Helping Learners Understand Spoken English

Habits: Change your habits, change your life

Habits are the key to implementing lasting behavior change. In a nutshell, that is what I learned in 2020.

in a nutshell: briefly, in a few words, concisely

We are creatures of habit. Advertisers and marketers know this well. They use their knowledge of psychology and habits to make dedicated and loyal consumers out of us. When it comes to habits, the saying familiarity breeds contempt does not apply.

creature of habit: someone who does the same thing at the same time in the same way

Defining Habits

My favorite definition of habit is by author James Clear.

“A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly – and, in many cases, automatically.”
~ James Clear

Whatever changes you’re trying to make or habits you’re trying to implement, learning and applying the principles of habit formation will bring you closer to your goals. It might be a habit related to improving your English, or it could be developing a regular exercise routine or decreasing your time on social media.

Whatever brings you here today, by the end, I hope you have some ideas for how to begin shaping your own habits to create the changes you’re looking for in your life.

We’ll begin with collocations, expressions, and synonyms related to habits. After that, we’ll look at the principles of habit formation, along with some examples.

Related post: What are collocations?

Words that collocate with ‘habit’


  • Last year, I acquired three new habits by implementing what I learned in Atomic Habits.
  • Adopting new habits is a lot easier when you understand how habits are created.
  • If you want to break a bad habit, you have to interrupt the habit loop.
  • To be successful, focus on developing one new habit at time.
  • Habits are often formed without awareness.
  • To make a habit stick, don’t miss two days in a row.


  • My most annoying habit is interrupting my wife when she’s reading.
  • Bad habits are changed by replacing them with good habits.
  • After experiencing a trauma, she developed a compulsive handwashing habit.
  • It’s never too late to develop healthy habits.
  • The dog has a horrible habit of peeing in new shoes.
  • Once a habit becomes ingrained, it is difficult to break.
  • The neighbor has an irritating habit of vacuuming at 2:00 AM.
  • The boy who sat in front of me in first grade had a nasty habit of picking his nose.
  • Sports players often have odd habits tied to superstitions.

One of my favorite resources for learning how expressions are used is YouGlish. YouGlish is an amazing free resource that gathers videos from YouTube based on the word you put into the search. You can fast forward through each example. It’s also a fun way to find videos related to a particular topic. The link above is related to the word habit. One of my favorite English YouTube teachers, Lucy, comes up a few times teaching various expressions. That was a fun find!

Habit Expressions

  • (by/from) force of habit: when we do something without thinking about it
  • get into the habit of doing something: develop the habit of doing something
  • kick a habit: to overcome an addiction to something
  • old habits die hard: It’s difficult to change our behaviors. It’s difficult to stop doing things we have been doing for a long time.

Habit Synonyms

There are many synonyms for habit. I won’t list them all here. Any online thesaurus will provide them. Here are what I consider to be the top 5 synonyms of habit:

practice, routine, tendency, way, custom

Of course, each word is used in its own way. Below, you’ll find some sample sentences. In almost every case, the word is preferred over habit in the context used. Using habit instead would not sound quite right, though of course the meaning would be clear.

I have a regular meditation practice.
My morning routine is to wake up and mediate, do yoga, and then write for 30 minutes while enjoying a cup of coffee.
I have a tendency to eat my first meal of the day in the early afternoon.
He has some peculiar ways.
(In this case, habits would work well too.)
The local custom in Korea is to ask people their age when you first meet them.

Habit Discussion

Much of what I’ve learned about habits and how to make and break them comes from the work of James Clear, who also credits those who have researched and written about habits before he did. You’re likely to find information here that feels familiar, but when it comes to habits, repetition is a good thing!

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
~ James Clear

A goal on its own isn’t very useful. It’s the actions we take towards achieving our goals that make the difference. Goals provide guidance. Systems get the job done.

Related post: SMART Goals for English Language Learners

drive home: emphasize, make something clearly and fully understood

Here is an excerpt from Atomic Habits that really drives home the importance of habits:

Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits….What you repeatedly do (i.e. what you spend time thinking about and doing each day) ultimately forms the person you are, the things you believe, and the personality that you portray.

Before working on my habits, I had a tendency to think about all the things I wanted to do, but I failed to act on a consistent basis. Once my new habits were in place, I didn’t need to think about the things I wanted to do. They became a part of my daily routine.

Are you ready to take charge of your habits and begin creating a daily routine that you can feel good about?

Principles of Habit Formation

Learning about habits has been a pastime of mine over the past couple of years. After reading several books, I decided to apply what I had learned. I’m happy to say that the results have been fruitful (beneficial).

In order to change our habits, it helps to know the Four Laws of Behavior Change, as explained by James Clear. These laws are tied to the four stages of habit:

cue, craving, response, reward

Using these principles, you can begin to shape your life, little by little, each day.

Small, sustainable changes make a big difference in the long run.

in the long run: after a long period of time, eventually

1. Make It Obvious

To create a good habit, the first law is to make the cue (a signal or reminder) obvious. For me, this means having a designated writing space, putting my yoga mat in the same place every day, and keeping my hiking clothes in a special spot. 

Creating cues is about creating an environment that makes the things you want to do obvious.

To break a bad habit, do the opposite: make it invisible. A good example of this is when we hide chocolate to keep from eating it. Out of sight, out of mind applies here.

2. Make It Attractive

– Photo by me

The second law is make it attractive. This is tied to craving (a strong desire for something). I applied this to my daily walks by bringing a piece of my favorite chocolate. I tuck the chocolate in my coat pocket before I leave the house. When I get to the highest point of my hike, I enjoy the chocolate as I listen to the birds chirp.

Like the first law, there is an opposite to break a bad habit: make it unattractive.

Related resource: A free lesson including audio and transcript with vocabulary by VOA (Voices of America) Learning English: How to Break Bad Habits

3. Make It Easy

The third law is make it easy. This is your tied to your response. Your response is the action that you take. I’ve made going for hikes easy by choosing an outfit and applying James Clear’s 2-Minute Rule: I put on my hiking clothes. Once I take that small step, getting out of the house becomes a piece of cake.

The opposite, as you can probably guess, is make it difficult. For me, this is similar to make it invisible. Putting my cell phone in another room when I sleep at night makes it more difficult to access. To break my bad sleep habits, this was the most effective change I made. I couldn’t just reach over and look at my phone at any time of the night. If this isn’t enough, you can also turn your phone off at a certain time.

4. Make It Satisfying

The fourth law is make it satisfying. This is the reward phase of the habit loop. Generally, this phase is met by your response because your response satisfies your craving.

The habits I’m creating are intrinsically rewarding. Simply doing them brings me satisfaction. For example, I love nature, so it is natural that going on a hike will be satisfying. The activity itself provides the reward.

The reward phase is why it can be difficult to break bad habits, such as checking your phone sixty times a day (speaking from experience). By making habits unsatisfying, you will be less likely to do them.

Ultimately, these laws work together. We make or break a habit by finding the right point in the loop to adjust.

“If a behavior is insufficient in any of the four stages, it will not become a habit. Eliminate the cue and your habit will never start. Reduce the craving and you won’t experience enough motivation to act. Make the behavior difficult and you won’t be able to do it. And if the reward fails to satisfy your desire, then you’ll have no reason to do it again in the future. Without the first three steps, a behavior will not occur. Without all four, a behavior will not be repeated.”
~ James Clear

Habit Stacking

Habit stacking is when you link a new habit to an existing habit. By doing this, you create cues instantly. For example, if you want to create a reading habit, you could create the following implementation intention:

After I brush my teeth, I will read on the couch for 10 minutes.

implementation intention: a plan you make about when and where you will enact a habit – this utilizes two of the most common habit cues, which are time and location.

You can find additional information and examples of habit stacking in this article by James Clear: Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones

Habits and Identity

I really like what James Clear says about identity and habits and how our behaviors reflect our identity. He gives the following examples:

The goal is not to read a book, the goal is to become a reader. The goal is not to run a marathon, the goal is to become a runner.

Thus, when it comes to your goals, figuring out the connection to your identity and who you want to become is key to unlocking your potential.

According to Clear, “Research has shown that once a person believes in a particular aspect of their identity, they are more likely to act in alignment with that belief.”

Whether you want to improve your English or get better sleep, learning about how to make and break habits can transform your life. Remember, in the words of James Clear, “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.”

Recommended Reading

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I was able to start implementing the techniques of habit formation after reading only the sample of Atomic Habits. Of course, I eventually bought and read the entire book.

Other books I’ve read and found helpful include:

Habit Development

If you’re as interested in habit development as I am, or if you would like to practice your English listening, check out this NPR podcast (with transcript).

You might also enjoy this TEDx Talk by Christine Carter.

There are endless online resources related to habits. This is just the beginning. If you are interested in James Clear’s work and the first chapter of Atomic Habits for free, here’s the link for that.

Never stop learning!


Carter, C. (2021, January 7). The 1-minute secret to forming a new habit. TED Talks.

Clear, J. (2018a). Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (Illustrated ed.). Avery.

Clear, J. (2018b, November 13). The 3 R’s of Habit Change: How To Start New Habits That Actually Stick. James Clear.

Clear, J. (2020a, February 4). Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones. James Clear.

Clear, J. (2020b, February 4). How to Break a Bad Habit (and Replace It With a Good One). James Clear.

Clear, J. (2021, January 6). Achieve Your Goals: The Simple Trick That Doubles Your Odds of Success. James Clear.

Fogg. (2020). Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything (Illustrated ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Habits Guide: How to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. (2020a, November 11). James Clear.

Habits Guide: How to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. (2020b, November 11). James Clear.

Robbins, M. (2017). The 5 Second Rule. Amsterdam University Press.

Rubin, G. (2015). Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life (Illustrated ed.). Crown.