learning. Often, we are not even aware of developing a habit, and we develop it slowly over time. 

The MIT researchers discovered a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts:


The cue for a habit can be anything that triggers the habit. The smell from the coffee shop downstairs compels someone to get a frothy Cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles on it. The cue sends the brain into automatic processing mode. It often takes a lot of effort to resist the cue which is why we slip into the ‘routine’ of the cue so easily.

The Routine

A habit's routine is the most obvious element of the habit loop, it is the action or behaviour you follow and is the behaviour you wish to change (e.g. smoking or drinking less) or reinforce (e.g. sitting up straight instead of slouching).

The Reward

The reward is the reason the brain decides the previous steps are worth remembering for the future – the brain likes the outcome, so it provides positive reinforcement, making it more likely that you will produce that behaviour again in the future. The reward can be anything, from something tangible (e.g. eating half-a-packet of biscuits with your coffee) or something intangible (e.g. watching a half hour of television to avoid work.)


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My habit of exercise 4 times a week happens because I block out the time in my diary first

Ingrained Positive Habits are the Secret to Success

There's a brilliant writer and researcher called Angela Duckworth who wrote the ground-breaking book, “Grit”. In her book, she explains that sometimes success looks easy and when we look at some people that are successful, it doesn't even look like they're working hard. We're like, "huh, how are they doing that?!" So, then we come up with reasons, like "Oh, it's talent" or, "It's natural ability" or, "They were born like it" but it's not.

The fact is that it looks easier for them because they've ingrained so many positive habits that they don't even have to think about them anymore. What they are doing becomes automatic. They can do it without even thinking. They don't have to rely on willpower or motivation and that is what separates successful people reaching their goals from people not achieving theirs.

As Charles Duhigg explains in his book,  The Power Of Habit, "Habits are at the root of how we behave. We might not remember the experiences that create our habits, but once they are lodged within our brains, they influence how we act – often without our realization.” Are your daily actions the right habits to take you a step forward (closer?) to where you need to be? If your goal is to be healthy, then is your daily habit of a glass of Whiskey (or two) after work really doing you any good? Or if your goal is to get a promotion at work, what do you need to be doing daily in order to get in front of your bosses and get that attention and progress your career? What positive daily habits do you need to start applying?

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Ingrained positive habits will lead to success!

Creating Ingrained Good Habits

However, deep ingrained negative habits don't just go away. Instead, you need to replace them with positive ones. To do this you must be aware of both your good and bad habits. As Charles Duhigg writes in his book, The Power Of Habit, "In order to change any habits, we first must have awareness of them.”  

So how do you start diagnosing and then changing this behaviour? By figuring out the habit loop. Charles Duhigg suggests the following framework for reshaping bad habits.

First, you need to identify the routine. Most habits have a routine that's pretty easy to identify - it's the behaviour you wish to change. for example, I am a stress eater, so I like to eat chocolate when I am stressed.

Next, some less obvious questions: What’s the cue for this routine? Unfortunately, it can be difficult to identify the cues that trigger our habits, because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviours unfolds.

And what’s the reward? The chocolate itself? The excuse to eat a bar? The temporary distraction? Or the burst of energy that comes from that blast of sugar?

Once you’ve figured out your habit loop – you’ve identified the reward driving your behaviour, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself – you can begin to shift the behaviour. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue, and choosing a behaviour that delivers the reward you are craving. What you need is a plan.

The way to implement good habits is to switch out that routine and replace it with something that's going to be more beneficial for you. For example, now when I've had a stressful day, I find going to the gym is a better routine for me and I still get that reward and gratification at the end. So, it's all about switching out the routine.

Final Thoughts
So, there you have it! Positive habits are therefore key to success. The easier something is to do, the more likely we are to do it and the more successful we become. It's all about applying the Slight Edge and eventually those positive daily actions are going to add up to the big picture.

In my recent blog, 4 Easy Ways to Create Good Habits I share four easy ways to implement good habits have worked for me and my coaching clients. Whether your goals are health related or professional, personal or relationship focused, these will help. Remember, it's the simple little daily acts that will help you rather than big grand gestures.

Work towards your goals is easy, if you do it bit by bit using the compound-effect of the Law of the Slight Edge. In a nutshell, the Slight Edge is the law that everything adds up bit by bit. The actions we take will move us either towards our goals or away from them. Learn more about the Law of the Slight Edge in my ground-breaking article Using the Slight Edge to Achieve Your Goals.


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This article is written by Alice Dartnell, life and success coach of Alice Dartnell Limited. Alice empowers busy professionals to be successful, transform their lives and achieve more by improving their confidence, mindset and time management.

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