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Personal Growth

5 Scientific Ways to Build Habits That Stick

Eliminate "ah-screw-its" and other ways to make that new habit last for the long haul.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Sobering words from Aristotle, and an astute reminder that success doesn’t come overnight. On the contrary, it’s discipline that gets you from Point A to the often elusive Point B.

In our day-to-day lives, habits can often be tough to build, as there are plenty of distractions that can lead us off the “straight and narrow” and right back to our old ways. To alleviate some of those troubles we can examine some academic research on motivation, discipline, and habit building, and break down their findings into actionable steps that any aspiring habit-builder can put into place.

1. Make “micro quotas” and “macro goals”

In a fascinating study on motivation, researchers found abstract thinking to be an effective method to help with discipline. In the most basic sense, “dreaming big” is pretty good advice after all. And since a variety of research around the self-determination theory shows us that creating intrinsic motivators (being motivated to do things internally, not through punishments or rewards) is an essential process of building habits that stick, you need to find a way to balance this desire to dream big with your day-to-day activities, which often do not result in quick, dramatic changes.

The answer is to create what I call “micro quotas” and “macro goals.” Your goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish, but your quotas, are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. Quotas make each day approachable, and your goals become achievable because of this.

Writer/developer Nathan Barry has made for a great case study of the use of these quotas as someone who forced himself to write 1000 words per day come hell or high-water. The result was three self-published books resulting in thousands of dollars in sales.

2. Create behavior chains

Creating sticky habits is far easier when we make use of our current routines, instead of trying to fight them. The concept of if-then planning is built around environmental “triggers” that we can use to let us know that it’s time to act on our habit. Also known implementation intentions, this tactic involves picking a regular part of your schedule and then building another “link in the chain” by adding a new habit.

For instance, instead of “I will keep a cleaner house,” you could aim for, “When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean my room/office/kitchen.” Multiple studies confirm this to be a successful method to rely on contextual cues over willpower. So the next time you decide to “eat healthier,” instead try “If it is lunch time, Then I will only eat meat and vegetables.”

3. Eliminate excessive options

According to a variety of research on self-control  —and expounded upon in books like The Willpower Effect — there is great power in being boring. Take, for instance, Barack Obama’s insistence on never wearing anything but blue and gray suits. According to the president, “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

The president’s belief is well supported by the researchKathleen Vohs and her colleagues’ study on self-control found that making repeated choices depleted the mental energy of their subjects, even if those choices were mundane and relatively pleasant. According to the Harvard Business Review, if you want to maintain long term discipline, it’s best to “Identify the aspects of your life that you consider mundane — and then ‘routinize’ those aspects as much as possible. In short, make fewer decisions.”

For lasting change, the steps you take must ultimately change your environment and schedule. Stop buying snacks if you want to stop snacking (no willpower needed), pack a very similar lunch every day of the week, and embrace the power of routine to get the necessary done each day.

4. Process plan (but don’t fantasize)

The step that many people skip when they fantasize about building a certain habit is they never clearly answer why they want the change to occur. It may seem like a small detail, but it plays a huge role in keeping our motivation up over time. A variety of research shows us that excessive fantasizing about results can be extremely detrimental to the stickiness of any habit.

According to this study from UCLA, the mistake is in what we visualize. Researchers found that those participants who engaged in visualizations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve the goal (ex: fantasizing about learning another language, by visualizing themselves practicing every day after work) were more likely to stay consistent than their peers (that visualized themselves speaking French on a trip to Paris). The visualization process worked for two reasons:

  • Planning: visualizing the process helped focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotion: visualization of individual steps led to reduced anxiety.

5. Eliminate “ah-screw-its”

New habits are often very fragile, and it is for this reason that we must eliminate any source of friction that may lead us astray. These “ah-screw-it” moments (hat tip to blogger Derek Halpern) are the specific moments where you find yourself saying, “Screw this, it’s not worth the effort!” A more scientific take on this phenomenon is called the What the Hell Effect, which explains why we are so likely to abandon ship with a new habit at the first slip-up.

The solution? Examine your habit and find exactly where things start to break down. In a great example of putting this in action, Author and 99U speaker Ramit Sethi has explained how he improved his gym attendance by finding where things would slip:

When I sat down to analyze why I wasn’t going to the gym, I realized: my closet was in another room. That meant I had to walk out in the cold [to] put on my clothes. It was easier to just stay in bed. Once I realized this, I folded my clothes and shoes the night before. When I woke up the next morning, I would roll over and see my gym clothes sitting on the floor. The result? My gym attendance soared by over 300%.

You can even incorporate an “if-then” scenario once you find the culprit. For instance, if fatigue is stopping you from playing guitar after work, you could set up a system of “If I’m feeling tired after work, then I will take a 20-minute nap and listen to music for five minutes to get myself motivated.”

What about you?

How do you create new regular habits?

Comments (73)
  • Eric Boggs

    Great post, Greg. I would recommend adding a way to print out a small synopsis that we can post on our bedroom doors (or whatever door makes sense) so that we keep these words of wisdom with us!

    • Gregory Ciotti

      Appreciate that Eric! Actually, in my last article on creativity someone made a small chart that summed up the research, which was awesome!

  • Vincent Nguyen

    Greg, this was a great guide. I set habits by creating self-imposed deadlines and by using the 5-second rule. The rule is basically every time I count to 5 I HAVE to do whatever it is I told myself to do. Do this often enough and it becomes a habit for me.

  • Kara Zor-El

    thanks for this post. I am very interested in this subject, though I am nowhere near scholarly in the area. I am curious about it’s effectiveness with individuals who have certain impairments that make creating that intrinsic motivation more difficult. Things like TBIs PTSD depression, etc. Whether it is still a matter of finding the motivation to create the habit or build a habit in order to create the “mental muscle memory” to begin creating that intrinsic motivation. I apologize if I am not explaining my thoughts effectively, again, not a scholar. – Veronica

    • buckyboy

      Excellent question … to me, at least, since both I and my daughter suffer from motivation-dampening impairments (esp. comorbid anxiety and depression). This poses distinct challenges in the realm of motivation, and while this comments thread is probably not the best place to raise this question, it’s a super-pertinent question to those of us whose psychobiology is inimical to developing and sustaining motivation.

  • Michael Pratt

    Great post Gregory, and timely too!

  • Aaron Morton

    Thanks Gregory a nice article to share. Regarding habits I ask myself what acts make up the habit. I look at my schedule for the day and ask how and where I can implement the act into my day. I then do it and feedback each day to see what was done and the result i got.

    As time continues my aim is to notice when I do the acts without having planned to do it as by its very nature a habit is a behaviour done without thought!


    Aaron Morton
    The Confidence Lounge

  • Janna Barrett

    So glad to see this here. I saw it on your blog the other day but have put off reading it because the posts are always so long. Is there any way you can break them up into series and post more regularly, rather than post lengthy pieces less frequently?

    • svanho

      For short and sweet pieces, you should check out our Workbook posts! These articles are meant for when you want more meat to chew on. 🙂

      • Janna Barrett

        I do love the Workbook posts! When I saw this feature article was by Greg, though, I knew I had to read it. 🙂

    • Gregory Ciotti

      Heh, I can get quite wordy, that is for sure!

      Thanks for the feedback.

      • vivhat

        For what it’s worth, I like the longer articles and don’t think you should change the format. The success of LongForm shows that a lot of people do.

        If I was looking for Twitter-length posts, I would be on Twitter, not here.

  • Beckons Attore

    This wouldn’t just be useful for the auto mechanic of Las Vegas, but every auto mechanic. This would be useful for more than the average Joe, at least for those of my generation.

  • vivhat

    If you can’t manage to get through a 1000 word article, maybe you should just stick to Twitter, Janna.

  • Kuratur

    This is one of the best productivity/self-improvement posts I’ve read in a very long time. It’s so refreshing when someone goes to the work to put together a keeper like this, instead of just a quick re-blog.

    This is my first visit to the 99u blog, and I’ll be back!

    • Gregory Ciotti

      Now that’s what I like to hear. 🙂

      Be sure to sign up for my newsletter as well!

  • Sue Neal

    I think scheduling them indelibly into your daily routine is the most effective way, as in your point 2. I’ve managed to establish some good habits this way – like jogging and writing – and housework! Breaking bad habits can be tougher – I’ve been struggling with the need to take regular breaks when I’m working online for the last few months, having developed neck and shoulder problems, but find it really hard – I need a pomodoro timer that actually switches my computer off or ejects me from my chair, rather than ringing a bell!

  • Jenn at Hello, Brio!

    Ah this is a very refreshing motivation and habit article– I read a lot that I haven’t heard a million times over. I really like the if-then method and will try it… because having a more definite plan will help for sure. Also I really believe in eliminating mundane options– there are too many other important things to do than blow your energy on figuring out what you’re going to wear that day.

  • puja

    packers and movers Hyderabad
    Great post, i like this motivational article, very effective content, this post content a message of self improvement.

  • DudaUK

    Moola. Single piece of leather stitchless folded into a wallet. by Jose Santos

  • Von'Drey Winsett

    I try to switch up what I am doing,so that I don’t fall into that screw it routine.

  • Michael Feeley

    This is well done! Solid advice and examples about how to create change…shifting how you think and challenge yourself. Take it one small step at a time and be kind to yourself in the process. Thanks Gregory.

  • Harry @ GoalsOnTrack

    Great advice. There is a perfect tool for this:

  • Emilia @ MOUSH

    Great pointers. I do like #4 and going to apply it to learning mandarin. I have been dreaming about becoming fluent at speaking Mandarin one day in my life (hopefully before I am on my death bed!!) but have not done anything else with that thought or fantasy as you call it!! So I am going to visualise the the practicing time everyday. See how I go. Also really like and definitely relate to #3 – eliminating excess options wherever you can. Definitely works for me.

    • Chinnappan

      If is only a mere WISH to speak mandarine, it will not happen in your life. If there is a NEED to speak mandarine, then it will happen.

      • Dina

        Chinnappan, there is no NEED for I have for writing poetry every day, yet I WISH to do so, and so it happens.

  • Kent Mori

    Great (and most importantly practical) advice. Really reminded me of the book “The Power of Habits” (also highly recommended). Timely post too, just started thinking of 2014 resolutions!

  • Nate Pahl

    Great article!

  • Pierre Monke, Pixel Dreams

    Great article!

  • saniya

    Facebook attempts to blur the boundaries of public/private deliberately by a pretense to be about “friends” and “personal relationships” while at same time data mining. That is a more dangerous activity and misrepresentation

  • helpothers5354

    Number 5 is more like “Forget it ,I Quit!!!

  • Creative59

    That’s really a great article.
    I’m really a starter at this habits building magic. I just got to know how powerful it is recently. One thing I’ve learned is that you have to own the habit. I mean that things are much easier when you come up with your own habits instead of asking people what should I do regularly. For some reason this ownership changes everything.

  • Rich Brown

    That was excellent, thanks Gregory.

  • Jenn @ culdesaclife

    This is great inspiration this time of year. Our behaviors are the staircases that lead us up or down in life, and we are the builders. I mentioned this article in my first post of the new year

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