After reading several books, and many articles, about habit change, I’ve curated my favorite techniques here, and listed them in the form of questions.
If you would really like to “install” a new and better habit in your life or work, ask the following questions about the new habit.
1. What is the new, doable behavior, specifically?
If it’s not specific and doable, it’s not likely to get done… too much internal resistance otherwise.
It also helps to clarify what “extra credit” would be.
For example, if I wish to create a habit of “mindful breathing”, the specific doable behavior could be:
Take 3 gentle, deep breaths, while imagining an inner smile, 3x per day.
Doing any additional is “extra credit”.
2. What is an existing trigger that you can connect this new behavior to?
For starters it’s best to use this formula:
“After/When I do [existing behavior] I will do [new behavior.]”
After I finish washing my hands, I will take 3 gentle, deep breaths, while imagining an inner smile.
The more relevant the trigger is to the behavior, the better. So a better trigger for me might be “Whenever I find myself feeling frustration or anxiety…”
3. How will you celebrate?
According to Stanford habits researcher BJ Fogg, the more quickly (and deeply) we “celebrate” after a new behavior, the sooner it habituates.
Example: quietly (and passionately!) say “Yes!” to yourself after doing the new behavior.
5. Can I rehearse the new behavior now? If not, when?
Plan to rehearse the new behavior, as connected with the trigger. Habits are really about muscle memory, so by rehearsing the new behavior 3 times times (or more!), you are making it easier for yourself to actually do the new behavior when the trigger arrives again in real life.
For example, I can go to the faucet right now, pretend to wash my hands (the trigger) and then consciously do my mindful breathing technique. Then repeat. And repeat again. This is usually enough to start doing it more habitually, while continuing to use the techniques above to solidify it.
Combining the above 5 questions works well for me to create habits.
However, everyone’s different. Below, I’ve included more tips.
I recommend that you choose 5 tips on this page
to create a habit change plan that works for you.
Additional Helpful Questions:
- Whom can you enlist to support you in this new behavior? Especially those you see regularly. Simply ask them to ask you about it each time they see you. Or even better: promise to send them an email or text message daily (if it’s a daily habit) so they can expect it. There’s research showing that social accountability is a huge benefit for achieving goals.
- Would it help you to set up audible or visual cues? Visual cues could be a post-it note you stick onto your computer, to remind you to do the habit. The drawback with cues: they’re there all the time, so you start to tune them out. Instead, you can use timed cues (alarms, reminders, notifications.) You can now find many (free) apps on the computer to do this, and of course on mobile devices too. As another example, I am working on the habit of tracking my time while at the computer. To remind me to do this, I installed the Toggl Desktop App which reminds me regularly to track my time.
- How can you improve the feedback loop? Sticky behaviors have strong positive feedback when you do it—e.g. your celebratory routine; feeling really good; other people praising you; a wanted reward—and negative feedback when you don’t do it—pain; financial hit; embarrassment; disappointing someone. Habits that don’t stick are flipped: they have positive feedback (relief; relaxation; pleasure) when you don’t do it and negative feedback (hardship; pain) when you try to do it. So make your new habit easier to do, and if needed, intensify the positive reward, as well as the negative repercussions (see Stickk.com)
- How can you “shape the path” to make your new behavior easier?Happiness researcher Shawn Achor says that it makes a big difference if you can make your habit 3-20 seconds easier to do. Examples: If you want to jog every morning, it’s helpful to put your jogging shoes right at the front door, and do it the night before. Clearly bookmark a website you want to visit regularly. Alternatively, make a bad habit 3-20 seconds harder to do (removing the batteries from the remote control and putting them in a hard-to-reach place.) Another way to say it is: reduce the number of steps for a good habit, and increase the steps for a bad habit.
- How will you plan for failure? Failure is part of everyone’s habit creation experience. It’s normal. And it takes 2-3 months (some say more) to create a habit. The key is not giving up. Have a simple method to deal with failure, e.g. “I will review my habit recipe, and make one tweak to improve it.”
- How can you make the trigger more obvious? For example, when I first started the mindful breathing habit, I wanted the trigger to be “whenever I touch the faucet (before I wash my hands).” That turned out to be too subtle, too quick. So now my trigger is: “After I wash my hands…” (as I’m washing my hands I’m more likely to become aware that it is a trigger, and so once I finish washing, I do my breathing habit.)
- What is a barrier to the habit, and how can you remove or change it?
- How can you create roadblocks or more distance between you and a bad habit? For example, deleting a video game from your mobile device to create a habit of doing something other than playing that game.
- How can you shorten the distance between you and the good habit? For example if you want to read a book regularly, having the e-book version on your smart phone may make it easier for you to read regularly.
- How about setting a daily intention to do the habit? When I started using Lift app a couple months ago, I habituated checking it first thing in the morning. This helps me to consciously “intend” to do my habits that day. (For multiple-times-a-day habit, I use Strides.)
- How can you incorporate gratitude into my new habit? Be thankful that you are well-off enough to be able to even consider personal growth, and working on yourself. Look at your new habit as a treat!
- How can you be more mindful of the feelings that occur after you do (or don’t do) your habit? E.g. after eating junk food, notice that you don’t feel at your best. Really observe that feeling, and all its nuances. Connecting bad feelings to something you want to rid of, is very helpful. Same with connecting good feelings to a habit you do… by doing so, you deepen the “mind groove” of that habit.
- What are all the ways you will benefit from creating this habit? Greater health? Happiness? Freedom? Financial Security? Be as specific as you can. List them out.
- Who else will benefit if you create this habit? For example: Your family and friends will be more likely to follow suit. Your coworkers, community will benefit from a healthier/happier you. Perhaps even the environment (planet) will be positively affected. Your habit is not just about you.
- What images or video can motivate you? Do an online image search or video search for people who are either failing at the habit (e.g. the opposite of my “mindful breathing” habit would be someone who’s filled with anxiety) or who are succeeding in it. Images are effective for motivating us at a deep, subconscious place.
- What has worked in the past to help you create habits? And how can you incorporate the successful factor(s) from that past experience, to this one?
Don’t let this be just another thing you read and move on from. If you’ve found anything helpful, take a moment now. Implement one part of it immediately.
“Bad habits are easier to abandon today than tomorrow.”
I look forward to hearing your questions, and successes!