Illustration: Jenn Kwon

5 Scientific Ways to Build Habits That Stick

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Sobering words from Aristotle, and an astute reminder that success doesn’t come overnight. On the contrary, it’s discipline that gets you from Point A to the often elusive Point B.

In our day-to-day lives, habits can often be tough to build, as there are plenty of distractions that can lead us off the “straight and narrow” and right back to our old ways. To alleviate some of those troubles we can examine some academic research on motivation, discipline, and habit building, and break down their findings into actionable steps that any aspiring habit-builder can put into place.

1. Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals”

In a fascinating study on motivation, researchers found abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. In the most basic sense, “dreaming big” is pretty good advice after all. And since a variety of research around the self-determination theory shows us that creating intrinsic motivators (being motivated to do things internally, not through punishments or rewards) is an essential process of building habits that stick, you need to find a way to balance this desire to dream big with your day-to-day activities, which often do not result in quick, dramatic changes.

The answer is to create what I call “micro quotas” and ”macro goals.” Your goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish, but your quotas, are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.

Writer/developer Nathan Barry has made for a great case study of the use of these quotas as someone who forced himself to write 1000 words per day come hell or high-water. The result was three self-published books resulting in thousands of dollars in sales.

2. Create behavior chains

Creating sticky habits is far easier when we make use of our current routines, instead of trying to fight them. The concept of if-then planning is built around environmental “triggers” that we can use to let us know that it’s time to act on our habit. Also known implementation intentions, this tactic involves picking a regular part of your schedule and then building another “link in the chain” by adding a new habit.

For instance, instead of “I will keep a cleaner house,” you could aim for, “When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean my room/office/kitchen.” Multiple studies confirm this to be a successful method to rely on contextual cues over willpower. So the next time you decide to “eat healthier,” instead try “If it is lunch time, Then I will only eat meat and vegetables.”

3. Eliminate excessive options

According to a variety of research on self-control  —and expounded upon in books like The Willpower Effect — there is great power in being boring. Take, for instance, Barack Obama’s insistence on never wearing anything but blue and gray suits. According to the president, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

The president’s belief is well supported by the researchKathleen Vohs and her colleagues’ study on self-control found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant. According to the Harvard Business Review, if you want to maintain long term discipline, it’s best to “Identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane — and then ‘routinize’ those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.”

For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule. Stop buying snacks if you want to stop snacking (no willpower needed), pack a very similar lunch every day of the week, and embrace the power of routine to get the necessary done each day.

4. Process plan (but don’t fantasize)

The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is they never clearly answer why they want the change to occur. It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping our motivation up over time. A variety of research shows us that excessive fantasizing about results can be extremely detrimental to the stickiness of any habit.

According to this study from UCLA, the mistake is in what we visualize. Researchers found that those participants who engaged in visualizations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, by visualizing themselves practicing every day after work) were more likely to stay consistent than their peers (that visualized themselves speaking French on a trip to Paris). The visualization process worked for two reasons:

  • Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.

5. Eliminate “ah-screw-its”

New habits are often very fragile, and it is for this reason that we must eliminate any source of friction that may lead us astray. These “ah-screw-it” moments (hat tip to blogger Derek Halpern) are the specific moments where you find yourself saying, “Screw this, it’s not worth the effort!” A more scientific take on this phenomenon is called the What the Hell Effect, which explains why we are so likely to abandon ship with a new habit at the first slip-up.

The solution? Examine your habit and find exactly where things start to break down. In a great example of putting this in action, Author and 99U speaker Ramit Sethi has explained how he improved his gym attendance by finding where things would slip:

When I sat down to analyze why I wasn’t going to the gym, I realized: my closet was in another room. That meant I had to walk out in the cold [to] put on my clothes. It was easier to just stay in bed. Once I realized this, I folded my clothes and shoes the night before. When I woke up the next morning, I would roll over and see my gym clothes sitting on the floor. The result? My gym attendance soared by over 300%.

You can even incorporate an “if-then” scenario once you find the culprit. For instance, if fatigue is stopping you from playing guitar after work, you could set up a system of “If I’m feeling tired after work, then I will take a 20-minute nap and listen to music for five minutes to get myself motivated.”

What about you?

How do you create new regular habits?

More insights on: Skill Development

Gregory Ciotti

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Gregory Ciotti is the author of Sparring Mind, where he takes a fresh look at human behavior, productivity, habits, and creative work. He enjoys eliciting hate mail by occasionally writing about porn, junk food, and the Internet.
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