How to Make Good Habits Stick: 7 Secrets From Research
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to get so much done?
When they say, ”I’m going to…” start exercising, eat healthy, get organized, read more, etc., you know that they’re going to make it happen.
But when you try to go after similar goals, it’s a different story.
You might be able to stick to them for a while, but then, somewhere along the way, you always lose your motivation and quit.
When that happens enough times, it's easy to get frustrated and discouraged.
But creating and sustaining good habits doesn’t have to be so difficult and painful.
In fact, it can be quite easy. And even a lot of fun.
Here's how to develop good habits and make them stick:
1. Start Ridiculously Small
Most people want to create big change as quickly as possible.
They want to go from zero to four gym sessions every week, switch to a healthy diet overnight, and meditate for 20 minutes every day even though they've barely managed 5 minutes in the past.
The problem, of course, is that this requires a tremendous amount of willpower. And research has shown that willpower works a lot like a muscle. If you use it a lot, it will get tired. And when it does, you'll be very likely to quit.
The solution to this problem is to start so small that it hardly requires any willpower at all:
- Instead of doing fifty pushups per day, start with five.
- Instead of switching to a new diet, add a vegetable to every lunch.
- Instead of jumping on a rebounder for twenty minutes per day, start with two minutes.
Always focus on establishing the actual habit behavior first. Never increase the effort before it has become a natural part of what you do every day.
2. Get Hooked on Your Habit
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to let go of a project when you’ve invested a lot of effort into it?
We can use this tendency to our advantage by using what comedian Jerry Seinfeld calls the “Don’t break the chain” strategy.
Seinfeld used this method to become a better comic by writing a new joke every day. Each time he completed his writing for the day, he put a big red X on that day on his calendar. Within a few days, he had a chain he didn’t want to break.
This is a very clever strategy you can use to create a visual reminder of how much effort you've invested in your habit. You'll likely find that the longer the chain grows, the harder you’ll fight to keep it going.
So, get a calendar, put a marker next to it, and get to work on your habit. Your only job next is to not break the chain.
3. Have Clear Intentions
If you’re serious about your new habit, vague intentions like “I'll try to hit the gym three times this week” won’t cut it.
Research has shown that you'll be much more likely to follow through if you've decided beforehand exactly when and where the behavior is going to take place.
Here are three powerful strategies for doing this:
- Create an “implementation intention.” Reframe your habit as an “If/ Then” statement. For example, “If I’ve finished my breakfast, then I’ll do five pushups.”
- Use “habit stacking.” Link your new habit to an already existing behavior by filling in this sentence: “After/Before [established habit], I will [new habit].” For example, “After I leave the office, I will go for a brisk walk.”
- Implement scheduling. This one might seem obvious, but very few people actually use it. What gets scheduled gets done. So if your habit is truly important to you, let your calendar reflect that. Give it space in your schedule, just like you would with an important business meeting.
4. Celebrate Your Small Wins
If you’re like most people, you’re much better at beating yourself up for a bad performance than you are at rewarding yourself for a good one.
When it comes to managing ourselves, for some reason, we seem to prefer the stick to the carrot. And that’s a shame because research has shown that celebrating your progress is crucial for your motivation.
Each time you reward yourself for making progress, no matter how small, you activate the reward circuitry in your brain.
That releases some key chemicals which make you experience feelings of achievement and pride. These emotions, in turn, empower you to take action and create bigger successes in the future.
So, reward yourself for each step in the right direction, no matter how small they happen to be.
5. Design Your Environment
In many ways, your environment drives your behavior. Have you ever walked into your kitchen, spotted a plate of cookies on the counter, and eaten them just because they were in front of you? If so, you know what I mean.
Professor of psychology and bestselling author, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, provides an excellent framework to shape your environment to support your desired habits.
What he recommends is that you deliberately change the ”activation energy” of your habits.
The idea is that each one of your habits requires a certain amount of energy to get done. And the more activation energy it needs, the less likely you'll be to follow through and do it.
Let’s say you want to read more books, but you usually find yourself watching TV instead. What you need to do is:
- Decrease the activation energy of your desired habit (reading books). For example, putting a great book next to your living room couch.
- Increase the activation energy of your undesired habit (watching TV). For example, putting the TV remote in another room.
By changing the activation energy of your behaviors, you can nudge yourself in the right direction.
6. Surround Yourself With Supporters
The people around us has a surprisingly big impact on our behavior. One study showed that if you have a friend who becomes obese, your risk of obesity increases by 57 percent — even if your friend lives hundreds of miles away!
Other research has shown that we tend to feel the same way, and adopt the same goals, as the people we spend the most time with.
So, one way to dramatically increase your chances of success is to make sure you have the right people in your corner.
If you want to create healthy habits but all your friends are unhealthy, it’s time to make some new friends.
And if you want to make big things happen in your life but you’re surrounded with pessimists who drag you down, it’s time to create a support group who inspires you and picks you back up when you fail.
You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so be selective about them.
7. Pre-Commit To Your Habit
Imagine it’s 6:00 am and your alarm goes off. Within seconds, your plan of going to the gym before work is in jeopardy as your brain starts rationalizing.
”Hmm, I’m actually really tired. I wonder if it’s even healthy to work out when I’m this tired. I could go to the gym after work. Or, I could go to the gym tomorrow morning instead. Yeah, I’ll hit the snooze button.”
But then, you remember that you’ve promised a friend to meet up the gym at 7:00 am.
Related: List of Habits
Or, that you’ve committed to your workout plan by sending a friend fifty bucks every time you fail to get to the gym before work.
Or, that you’ve declared publicly to your family/blog readers/Facebook friends to stick to your workout plan for thirty days.
Or, if necessary, all of the above.
Suddenly, going back to sleep won’t be such an appealing option. By pre-committing this way, you can add an extra layer of accountability that makes you push through even when it’s hard.
Bonus Tip: Change Your Mindset
Whenever you're creating a new habit, adopt a ”scientist & subject” mindset. Consider everything you do a behavioral experiment where each setback provides valuable data for your next step.
Shift your attention away from the long-term goal and instead focus on showing up and doing your habit every single day.
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Don’t break the chain.
If you stick to the process, the results you’re after will inevitably come as a side effect of your efforts.
Want to Learn More?
If you enjoyed this article, I highly recommend you check out my brand new book The Habit Blueprint: 15 Simple Steps to Transform Your Life
It guides you step-by-step through fifteen scientifically proven strategies for creating and sustaining habits.
Everything is laid out in very simple, step-by-step explanations and action steps (as well as a downloadable checklist) you can follow to put any habit you want in place — and keep it there.
Patrik Edblad is a certified mental trainer, freelance writer, and author. He helps people use scientifically proven strategies to become healthier, happier and more productive at Selfication.com.