Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Building good habits can be hard. Real hard. Nearly half of dieters give up within a week.
From Stick with It:
Forty percent of dieters quit within one week and more than 50 percent end up weighing more than they did before they started their diets.
So what really helps? Does anybody have some answers that could make lasting changes three times easier to achieve? Actually, yes.
Dr. Sean Young is a medical school professor at UCLA who studies behavior change and he’s helped people build good eating, sleeping and exercising habits. He sums up his work in the new book Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life-for Good.
So what can we learn from Sean? Let’s get to it…
1. Small Steps Beat Big Dreams
You’re dreaming about having that awesome beach body. Big dreams are exciting… but they’re also intimidating. And that’s probably why they usually stay dreams.
Want to build the good eating and exercising habits that will get you there? Then think small. Real small. No, even smaller.
From Stick with It:
Focusing on small steps allows people to achieve their goals faster than if they focused on dreams. Focusing on small steps also keeps people happier and more motivated to keep trying because they get rewarded more frequently.
The goal is to build a habit. So consistency is the most important thing because without consistency, well, it’s not really a habit. Instead, it’s a thing you do sometimes-kinda-when-you-feel-like it-maybe.
And it’s easier to be consistent when something is so small you’d feel silly if you didn’t do it. BJ Fogg, head of the Stanford University Persuasive Tech Lab, calls it “Minimum Viable Effort.” Here’s what BJ says:
Make it tiny. To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.
And this works. Focus on small steps, not big dreams and you’ll make progress.
From Stick with It:
The women who (did this) were more likely to keep eating healthier throughout the six-week study. They also lost more weight than the women in the other group. In fact, those who had focused on dreams actually gained weight. Many studies confirm this principle: to change behavior, focus on the day-to-day process, rather than the outcome.
Once you’re doing it consistently, make the steps bigger. That works far better than being too ambitious initially… and quitting.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So, baby steps for the win. But how are you going to maintain change when you get busy or get distracted?
2. Call For Backup
It’s not called “Alcoholic Anonymous” it’s called “Alcoholics Anonymous.” When people want to make big changes in their lives they need people, not person.
Get help. Sean says it makes a big difference.
From Stick with It:
Be around people who are doing what you want to be doing. Social support and social competition foster change.
And other research backs this up. The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death had this to say:
The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.
To quote an old saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
(To learn the 8 secrets to breaking bad habits, click here.)
Baby steps. With friends… But you can still flake out. Why? Because you didn’t answer a critical question…
3. Ask “Why Is This Important?”
Too many attempts at fostering good habits start with something akin to “It’d be nice if…”
Nope. That habit isn’t going to last. But when the doctor says, “Change your diet or you’ll be dead in six months”… Wow, change gets so much easier.
Ask yourself, “Why is this important?” And what answers will actually get you motivated? Sean says the research points to three big areas to focus on.
From Stick with It:
The big three: money, social connections, and health.
So consider how this new habit might cause you to gain (or not lose) some cash. How it might improve your relationships. Or how it might benefit your health. Those three will make the new habit feel meaningful, and that will get you motivated.
Research by Teresa Amabile at Harvard has shown that nothing is more motivating than progress in meaningful activities.
This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.
(To learn the 6 rituals ancient wisdom says will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, the steps are simple, you’re motivated and you have help. But now you actually have to do it. How can you make sure that actually happens day-in, day-out?
4. Make It Easy
The more hoops you have to jump through to accomplish something, the less likely you are to do it. This isn’t as inviolate as the laws of thermodynamics, but pretty darn close.
So get rid of as many hoops as possible beforehand.
If you can make the positive habit three to 20 seconds easier to start, your likelihood of doing it rises dramatically. And you can do the same thing by flipping it for negative habits. Watching too much television? Merely take out the batteries of the remote control creating a 20 second delay and it dramatically decreases the amount of television people will watch.
Make good habits easier to do and bad habits harder to do and you can turn your laziness into an advantage.
(For more great tips from Shawn on how to be happier and more successful, click here.)
Alright, now you may have heard some of these tips before. But what advice have you frequently been told that is downright wrong and counterproductive?
You’ve been told to change your mindset so that your actions will change. Sean says that’s backwards…
5. Act Before You Think
Yeah, you heard me. Act before you think.
You read stuff, consider it, dwell on it, mull over it… but you don’t do it.
Don’t try and change your mind so your behavior will change. Change your behavior and your mind will shrug and happily follow.
From Stick with It:
That the mind controls behavior is the basis for many top-selling self-help and popular-psychology books. They teach that people can change their behavior by imagining and willing themselves to change. But this is wrong. Most smokers can’t quit just by imagining themselves quitting. People don’t stick to their New Year’s resolutions by telling themselves that this year will be different than other years. Managers can’t get their salespeople to close a deal just by telling them to visualize closing it. Social psychologists know now that the truth lies in the opposite direction. People need to change their actions and their minds will follow.
Tim Wilson, a professor at UVA, did the underlying research and says that the easiest way to be good is to just focus on doing good. Here’s Tim:
Often, if we want to change who we think we are, one of the best ways to do it is to change our behavior first. If we want to become a little more extroverted, then act that way for a while. Force ourselves to act in an extroverted way. If we want to become better, more pro-social, helpful people, well then go out and do some volunteer work. Often, the story follows the behavior change.
(To see the schedule that very successful people follow every day, click here.)
Okay, so you’re actually following through. Awesome. What will reinforce the habit so it gets stronger over time?
6. Reward Yourself
When actors would ask the great director Alfred Hitchcock “What’s my motivation?” he would reply, “Your paycheck.”
Rewards can be tricky motivators over the long run, but in the early stages of cementing a habit, Sean confirms they can be very useful.
If the activity isn’t very rewarding in itself, you can try what Wharton professor Katherine Milkman calls “temptation bundling.”
Love listening to audiobooks? Okay, you only get to do that after the report is done for work. Love chocolate? You only get to eat it after you hit the gym.
It’s a simple formula: tie every “want” to a “should.” You want chocolate? You should go to the gym first.
If you add a reward after a good habit you want to build, it’s a powerful reinforcer. Charles Duhiggexplains:
The research shows that every habit has three components. There’s the cue, which is a trigger for an automatic behavior to start. Then, a routine, which is the behavior itself. Finally, a reward. The reward is really important because that’s how your brain essentially learns to latch onto a particular pattern and make it automatic. Chocolate, after running, is an obvious example of a reward that many people enjoy. It doesn’t have to be chocolate. What matters is that if you want to make a behavior into a habit, you need to give yourself something you enjoy as soon as that behavior is done. It could be a piece of chocolate. It could be having a smoothie. It could be relaxing for 15 minutes and taking a nice shower. What’s important there is that people give themselves a reward.
(To learn how to beat bad habits using mindfulness, click here.)
So the habit is real and getting stronger. Great. How do you make it a set-in-stone part of your day?
7. Build A Routine
When does it happen? Where does it happen? How does it start? How does it end? Round all those out and repeat. Build a routine. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.
From Stick with It:
The secret to making things engrained in the brain is based on this repetition: repeating behaviors, especially if it can be done every day, in the same place, and at the same time, will teach the brain that it needs to remember this behavior to make it easier to keep doing it.
This isn’t merely elegant, it has its roots in real neuroscience research. When I spoke to neuroscientist Alex Korb, he said that the critical part of the brain here is the “dorsal striatum.” That’s the part of your grey matter that always wants to do what you have done in the past.
When your prefrontal cortex (the rational part of your brain that sets goals) and your nucleus accumbens (the party animal that wants to screw around on the internet) go to war, the dorsal striatum often has the tie-breaking vote on what you actually choose to do.
So if you repeat a good habit frequently, your dorsal striatum sides with the prefrontal cortex and it gets a lot easier to do the good stuff instead of the bad stuff. So construct a good routine that slides you right into performing that habit and you’ll rewire the dorsal striatum so it’s pushing you in the right direction.
(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Alright, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn the best way to get started…
Here’s how to build good habits:
- Small steps beat big dreams: Doing the minimum consistently beats endless overthinking.
- Call for backup: You get more done when you have role models, cheerleaders and people to nag you.
- Ask, “Why is it important?”: Do it because of money, relationships or health and it’s more likely to actually get done.
- Make it easy: If you sleep in your gym clothes with your sneakers next to the bed, you’re more likely to wake up and go to the gym.
- Act before you think: Change your behavior to change your mind. Don’t try and change your mind to change your behavior.
- Reward yourself: Do the trick and you get a treat. It works for Fido and it will work for you.
- Build a routine: Making it a part of your day leads to repetition, and that will rewire your brain for the better.
So answer three questions right now:
- What’s a goal that’s really important to you?
- What easy, small step can you do with a friend regularly to get closer to achieving it?
- How will you reward yourself after?
Got your answers? Great. Send this post to that friend and tell them the habit you want to build and the step you want to make toward it. Set a time with them to get started.
You’re on your way. Yeah, right now it’s just one little step. But one little step is how you start to make big changes in life.
As another old saying goes, “You can do anything once you stop trying to do everything.”
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