We all know the grim stats about how many New Year’s resolutions fail. It’s not because making resolutions is hokey or people are inherently lazy. It’s because most resolutions come down to one of two things: adopting new (good) habits or breaking old (bad) habits, and habit change is hard.
People struggle at every step, from picking the right goals—ones that are motivating and achievable—through the implementation process.
The trick is to be strategic and intentional about changing your habits. Rather than relying on willpower and wishes, get good systems in place. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
What Are Habits, and How Do You Change Them?
Successful habit change is the process of taking a behavior that currently requires cognitive effort and making it automatic.
“Automatic” is a word psychologists use to describe behaviors that don’t require a lot of cognitive attention or processing. Habits are any behaviors that have become automatic: walking past the cereal aisle at the store instead of turning down it, swinging your legs out of bed when your alarm goes off, going to yoga class on your lunch break.
Adopting new habits might feel difficult at first, but with enough repetition they feel easy, like you’re not even thinking about them. That’s sort of true. Effortful behavior relies on the prefrontal cortex, the higher-level thinking and planning part of your brain. Habitual behavior is governed by a different structure called the basal ganglia.
From a cognitive perspective, this is highly advantageous. The brain has a massive number of inputs to deal with each day. The more behaviors we don’t have to think much about, the better.
So if building habits is so desirable for the brain, why isn’t it easier?
How Habit Change Works
On a basic level, all behavior works like this:
Cue (trigger) –> Response (behavior, action) –> Feedback (consequences)
To make a behavior a habit, the feedback has to be rewarding. You also have to repeat the behavior over and over to reinforce the relationship between cue and response:
Cue (trigger) –> Response (behavior, action) –> Reward –> Repeat
It’s elegantly simple but obviously not easy. The process can break down at any point along the way. The good news is you can improve your odds of success by beefing up any part of the system—the cue, the reward, or the “in-between stuff” represented by the arrows.
You don’t necessarily need to do all of these for each new habit you’re trying to build. One might be enough. On the other hand, this is often a more-is-better situation.
Target #1: Strengthen the Cue
A cue can be a time of day (first thing in the morning), something you see or do in your environment (opening the fridge, watching a TV commercial), or a feeling (tension in your neck, boredom).
In order to build a reliable habit, number one: make the cue stronger. In the language of Atomic Habits, make it obvious.
Targets #2, 3, and 4: Mind the Gap
A lot happens in the space between noticing the cue and initiating the behavior. According to Dr. Steve Wendel’s behavior funnel, this includes:
- Gut reaction – your initial “yay” or “ick” feeling about the behavior that’s being cued
- Evaluation – your more thoughtful evaluation of the cost and benefits of doing the behavior
- Ability and timing checks – deciding whether you have the resources to follow through and whether there is any sense of urgency
Thus, to increase the likelihood of making it to the response phase, you can:
- Number two: Make it more appealing (“Make it attractive,” says James Clear.)
- Number three: Make it feel more feasible (increase your ability)
- Number four: Make it urgent
Target #5: Make It Rewarding
While developing better habits can be rewarding in and of itself, you can speed the process along by building in positive reinforcement. Especially if your goal is long-term (weight loss, training for a marathon), more immediate rewards can be helpful.
Target #6: Rinse, Repeat
To really ingrain the habit, you have to do the behavior over and over. The more you do, the stronger the cognitive association between the cue and the behavior and, over time, the more automatic it becomes.
The Process in Action
Let’s say you’ve decided to start going to the gym after work twice per week to lift weights. Here are 20 things you can do to increase your chances of success.
Strengthen the Cue
1. Leave yourself reminders.
- Put post-it notes on your bathroom mirror, fridge, or laptop.
- Set alarms on your phone.
2. Arrange your environment.
- Keep your gym bag on your front seat.
- Put your exercise tracking app on the home screen of your phone.
3. Use implementation intentions. This a fancy way of saying “make a plan.” Be specific. Use if/then statements. Research has shown that implementation intentions are incredibly powerful tools for instilling new habits.
- “I will go to the gym on Mondays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m.”
- “When I leave the office, I will head straight to the gym.”
- “If the gym is crowded when I get there, I will adjust my workout instead of leaving.”
4. Use habit stacking, a specific type of implementation intention. Pair your new desired behavior with something you already do habitually. (This is the same as the anchoring principle in B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits protocol.)
- “When I shut off my computer at work, I will immediately change into my gym clothes.”
- “When I fold my laundry, I will set out two gym outfits.”
Make It More Attractive
5. Arrange to meet friends at the gym (also creates pressure to show up at a certain time).
6. Invest in nice workout clothes that make you feel more comfortable.
7. Designate podcasts or audiobooks you only listen to at the gym.
8. Use positive language to describe your habit, for example, “I get to go to the gym today” instead of “I have to go to the gym today.”
Make It Seem More Feasible
9. Invest in a few sessions with a personal trainer or watch YouTube videos to learn good form.
10. Download a fitness app that programs workouts for you.
11. Break big goals into smaller, more achievable interim goals.
12. Remove obvious obstacles.
- Hire a babysitter.
- Block off gym time on your work calendar so nobody schedules you for meetings.
13. Join the gym between your home and office, even if the one on the other side of town is fancier. Or, buy workout equipment for your home so you don’t have to go anywhere.
14. Tell people about your plan so you’ll be motivated to follow through and save face.
15. Hire a coach or trainer so someone who is counting on you to show up.
16. Have a deadline.
- Register for an upcoming strength competition or obstacle course race.
- Join a 30-day challenge.
17. Put your money where your mouth is. Use a service where you can bet on yourself following through on your plan. If you fail, you lose the money. If you’re successful, you get your money back. (Note: Spending money on your goal can increase urgency, but it has to be enough that you’ll feel bad wasting it. For some people that’s $10. For others it’s $10,000.)
Make it Rewarding
18. Use a tracking app or journal to record your sessions, or check off days on your calendar. Seeing your work accumulate is the grown-up version of getting gold stars on the good behavior chart in elementary school.
19. Post your progress on social media. I know, I know, but it’s more than just bragging! Getting likes and positive comments is actually quite reinforcing.
20. Structure rewards for yourself to celebrate milestones. For example, every time you increase a lift by 10%, put money aside for those expensive gym shoes you’re eyeing.
Different Goals, Same Framework
No matter what your specific goal, you can still use these same practices. If your goal is to get back into cross-stitch:
- Leave your materials on the table where you’ll see them every afternoon. (Obvious)
- Make yourself a cup of tea and put on relaxing music. (Attractive)
- Start with two minutes per day. (Feasible)
- Join a “pattern-a-day” challenge. (Urgent)
- Turn your creations into gifts for friends. (Rewarding)
- Try to cross-stitch every day. (Repeating)
See? And most importantly, no matter what your goal, stick with it. Don’t get derailed by minor setbacks. Habits take weeks or months to lock in. Be patient.
What say you? I’m a huge fan of habit stacking, but what techniques have you used successfully to build new habits?