7 Science-Backed Strategies for Building Powerful Habits
You're not alone. Science can help.
Achieving a goal often involves developing a new routine and sticking to it. Whether you want to network more, take on more consulting work, wake up earlier or exercise regularly, you’ll have to cement your intention by making it a habit.
Switching up your schedule can be unsettling and inconvenient. Life gets in the way, and it can be tempting to make excuses about why you have to break your habit.
That’s why some scientists dedicate their careers to figuring out what influences human behavior. If we know how we’re hardwired to respond to our own actions, we can set ourselves up for continued success.
Read on for some scientifically proven tips for developing habits that last.
1. Discover what triggers you.
In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg describes a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a revelation MIT researchers originally discovered. The three steps in the loop are “cue,” “routine” and “reward.”
To carry out a specific action regularly, you’ll need a reliable reminder (cue). If you aim to stick to a certain time of day, set an alarm. A consistent location also helps. Also, places you already frequent will likely trigger your existing habits (e.g., sitting on the couch triggers you to want to watch TV).
Other people are some of your biggest behavioral influences and can be cues, too. Try to surround yourself with individuals who already behave how you aspire to.
If you perform on cue over and over, you’ll develop your routine. And once you’re immersed in your routine, you’ll start to reap the reward that comes from following through with your intentions.
Read more: 5 Triggers That Make New Habits Stick
2. View your goal as an obligation rather than a desire.
Sometimes we’re motivated more by the negative repercussions of not doing something than we are by the possible benefits of doing it.
Tory Higgins, a professor of psychology and business at Columbia University, has spent more than 20 years studying what makes people reach their goals. He is also the director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center. He describes two categories of goals: promotional goals and prevention goals. Promotional goals are ones we hope to achieve, while prevention goals are ones we are afraid not to achieve.
You can look at the same goal and frame it in a promotional manner or a prevention manner. Prevention is more effective, Higgins has said. So, tell yourself, “I have to achieve my goal because otherwise I won’t X.” The first time you carry out the activity necessary for your habit and goal, it will become your new status quo. You will feel worried that slipping up at any point in the future will disrupt that status quo.
Conversely, framing it in a promotion way, such as “I have to achieve my goal because X good thing will happen if I do,” doesn’t hold you accountable. If you have an off day, you’ll become discouraged that the “X good thing” you’re working toward will never materialize.
3. Work on one habit at a time.
Even if you’ve determined your triggers, or a schedule for carrying out your new habit, you will be far less likely to keep it up if you try to make more than one big routine change at a time.
If you’re trying to master more than one habit at a time, studies have shown that you’ll be far more likely to fail than if you were just working on one. Know that you don’t need to revamp your entire life all at once, and you probably won’t be able to, anyway.
4. Stack one habit on top of another.
Keep in mind that you already have a lot of habits. But don’t worry: They don’t have to get in the way of the new ones you’re trying to establish.
In fact, your existing habits can serve as the basis for your future habits. Certain actions are already second nature to you -- from showering to brewing a pot of coffee -- because you have developed neural pathways in your brain that take you through the steps.
Experts suggest that you “stack” your habits. For example, if your goal is to practice gratitude regularly, when you go to the kitchen to make your coffee in the mornings, you might think of one thing you’re grateful for. Why try to carve a new path when you can follow a well-worn one?
5. Don’t confuse your habit with your goal.
In other words, don’t dwell on what you’re working toward in the long term. If you successfully perform your habitual task, consider that a win in and of itself.
This is the “routine” part of the neurological habit loop. You can’t expect to see dramatic fitness results after only going to the gym a handful of times, and the same goes for any other type of goal and habit. Focus on the ritual, rather than the result. Over time, the process will become second nature, and your desired outcome will follow.
6. Minimize decision-making.
Making choices is tiresome. There’s even a term for the exhaustion you feel after making too many: Decision fatigue.
One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that participants demonstrated reduced self-control -- less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure and more procrastination -- after making several decisions about what types of goods to buy.
If your goal is to read more, for instance, create a short list of books or articles you’re interested in, then rank them in order of which you want to read first. Simply wandering over to your bookshelf every time you’re ready to crack open a book will make you feel overwhelmed.
Streamlining your routine and narrowing your choices -- in as many aspects of your life as possible -- will save you the mental energy you’ll need for the activity you’re trying to turn into a habit.
7. Reward yourself.
This doesn’t mean you need to provide yourself with external rewards such as small personal gifts (although you might find that effective). Your brain chemistry has its own reward system.
Every time you check off a task on your to-do list, your brain secretes the hormone dopamine, which corresponds with pleasure, learning and motivation. This is what makes you feel good about yourself when you do something you intended to do.
In pursuit of more dopamine, you’ll be driven to perform that same task again. Success begets success.
But keep in mind that little successes build up to big ones, as Stanford researcher B.J. Fogg has found. For instance, if your goal is better time management, commit to working on a project for just 10 minutes a day at first. If you set the bar at a height you can consistently clear, you’ll be more likely to succeed, get that dopamine rush again and keep your momentum going.
Read more: Why Our Brains Like Short-Term Goals