This is How to Create a New Habit: 5 Secrets From Research
Every year, people set their New Years Resolutions. And every year, about 9 out of 10 fail at achieving them (1).
The biggest reason for this is most people never take the time to educate themselves on how human behavior works.
There are tons and tons of diets, exercise programs, productivity tools, personal finance strategies, and time management apps out there, and a lot of them are pretty great.
The problem is that we fail to appreciate the crucial part our behavior plays in actually picking them up and using them.
You can gather all the information in the world, but it won’t create any tangible results in your life unless you consistently take action on what you learn.
That is why understanding how to create a new habit is so important.
Let’s have a look at the most powerful strategies I’ve found for doing that.
1. Start Ridiculously Small
It’s always tempting to try to create a massive change overnight.
You have a big goal in mind, so it makes sense to go after it with a big behavior change.
The problem (as 9 out of 10 people can attest to) is that this approach rarely works.
Going to the gym four days a week when you’re used to zero won’t lead to success — it will lead to burnout or even injury.
So, what you want to do is start small. Really small. Like, ridiculously small.
- Instead of 50 pushups, do 5.
- Instead of 20 minutes of meditation, do 2.
- Instead of saving $100 every month, save $10.
Establish the actual behavior first (2). When you’re consistently showing up and doing it, you can start increasing the effort.
2. Get Yourself Hooked
When you’ve invested a lot of time, energy, and resources into something, it gets much harder to quit (3).
You can take advantage of this by using what comedian Jerry Seinfeld calls the “Don’t Break the Chain” strategy (4).
Get a big wall calendar, put it on a prominent wall in your house, and start putting a big, red X over each day you complete your habit.
That is a brilliant way of creating a physical representation of your efforts.
When you’ve done this for a while, you’ll find yourself pushing through even when it’s hard, just to keep the chain going.
3. Use a Trigger
One of the biggest mistake people make when committing to a new habit is having vague intentions.
“I’ll try to drop by the gym a couple of times after work this week” unfortunately won’t cut it.
Research has shown that if your goal is going to be effective, you need to have very clear intentions about it (5).
You have to know exactly when and where you’re going to do what.
4. Deliberately Shape Your Environment
Your environment plays a huge role in your behavior (6).
If you’ve ever walked into your kitchen, spotted a plate of cookies on the counter, and eaten them just because they were in front of you, you know what I mean.
So, if you want to create change in your behavior, you need to create change in your environment.
Professor of Psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, provides an excellent strategy for this (7).
What he recommends is that you deliberately change the ”activation energy” of your habits. You can do this by:
- Decreasing the activation energy of your desired behaviors.
- Increasing the activation energy of your undesired behaviors.
If you, for example, want to read more books but find yourself consistently choosing to watch TV instead, place a great book next to your living room couch. Then put the TV remote in another room (or, if necessary, in the garage).
By tweaking your environment like this, you can nudge yourself to choose the right habits by default.
5. Surround Yourself With the Right People
The people around us also impact our behavior in a big way.
One study found that if you have a friend who becomes obese, your risk of obesity increases by 57 percent — even if your friend lives hundreds of miles away(!!) (8).
Other research has shown that we tend to feel like, and adopt the same goals, as the people we spend the most time with (9).
So, if you’re serious about creating big change in your life, you need to have the right people in your corner.
If you want to be healthy but all your friends are unhealthy, it’s time to make some new friends.
And if you want to go after big goals but you’re surrounded with pessimists, it’s time to surround yourself with inspiring and uplifting supporters.
Bonus Tip: Adopt a “Scientist & Subject Mindset”
When you set out to create a new habit, see it as an experiment.
Consider yourself both the scientist and the subject (10).
This mindset allows you to perceive setbacks as valuable data rather than failures.
If a strategy isn’t working, tweak it until it does.
If you can do that, the results you’re after will inevitably show up as a side effect of your efforts.
- New Years Resolution Statistics.
- I learned this from behavior expert BJ Fogg.
- This tendency is known as the sunk cost fallacy.
- Jerry Seinfeld’s Productivity Secret.
- Implementation Intentions.
- There is tons of research on this. Here are some examples.
- Finding Flow: The Psychology Of Engagement With Everyday Life
by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years.
- This is called emotional contagion and goal contagion.
- I learned this idea from Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler.
Photo by Emma Simpson.