How to Create Healthy Habits — and Get them to Stick
Science-based advice on how to become a better you as we enter a post-pandemic world
En español | As COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll out across the country and life slowly starts to return to normal, experts say it’s a great time to reevaluate your habits and consider making changes to improve your health and well-being. Research shows that the start of any new phase — be it the resumption of post-pandemic life, turning a year older or the invigorating days of spring — can serve as powerful psychological motivation to kick-start new habits. It’s called the fresh-start effect.
The end of the pandemic is “this momentous, collective fresh start that has all the features you need if you want to jump-start change,” says Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of the new book How to Change. “Maybe you didn’t achieve your fitness goals or build better routines, but that was the ‘old you’ during the pandemic. The new you can do it in this new era.”
In an informal poll on Twitter, Milkman found that half of her followers had already set some sort of post-pandemic resolution.
BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits, explains that anytime your context or environment changes, your habits change naturally. “So this is a good time to put in a little bit of thought to design the habits you want,” he says. “Don’t leave your habits to chance.”
Motivation alone is not enough
Research shows that nearly half of our actions are habitual and that changing them isn’t necessarily all about willpower. In fact, motivation alone rarely works for the very reason that our habits are an unconscious behavior, says Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist at The Team W, a training and consulting firm in Edgar, Wisconsin. “We have to set things up to use the unconscious part of our brain to do this for us,” she says. That opportunity “is the part a lot of people miss” when they try to flip a switch to override actions they’ve been doing on repeat for years, if not decades.
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Weinschenk and other experts share these science-based tips on how to develop better habits that will last.
1. Start with a small and specific action.
Experts say that if you’re serious about wanting to create a healthier habit, you have to narrow your focus first. Skip the kinds of goals that are vague, broad or intimidating. Want to get in shape? Too broad. Determined to start walking regularly? Still too big.
You’ll set yourself up for success, however, if you break a bigger goal down into smaller, more specific ones. Fogg recommends starting with one tiny, easy action. If you want to walk more, for instance, first set a smaller intention to put on your walking shoes when you finish dinner (but don’t necessarily commit to taking a stroll). Or if you struggle to floss regularly, tell yourself you will floss just one tooth every night after you brush.
The key is to choose an action that feels entirely — even ridiculously — doable and that takes less than 30 seconds, Fogg says. That way, even if you don’t feel like doing it, you’ll do it anyway because it’s so easy. “It takes out the need for willpower — that’s the psychological component,” Fogg notes. “Tons of research shows the easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it.”
In time, the teeny habit will become an automatic part of your routine. Once that habit is rooted, you can expand it to include really taking the evening stroll or flossing all of your teeth.
2. Pick a trigger or anchor for your new practice.
Next, figure out where your habit can fit into your existing routine, and anchor it to something you already do. In the examples above, each action is tied to an existing behavior: When you finish dinner, you put on your shoes. After you brush your teeth, you floss one tooth.
When it comes to anchors, there are endless possibilities. You could decide to take your vitamins after you turn on the coffeemaker, to do two squats before you get into the shower or to meditate every morning as soon as you wake up. Having an anchor is important because otherwise it’s too easy to run out of time in your day, not to make your new habit a priority or just to forget to do it.
According to Weinschenk, the best triggers have a physical component. That’s because of the way the brain is structured, she says, with the “the motor part of our brain connected with the conditioned response.” Seeing a “start exercising” reminder pop up on your phone, then, is not as ideal as using something like making showering your signal to start your squats.
3. Find the pleasure in it.
Research shows that you’re more likely to stick with a new habit if you enjoy it. So if you hate the gym, commit to doing a physical activity you relish, whether it’s gardening, hiking or taking a dance class.
One easy way to make a habit more fun is to make it social, Milkman suggests. Set up a regular time to walk with a friend or sign up for a yoga class with a pal.
In a study, Milkman’s team paid one group of people a dollar every time they exercised and another group a dollar every time they exercised with a friend. Even though recruiting someone added a hassle factor, the participants who went with a pal exercised about 30 percent more, Milkman says. Having an exercise buddy is “a double whammy,” she says, “because you get that accountability but it’s also more fun.”
4. Try “temptation bundling.”
Another way to make a new habit fun is to pair it with an activity you enjoy, a strategy that Milkman has coined temptation bundling.
In a study published in Management Science, Milkman found that people went to the gym significantly more often over a seven-week span when they were given audiobooks to listen to during their workouts. To motivate the participants, the researchers specifically chose tempting page-turners like the Hunger Games and the Da Vinci Code series.
Milkman says the pairing strategy can work with many types of habits. Maybe you watch a TV show you love only while you’re walking on the treadmill, you go to your favorite burger joint just when you’re spending time with a difficult relative, or you listen to your favorite podcast only when you’re preparing a home-cooked meal.
Milkman likes to bundle pedicures with paperwork she’s been putting off. “I love getting my toes done, but I use it as a hook to get myself to do important work I need to finish.”
5. Slide a good habit into the space occupied by a bad one.
Why do you keep bingeing on junk food at night even though you know it’s bad for you? Because your habits are a response to triggers you may not even be consciously aware of, says David T. Neal, a psychologist specializing in behavior change and founder of Catalyst Behavioral Sciences, a consulting firm in Coral Gables, Florida. Just walking into the living room when the lights are down may cue your body to grab an evening snack, he says. A bad habit can also be an unconscious response to stress or boredom.
Once you’ve identified a trigger for a habit you want to change, try substituting a behavior that’s healthier, Neal suggests. If, say, turning on the TV cues you to head to the freezer for a bowl of ice cream, you could work on deliberately replacing the dairy treat with a mug of hot tea. If you tend to turn to social media when you’re bored, click on a meditation app instead.
“Piggybacking on a habit you already have and replacing it with a healthier behavior can be easier than trying to stop cold turkey,” Neal observes.
6. Redesign your environment.
Another way to change your habits is to tweak your surroundings to make certain tasks harder or easier to do. If you have a practice of snacking regularly, for instance, move the chips or cookies to a place that’s hard to get to, or don’t have them in the house at all. Then put the healthy options front and center.
“I put almonds in clear plastic containers. I can open them with one hand and use the other hand to grab some almonds and put the lid back on,” Fogg says. “I also keep a kettlebell near my office to make it easy to do.”
If you watch too much TV, take the batteries out of the remote and put them into a kitchen drawer. Similarily, if you tend to overspend when shopping online, un-save your credit card number from your browser and favorite shopping sites.
You can also change your environment to facilitate good choices, such as by putting a book on your bedside table, instead of charging your smartphone there, and filling up a water bottle first thing in the morning, to have it handy at your desk.
7. Celebrate the wins.
New habits form more quickly and are more likely to stick if you feel good about them, Fogg says. Yet he has found that many adults focus more on their shortcomings than their successes. His tip? Find a way to make yourself feel a positive emotion each time you successfully complete a new habit. When you finish taking a walk, take a moment to mentally pat yourself on the back for taking a step toward better health.
“If you don’t feel successful, if something is a slog, then it’s not going to wire into your brain as a habit,” Fogg says. “If you purposely self-reinforce by causing yourself to feel a positive emotion … your brain says, ‘That felt good. I want to do it again.’ ”
Michelle Crouch is a contributing writer who has covered health and personal finance for some of the nation’s top consumer publications. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, Real Simple, Prevention, The Washington Post and The New York Times.