How to Form a Habit, A Scientific Approach

by in Productivity, Learning

A great daily routine is the holy grail of productivity. But the building blocks for that routine, habits, are tough to start, and even harder to change. Whether you want to meditate more, drink more water, or floss more than twice a month, these psychology-backed strategies can help you develop a new habit and keep it from fading.

habit quote

How a habit is born

You probably already know what a habit is (heck, you probably have a few of your own) but here’s a basic definition: a habit is behavior that an individual performs over and over again, sometimes automatically. But what turns a behavior into a habit?

Charles Duhigg, who wrote “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, thinks that habits are reinforced by a three-part loop: trigger, behavior, and reward. The trigger tells you—consciously or unconsciously—to start the behavior, the behavior is the habit or action, and the reward is the benefit that you get from that action. You can see the loop: That coveted reward teaches us to continue the behavior, over and over again, until it turns into a habit.

habit cycle

So, whether you’re trying to break a habit or start a new one, Duhigg suggests isolating triggers and rewards, then experimenting with them. Recent research on habit formation backs up Duhigg’s strategy, showing that consistent contexts (i.e. triggers) increase the likelihood of picking up a new habit, and that people who associated positive feelings with the behavior were more likely to repeat it. With the basic framework of how habits develop, we can define some strategies for creating a new one.

Decide on a habit

Like any major undertaking, habit formation starts with a plan. Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” says that the habit you design should be super-specific for the best chance at success. In other words, instead of simply trying to drink more water—a nebulous goal—set up a routine where you aim to drink one 8-oz glass of water every day with your lunch at 12:30 p.m.

Rubin is arguing for using micro-quotas, which Gregory Ciotti says act as building blocks for larger, long-term macro-goals. Think of it this way: If your ultimate goal is to run a marathon, starting with a micro-quota like running a half-mile per day can help form a habit, and eventually that micro-quota will cascade into longer runs in the future. Make sure that your habit has realistic standards, and that the macro-goal is something you’re passionate about—don’t make this a New Year’s resolution situation.

Why shooting for the smallest possible goals works

When the most-desired habits are huge, life-altering modifications—eating healthier, running more, waking up earlier—it feels weird to think small. But Ciotti’s concept of micro-quotas makes habits easy to start, and easy to incorporate into our set routines. Leo Babauta of Zenhabits points out that you might complete a big habit a few times, but that your motivation is not a sustainable resource, and that laughably simple changes are easier to keep up.

So instead of willing yourself into a giant change, construct a dead-simple action that painlessly slots into your day, like doing three sit-ups or reading one paragraph of a book. Director of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab, BJ Fogg views habits on a spectrum of motivation versus effort: the higher the effort, the more motivation required. So if you make something insanely easy to accomplish, the human mind sees it as a no-brainer. On the other hand, if your task is difficult and non-specific, like losing 50 pounds, your motivation is going to disappear as soon as you hit a small roadblock.

Fogg Model

The thought here is that by starting small and integrating the behavior into your everyday life, a habit can start to take shape, which will snowball into larger life changes. For example, if you resolve to eat one baby carrot per day, eventually you’ll say “I’m already eating one, why not two?”

One measly baby carrot? Seriously, think that small: one push-up per day can motivate your brain past the starting line, and into a 30-minute workout.

Turn simple behaviors into rituals

One of the quickest ways to integrate a new habit into your day is to chain the unfamiliar behavior with an existing one. This strategy is called making an if-then plan: if I do a specific activity, then I do this other new activity. Eventually these if-then chains develop into routines that happen almost automatically, with little-to-no motivation needed.

You may not think about it, but I bet you already have a bedtime ritual: put on pajamas, wash your face, brush your teeth, use mouthwash, plug in your phone, set an alarm. If you want to make a habit out of flossing, make brushing your teeth a trigger, so if you brush your teeth, then you must floss.

The trigger can be anything, as long as it’s something you already do daily. Fogg, for example, used peeing—yes, peeing—as a trigger and chained that to his new habit, push-ups. Combine this with those bite-sized goals, and the mental resistance to your new habit will bottom out—Fogg started with just two push-ups after every bathroom visit.

push ups

Photo Courtesy of Helmuts Guigo

Repeat for best results

Whether you’re a pro athlete, best-selling author, or just someone who neglects his or her running shoes a bit too often, repetition is the key to quality. In fact, strong habits can help us automate mental processes that would usually take up our attention, allowing our brains to focus on other more difficult tasks simultaneously—creative, technical, or otherwise. So if you’re repeating a behavior in the same context over and over again, you can form a habit while also trending towards mastery of that skill. Herbert Lui at Medium assembled a great group of real-life examples where accomplished artists and athletes—like Kanye and Kobe—used repetition to hone their craft.

Just get started

There’s an established principle in psychology called the Zeigarnik effect. Basically, the idea states that if you leave a task incomplete, it’s going to stick in your brain until you finish it. Call it closure, commitment, whatever: We’re wired to finish what we start. So when developing a habit, tiptoeing past the starting line might be the most important part.

Ciotti (of macro-goals fame, above) used this strategy to “get over the hump” and trick himself into working out: he set his sights low to get started, which spurred a “might as well” kind of motivation. That craving for completion has been scientifically tested, too: Researchers at the University of Mississippi showed that once students started a puzzle, they stuck around to finish it even after they were paid and told they could leave. This dovetails nicely with the idea of making your habit as basic and effortless as possible.

Just dipping a toe in the waters of your new behavior can help you sidestep the biggest barrier to habit formation: starting. The Zeigarnik effect can even help you break your procrastination habit.

Stick to it

Even with the right strategies in place, changing your predisposed habits is no easy task. Stay disciplined by keeping yourself accountable for the goals that you set. Track your failures so that you understand why your habit didn’t click, but also take time to celebrate your successes as a form of reinforcement.

When you aren’t getting the results you want, try switching up the trigger that you’re chaining your new behavior to, or reevaluating whether or not your habit is simple enough to stick. Don’t get discouraged if your target habit doesn’t feel like second nature after a few weeks: The average time it takes to solidify a new habit is around 66 days.

Conclusion

By understanding a little bit about the way your brain forms habits naturally, you can start to identify new habits that you want to form and build a plan for integrating them into your life. From a psychological standpoint, try distilling your habit into its simplest form, and combining it with things that you’re already doing during your day-to-day routine.

With enough repetition, even complicated tasks can become an automatic part of your schedule.

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About the Author

Joe Stych

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