7 Scientific Lifehacks for Building New Habits and Making Them Stick (forever)
Why do we do what we do?
The answer is habit.
The meal we decide for dinner, the route we drive to work, the coffee we order at lunch.
They’re all a result of habit.
In the last twenty years, psychologists have learned a hell of a lot about how habits work, why they emerge and more importantly, how we can change our bad ones and replace them with good routines.
I’ve experimented obsessively with my own habits over the last decade, read everything about the psychology of rituals, motivation and willpower, and in this post I’m going to share with you the best 7 research-proven ways to build new habits and make them stick forever.
1. Make It Tiny
We’re afraid of change, even when it’s positive, because all change is hard.
Leaping into our fears without a strategy can paralyse us. Failure discourages us and we postpone any future effort.
Instead, what we need to do is lean, ever so slightly, into our fears. When we take baby steps, we disarm the brain’s fight or flight response and make challenge not some chore-like arduous ordeal, but a fun real life video game.
If you want to build new habits and make them stick, you need to make them tiny, or, as Leo Babauta of Zen Habits writes, make them, “So easy you can’t say no”.
“If you start out exceedingly small, you won’t say no. You’ll feel crazy if you don’t do it. And so you’ll actually do it!”
If you want to wake up earlier, wake up five minutes earlier every morning.
You want to eat five portions of fruits and vegetables every day? Eat one to start with.
Even writing a book isn’t that hard when you only have to write 100 words a day.
You can always expand on the habit, but to begin with, focus on doing them, consistently.
2. Anchor It To An Existing Habit
In his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg explains at the core of every habit is the same neurological loop. He calls this The Habit Loop. It’s a three-step loop that includes a cue, a routine and a reward.
- The Cue: This is the trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use.
- The Routine: This is the behaviour itself. This can be an emotional, mental or physical behaviour.
- The Reward: This is the reason you’re motivated to do the behaviour and a way your brain can encode the behaviour in your neurology, if it’s a repeated behaviour.
Interestingly, almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding action.
From my experience, an immediately preceding action is the most stable cue because it’s triggered by an existing habit.
So a fool-proof method of building new habits is to match them with an old habitual cue.
B.J. Fogg , a researcher at the Stanford Persuasion lab, Asks:
“What does this behaviour most naturally follow?”
To implement this technique, decide on an existing habit and complete the following sentence:
“After I [EXISTING HABIT] I will immediately [NEW HABIT]”.
“After I wake up, I will immediately make my bed”.
“After I make breakfast, I will immediately read for 30 minutes.”
“After I hang my coat up when I get in from work, I will immediately meditate for 10 minutes.”
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3. Plan For Roadblocks
Failure is inevitable, but failure doesn’t mean you failed and you are a failure; it means you didn’t plan and prepare for failure.
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, says:
“People who think they have the most willpower are actually the most likely to lose control when tempted.”
When we visualize ourselves achieving our goals, we don’t take into account the inevitable setbacks and so get frustrated and give up when they happen.
We can anticipate our roadblocks and remove them, entirely, by using what are called “implementation intentions”, or “if/then” strategies.
An “if/then” strategy helps specify what your obstacles might be and, more importantly, how you can overcome them.
For example, if you want to develop a habit of saying “no” to unhealthy foods, you could write:
“If I’m offered a cookie in work, I’ll say ‘no’. If they persist, I’ll repeat myself”.
Granted, you can’t prepare for every obstacle, but planning for the most likely setbacks protect your against willpower failures and maximise your self-control.
4. Introduce Variable Rewards For Doing It
There are feedback loops everywhere.
Think about it: we crave alcohol, the Internet and pizza because we have conditioned ourselves to expect pleasure when we engage in these activities.
The behaviours are rewarding.
But when feedback loops become predictable, they no longer motivate us.
In his book, Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, Nir Eyal writes:
“Experiences with finite variability become less engaging because they eventually become predictable."
How do you counteract losing interest in habits? You introduce variable rewards.
Habits with variable rewards are the ones that hook us for life.
If you’re rewarding yourself for going running by watching your favourite television programme when your return home, introduce variability. Congratulate yourself, permit yourself to listen to your favourite album guilt-free, or better yet, make the habit the reward in and of itself.
5. Become a Choice Architect and Redesign Your Environment
Carolyn, a director of food services in a large city school system, decided to conduct an experiment.
She wanted to know, without changing the menus, would manipulating the way the food was displayed influence the children’s purchasing decisions?
The consumption of many healthy foods in the cafeterias increased by as much as 25%.
The reality is, we are greatly influenced by our environment. If there are chocolate chip cookies in our pantry and we’re hungry, we’re going to scoff them. No doubt about it.
But if you redesign your environment so the habits you want are accessible, and the habits you don’t want are less accessible (or even inaccessible), you make decision-making easier by default.
If you’re dieting, remove any unhealthy foods from your kitchen or, at the very least, make it harder to reach (I wrap my Cheat Day chocolate bar in tinfoil so it’s not in plain sight).
If you’re learning a musical instrument, leave it so it’s always within arm’s reach. Sean Achor positioned his guitar in the centre of his living room. Here’s what happened.
If you’re going running in the morning, leave your shoes by the door and your clothes laid out so you don’t have to prepare in the morning.
Remember: make your habit super simple to do and it’ll take care of itself.
6. Track Your Progress
“Life is full of scorecards”, writes Daniel Coyle, author of The Little Book of Talent:
“The problem with those scorecards is that they can distort priorities, bending us toward short-term outcomes and away from the learning process”.
Learning habits is a skill just like any other. If we are what we count, it’s important to count the right things.
First, decide on a number you’re committed to. I like 30-day challenges because they stretch me. Then, create a Google Doc and for every day, write:
- What you did well (“I said ‘No’ to dessert”).
- What you didn’t do well (“I ate a high-carb breakfast when it wasn’t on my meal plan”) .
- What you can improve on tomorrow (“Put my box of cereal at the back of the pantry”).
This helps you celebrate daily successes and identify obstacles you hadn’t considered.
Focus on daily wins. Momentum is a powerful thing.
7. Have Accountability
When Hawthorne Factory employees were under the watchful eye of researchers, their productivity increased.
Similarly, when we attend a Weight Watchers, exercise with a friend or join a mastermind group, we adhere to our goals because of the imagined social consequences.
Never underestimate the power of accountability.
If you’re really committed to behaviour change, you’ll introduce stakes as well: a forfeit bonds you to your word.
“A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking”, writes Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 Hour Chef:
“Good follow-through doesn’t depend on the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives”.
The right incentives are accountability and stakes. These keep us on the straight and narrow when we’re demotivated and feel like throwing in the towel.
Make it a game: Commit to a 30-day challenge and promise to donate to an “anti-charity” if you fail to write a blog post, run 5 miles a week or go to bed before midnight.