The science of high performance seems almost too good to be true. If you want to unlock your best, MIT researchers suggest you’re just 3 steps away from conquering any habit and achieving your goals.

The catch? It might sound cliche, but you must trust the process. The first step is the most important to master, but — if you follow the plan — you’re truly in control of building habits that can unlock almost any goal.

And yet, despite this knowledge, most people settle for quick fixes or yearly resolutions that — more often than not — leave you short of your desired expectations. That triggers a familiar cycle of frustration, experimentation, and more questions than answers.

Instead of falling for the same trap, it’s worth taking a closer look at the 3 steps of habit change, and — in particular — the first domino that puts you in the fast lane of success.

The Flaw of Long-Term Goals

While setting goals is a good thing, researchers from Harvard and Northwestern have found — repeatedly — that if you’re only setting goals, you’re likely setting yourself up for failure. That’s because the act of declaring that you’re going to make a change is in direct conflict with how your brain adjusts to change. And Harvard Business Review goes as far as to state, “In many situations, the damaging effects of goal setting outweigh its benefits.”

But, this isn’t a detour away from goals. It’s a reminder that if you want to level up, you need a little more support to achieve success.

The key is forming habits, but, as they say, the devil is in the details. And that leads us back to the MIT researchers. They found that if you want to create a new habit, you must master what’s called “the habit loop.”

The 3 parts of a habit loop are:

  1. The cue
  2. The routine
  3. A reward

The first two parts (cues and routines) are the foundation of rituals, which are the “secret” used by many of the world’s top performers — from athletes and entrepreneurs — to create bulletproof habits and break bad patterns.

The reward aspect will be more determined on an individual basis. Ideally, according to Iowa State researchers, you’ll experience an intrinsic reward — or anything that has high personal value to you. External (or extrinsic) rewards work too, such as buying yourself a gift or crossing something off a checklist — but they might take a  little longer to stick.

As for creating the ritual, that’s where the magic occurs. In order to make sure your rituals are designed for success, you want to make sure they are simple, doable, and sustainable.

Better Health Habits: Pick a Cue

Cues are the first domino in the ritual sequence. It’s an event that triggers the behaviors that follow. The most common type of cue is time. If you set an alarm every morning, that can serve as a cue for any following behavior. The same goes for any type of cue at night (most people don’t set alarms for when to begin a nighttime routine, but that’s an easy way to prompt action). You can also use a day in the week as a cue, such as planning behaviors on certain days of the week.

But, time in the day isn’t the only cue. Location and emotion can also serve as cues. When you take a walk to a location, enter a particular room, open a drawer, or sit down a particular position — all of these can serve as cues.

A common cue for working out is packing up workout clothes, sometimes as far before your workout as the night before.

How to Set a Better Health Routine

The funny thing about habits is that they don’t disappear.

According, to Charles Duhig, the author of The Power of Habit, you don’t get rid of bad habits. And when you think about it, the reason makes a lot of sense and easily explains why you return to old patterns.

If every habit is set up by a cue and followed by a reward, technically, all you need to do is substitute the behavior in between to replace the habit. If you just create new cues and rewards, then any time the old cue appears, you’re likely to repeat the undesirable habit.

Once you recognize that rituals follow a formula, almost any ritual can be created as long as you identify the trigger, make sure there’s a reward, and then build a very specific plan for your routine.

So, how do you create a routine? Make sure your actions are very simple and detailed.

Let’s say you want to go to the gym first thing in the morning.

According to research, you’re more likely to stick to your rituals when:

  1. You increase awareness of your behavior
  2. You take an action that increases commitment
  3. You create additional accountability

To cross off all three, you can set 3 calendar reminders on your phone. This includes:

Reminder #1 (60 minutes prior, awareness): This could be your wakeup alarm and serves as a reminder of the commitment.

Reminder #2 (30 minutes prior, action): A secondary cue that includes you doing something. This could be getting dressed in workout clothes or taking Ladder Pre-Workout. The idea is that your action reaffirms what you’re about to do, but is basic and doesn’t have any barriers

Reminder #3 (time to head to the gym, accountability): If possible, remind yourself why you’re going. It can be as simple as including a note of your reward of what’s to follow.

Making Health Habits Work: Don't Forget the Reward

Although it’s highly personalized, don’t forget to include some type of reward after you complete your ritual. The reward serves two important functions: 1) it satisfies the craving that is driving your ritual behavior and 2) it reminds you what actions you’ll want to remember and repeat in the future (this is how habits are formed and become automatic)

Some health goals take a while to see rewards, such as getting six-pack abs. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t program in small rewards. For instance, let’s say your goal is to go for a walk every day. Here’s how the habit loop can be created.

The cue: set an alarm

The routine: Walk to a coffee shop that’s approximately 15 minutes away. If you want to add a layer, grab headphones and then start playing a playlist or podcast. That can be a secondary cue that prompts action

The reward: your coffee

You can apply the same formula to almost any ritual behavior. Want to eat protein with breakfast?

The cue: Take a shower

The routine: Make a protein shake.

The reward: Feel better about yourself, feel fuller and satisfied, and have more energy

As long as your cue is obvious, your routine is easy, and your reward is satisfying, you can build rituals that will create habits that will become automatic and last.