Part II of Successful Habit Formation
Did you know that nearly half of our behaviors come from habits? Habits are helpful because they require less mental energy than doing something new. With habits, your brain takes short-cuts to make engaging in repetitive actions, like brushing your teeth, less effortful.
In part I of the series on habit formation, I shared a four-step process for starting a positive change or stopping a negative habit. In that blog post, we focused on identifying your trigger and craving, and on how to shift your response and reward, to instill healthy habits for the long term.
Indeed, growth and change are important to becoming healthier and happier. But the truth is, when it comes to establishing a new repetitive action, getting it to stick can be challenging. Fortunately, with some simple adjustments to how you set your goals, you can quit bad habits and get new healthy habits in place for good.
Start by asking yourself these questions:
⦁ Is my goal very specific?
⦁ Am I motivated enough to reach this goal?
⦁ Do I have a trigger that prompts me?
“In 2012 I gave a keynote at a health conference in which I shared my concept of ‘Motivation Wave.’ One key idea is that when motivation is high, you can get people to do hard things. But once it drops (the wave subsides), then people will only do easy things.” —Dr. BJ Fogg, founder, The Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University
1. Make your goal specific.
Setting yourself up for success starts with being specific about who you want to become (which is a question you answered in part I of this series) and what you want. You do this by reflecting on your values. By considering your values, you can identify what’s deeply important to you. And when you are clear on what matters most to you, you have a greater chance of making the lasting change you seek.
Think about your values in a wide variety of areas in your life: health, relationships, spirituality, career, education, finances, hobbies, organizing, leadership, relaxation, community, justice, and so on. For example, if you value your health, you may be inspired to set a goal of getting more exercise. Then, choose one specific behavior that is aligned with your goal.
For example: I will take a walk every day.
2. Make your goal a baby step.
People often fail at forming good habits by not matching their ability to their level of motivation. In other words, if your goal matches your priorities but not your capacity to deliver, then you’ll likely stop trying.
For example, as much as you feel inspired to take a long walk every day, the reality may be that your schedule is too full to add in a daily long walk. No matter how much motivation or how high the desire, if the goal is beyond your capability, it’s not likely to stick.
The solution? Refine your behavior change goal until it is a doable baby step.
Try to make your habit so small and easy that you can do it in five minutes. Once you have success and your motivation goes higher, you can take on something harder.
For example: I will take a five-minute walk four days out of the week.
Once you build success momentum by taking this baby step regularly, you will naturally take bigger steps, because the mental load will go down and your ability will go up.
3. Stack the behavior onto a pre existing routine.
We have all heard the phrase, “There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” and that is pertinent to habit formation as well. Don’t start from scratch. Instead, piggy-back on what’s already working well for you, so your success can come to you more easily.
After you have a very specific goal (for example, to walk five minutes four days a week) that is based on your priorities (improve your health) and that answers the question, “Who do I want to become?” (a person who moves my body more), it’s time to add the final key to improving your life: habit stacking.
As the name implies, habit stacking simply means adding your new habit to an existing habit that already exists in your life. For instance, if you faithfully drink coffee in the morning, you can stack your new behavior onto it.
For example: In the morning, I will drink my coffee, put on my walking shoes and sweats, and take a five-minute walk.
Keeping up with change
Change is possible. In fact, it’s probable. Life is not static, and so to be healthy and happy we must make adjustments if we are ever to keep up with the surprises that our ever-evolving lives have in store for us. If change is imminent, why not take the opportunity to make positive changes? Why not start healthy habits or end adverse ones? With these tips, I hope you’ll see that long-term change is doable. Set your new goal and start with a baby step today!
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Fogg, B. J. (2021). Tiny habits: The small changes that change everything. Chicago: Thorndike Press.
Scott, S. J. (2017). Habit stacking. CreateSpace Publishing.