Starting a good habit is easy. But even when you’re determined to screw your willpower to the sticking point (to borrow from Shakespeare), sticking to a good habit is hard. In fact, doubling down on willpower won’t help. What does make good habits more doable? We asked two experts—a psychologist and a behavioral scientist—to share their secrets.
Wendy Wood, PhD, professor of psychology and business at University of Southern California, Los Angeles, suggests…
#1. Don’t depend on willpower. Willpower helps with one-off decisions, such as clearing the basement instead of picnicking on a sunny day. But willpower requires a constant input of time and energy and is not effective for repeated challenges, something most goals depend on. Example: Saving money for one day won’t help you get out of debt…nor will exercising for one day help you stay fit. You have to do both consistently over time. Your aim, therefore, is to streamline your habit so it is easy to do repeatedly.
#2. Make it easy. For instance, if you are trying to get in the habit of taking a walk on your lunch hour, keep walking shoes at your desk. An analysis of two months of location-tracking data from 7.5 million cell phones found that people who traveled an average 3.7 miles to paid fitness centers attended at least five times a month…while people who traveled 5.1 miles on average to such centers went only once a month. Less than a mile-and-a-half made the difference between having a gym habit and rarely going.
# 3. Make it fun! If a habit doesn’t make you feel good, you won’t keep it up. Example: If you have to force yourself to run on a treadmill, you’ll have to keep reminding yourself to do it…and are likely to quit. On the other hand, if you enjoy running outdoors in a local park, you’re more likely to make it a habit—and look forward to doing it.
#4. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Habits are a behavioral “shortcut” that our minds create. Once formed, the habitual response becomes automatic, but it takes many repetitions of a behavior before your mind forms the shortcut. Examples: When your alarm rings in the morning, you follow a routine that you don’t have to think about—you get out of bed, brush your teeth, wash your face, make coffee, etc. Another example is driving—you automatically keep driving when a traffic light is green and stop (hopefully!) when the light is red. Tip: Consciously scheduling your new habit into your daily routine can help you repeat it consistently—until it becomes automatic.
#5. Use “habit clearing” opportunities. Habits are closely tied to settings and contexts, although the cues that trigger them may be unconscious. Be alert to what triggers bad habits for you, and change the cue until you no longer respond automatically to it. For instance, if you always eat ice cream when you watch TV at night, do something else at night instead—read a book, work on a puzzle, listen to music, go for a walk or have a bath. Do this until you can turn on the TV without also heading to the freezer.
More opportunities: Moving, getting married, having children (or having them move out of the house) and other major life events are times when your daily life is already shaken up, less familiar and habit cues can be missing. Use these times to lose unwanted habits (such as smoking) and take on habits that will serve you (such as eating more fruits and vegetables).
BJ Fogg, PhD, behavioral scientist and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, also says…
#6. Go “tiny.” One way to establish a habit is to use the Tiny Habit method he developed. With this method, a baby step can put in place the consistent behavior needed to create the bigger habit. Examples: To establish the habit of connecting with your sister daily, commit to sending her one daily text—even just a heart or a smiley face emoji. To get in the habit of flossing your teeth, commit to flossing just one tooth. Soon you may find yourself having daily conversations with your sister…and flossing all your teeth! Success tip: When you’ve performed a tiny new habit, give yourself a cheer! Maybe say something such as, “Way to go!” Connecting a positive emotion to your habit helps make it stick.
#7. Capitalize on success. Having one good habit often leads to acquiring others. Reason: You develop a mind-set that you’re the kind of person who has good habits. For instance, habitually having a healthy snack every afternoon can train you to think of yourself as “a healthy eater”—and lead to healthier eating during the rest of the day.
Both experts agree…
#8. “Piggyback” habits. It’s easier to form a new habit if you anchor it to an existing one. For instance, using the examples above, text after breakfast…floss after brushing. The automatic aspect of the old habit helps make the new behavior automatic also. In fact, many people put pills on their night tables and use their bedtime or morning routines to make a habit of taking meds.