How to Build a Habit That Will Have Huge, Healthful Results

Written by Sue Mosebar

How to Build a Habit

Stop right now and take a second to think about something you really want to change. Maybe it’s to drop a few (or a lot of) pounds and keep ‘em off, finally start (and keep) meditating, reduce overall stress, gain strength or energy, become more optimistic, improve an important relationship, drink more water, or give up watching TV late into the night. (Maybe all of the above?)

Now, let me ask you a question: If you really wanted to make that change, why haven’t you already?

Do you really not want to change? Are you subconsciously happy with your stressed-out lifestyle, unhealthy habits, or extra padding around your mid-section?

Me neither!

But change can be hard. Otherwise, every New Year or goal-setting session, we would be setting new, completely different goals. Extra weight or belly fat—gone. Debt down to zero—done. Retirement savings—check. More time with family and friends—scheduled and implemented. Sweet.

Yet, it’s more likely that we’re looking at the same old goals year after year, telling ourselves, “This time it will be different. Because now I really want it.”

This might sound familiar. You’ve made the decision. You’re finally going to drop those last 15 or 20 pounds…you’re going to start that daily meditation practice—every day no matter what…you’re going to schedule a date night every week with your significant other to rekindle your relationship. And, of course, you’re going to start journaling—every morning for at least 30 minutes.

One week later…

Oh crap. You missed a day…or was that a week? You had your cheat meal on Friday night instead of Saturday—and you didn’t stop until Monday. You were under the gun with a deadline at work and missed date night—again. This week is already toast. Might as well give up and start again next week…maybe.

Let me let you in on a dirty little secret. The reason you haven’t stuck to your commitments or achieved your goals isn’t because you didn’t want to, that you weren’t motivated enough, or that you didn’t have what it takes to succeed.

For many of us, our lack of success starts with how we approach change.

It’s All or Nothing

Exercise every day for one hour. Eat 100% clean ALL THE TIME. NEVER eat another donut, fast food burger, chips, or [name your favorite, guilt-inducing cheat]. Spend a weekend away with your spouse every month. Meditate for an hour every single day. I don’t know about you, but those sound like some pretty lofty goals, right? Exhausting. Maybe even impossible with your already very busy schedule? But you’re inspired, and you know you need to go big or go home.

And then if you don’t succeed, lack of motivation kicks in as you kick yourself for being a loser…for failing yet again. And it’s so easy to just give up and slide right back into old habits.

Look, we’re all human. And for some, going “all in” does appear to work—at least in the short-term. But according to research, for many people, it’s a great recipe…for failure. Because we’re either all in, or it’s nothing at all. Starting a new habit—and breaking an old, deeply rooted one—is hard enough without creating all-out psychological warfare on ourselves.

It turns out, most of us just make change more difficult and more complicated than it really needs to be. We set big goals that take rock-solid willpower to maintain. And then the going gets tough, and the tough…eats a cookie, skips a workout, or flakes out on a friend.

There’s a new, better approach to making changes in our lives, one supported by science. And rather than going big and being “all in,” it’s about going small. Going so small, in fact, that you can’t fail!

How Does Behavior Work?

According to work by BJ Fogg, a Behavior Research and Director of Stanford’s Persuasive Tech Lab, there’s a simple and easy approach to build a habit.

First, a common mistake is to set outcome-based goals. For example, when it comes to weight loss, most people are likely to say something like, “I will lose 15 pounds by the end of the summer.” Yet, we’re more likely to be successful if we design our goals around the behaviors that lead to the desired outcome. These are called behavior-based goals, and the smaller (i.e., easier) those behaviors are, the more likely we are to make them consistent and habitual for BIG long-term results.

In one study, for example, published in the International Journal of Obesity, overweight and obese adults were randomized into one of two groups: one group was given a leaflet that contained simple recommendations for eating and activities that would result in a calorie deficit. The other group didn’t receive the leaflet or any advice and served as a control. After eight weeks, the people who had implemented small habits lost significantly more weight (4.4 pounds) vs. the control group (.88 pounds). After 32 weeks, those who stayed in the study lost an average of just over 8 pounds.

Now, at first glance, that may not seem like much, but consider that half of the participants lost 5% or more of their starting weight, which research shows is typically enough to significantly improve health. Also consider the long-term impact of continuing with these now-ingrained-habits versus the more common yo-yo diet approach, which can have detrimental long-term effects and lend itself to on-again, off-again weight cycling.

Consistency over time really counts and adds up. It’s also been shown that as people start incorporating one positive habit into their lives, they are more likely to incorporate more and more positive habits, leading to a pretty cool snowball of change effect.

So how do you start to build a small habit? It takes only eight simple steps. Let’s take a look.

How to Build a Habit

Step 1: Motivation—While there are several factors that are key to building a new habit, change starts with some degree of motivation. See, you’re more likely to embrace a new habit if it’s something you actually want to do. And it’s much harder if it’s something you think you “should do.”

Step 2: Goal—Now that you know what you want, set a goal you would like to achieve to improve your health. Again, focus on what you want, not something you “should” do.

Step 3: Action—Choose one simple, small action that will take you toward your goal if you practice it regularly. A few small examples include:

  • If your goal is to be more optimistic…Declare today will be a great day
  • If your goal is to improve your balance and coordination…Balance on each leg for 5 seconds
  • If your goal is to get stronger…Do 1 push up
  • If your goal is to improve your health and wellness…Take your daily supplements
  • If your goal is to improve your core strength…Do a plank for 10 seconds
  • If your goal is to drink more water…Take a sip of water
  • If your goal is to improve your relationship with your child…Hug your kid for 5 seconds

Step 4: Trigger—Choose a time and place where you will perform your chosen action and tie it with a habit you already have. This is called a “trigger,” which you can also think of as a cue, prompt, or call to action. Many of us already have ingrained habits that we didn’t even know we started with triggers (aka anchors). For example, when you sit in your car seat, do you ever really think about putting on your seatbelt, or do you just do it? That’s exactly how a trigger will work for you. Here are a few examples people use as triggers:

  • After I open my eyes in the morning…
  • After I brush my teeth…
  • After I start my morning coffee…
  • After I eat breakfast…
  • After I go to the bathroom…
  • After I answer an email
  • After I get home from work…

Step 5: Take Action—Once you have your trigger in place, all you have to do is immediately follow it with your new desired action. Here’s the simple structure Fogg recommends: “After I [existing habit], I will [new tiny habit].” For example, “After I brush my teeth, I will balance on one foot for five seconds.” Or, “After I answer an email, I will take one sip of water.”

Step 6: Practice—You don’t have to be perfect. Just keep practicing until you’re consistently practicing your new habit; next thing you know, it will be automatic. As Fogg explains, “Behavior change is a skill, and you can get better if you practice.” And if it isn’t working, play around with the behavior. Be flexible, so you can adjust and adapt to get better and better.

Step 7: Celebrate—This one is really important. Don’t just celebrate the big milestones. Celebrate every little win along the way. Fogg recommends saying something like, “I’m awesome!” every time you practice your new behavior. Pat yourself on the back. Do a little dance. Whatever makes you feel good. You see, we’re more likely to do something if it’s fun or feels good. For example, if your new habit is to drink more water, every time your trigger is followed by a sip, celebrate.

Step 8: Build on Your Success—Once your habit is, well, a habit or just feels too easy, slowly build on your success. Is one push up too easy? Add another one. And another. Are you now drinking water throughout the day without even thinking about it? Go for another new behavior. Find it easy to save an extra $10 per month? Save $20.

A few bonus tips on how to build a habit:

  • Start in the morning.
  • Make sure it’s really easy.
  • Set an obvious spot/time to do it (e.g., following brushing your teeth with flossing one tooth; when you get home from work, hang your keys up)
  • Make sure it’s fun and/or makes you feel good.

Contrast that with how many of us think we “should” change our behaviors. For example, let’s consider the “normal” approach to getting in shape. We pick up the latest exercise and diet book. After getting inspired by the testimonials or before and after pictures, we decide this is the prescription for us. We commit to cooking meals that take hours every day; exercising for an hour daily; drinking a gallon of water a day; and changing everything all at once. Until we’re completely burned out, crying in our ice cream, and wondering why we couldn’t keep it together—even if we did lose those 25 pounds in just a few months.

It’s time to stop beating ourselves up with all or nothing thinking. There are people who can and have made major transformations in such a way, and congratulations to them for a job well done. But if that leaves you feeling exhausted, or worse, like a failure, isn’t it time to try something different? It’s easy: Set yourself up for automatic, long-term success, one tiny step at a time.

As Fogg famously says, “Plant a good seed in the right spot, and it will grow without further coaxing.”

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References

  • Fogg BJ. “Forget big change, start with a tiny habit,” TEDxFremont, Dec 5 2012. youtube.com/watch?v=AdKUJxjn-R8
  • Fogg BJ. “Tiny surprises for happiness and health,” TEDxMaui, December 29, 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=2L1R7OtJhWs
  • Lally P, Chipperfield A, Wardle J. Healthy habits: efficacy of simple advice on weight control based on a habit-formation model. Int J Obes (Lond). 2008 Apr;32(4):700-7. Epub 2007 Dec 11.
  • Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012 Dec; 62(605): 664–666. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12X659466
  • Hills AP, Byrne NM, Lindstrom R, Hill JO. ‘Small changes' to diet and physical activity behaviors for weight management. Obes Facts 2013;6:228-238 https://doi.org/10.1159/000345030