Weekly Roundup: 6 research-backed ways to make new habits stick

How many times have you worked hard to make good work habits stick only to fall back into your old way of doing things a few weeks later?

It’s demoralizing, but only natural.

The thing is, humans are inherently lazy creatures. Our brains are built to hoard energy. And switching to a new habit or doing something out of the ordinary takes motivation, discipline, and more than a bit of our already limited willpower. So you can bet that if our brains can get us to go back to the old, familiar way of doing things, they will.

It’s not enough to simply build good work habits. We need to find ways to ensure those habits stick. So, if you’re looking to keep up with your healthier habits here are 6 techniques you can try.

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Use Habit Stacking to take advantage of our lazy brains

When we say that our brains are “lazy” what we’re really saying is they like to keep the status quo. Thanks to a process that happens when we get older called synaptic pruning our brains build stronger connections between neurons every time we repeat a behavior. The more you do something, the easier (and less energy taxing) it becomes.

While this is great for your current good habits, it also means that when you stop doing a behavior your brain removes or “prunes” that connection. When it comes to habit building it’s literally “use it or lose it.”

One big benefit of these already made connections, however, is that they’re great launching points for new habits. Researchers have found that we can actually take advantage of our current habits to build new ones.

How to start stacking your habits

Think of the thousands of tiny habits you have every day, like putting on a pot of coffee in the morning and brushing your teeth after your shower. Those connections are made. So adding a new action to them gives you a strong trigger for your new habit.

To stack habits like this it’s as simple as saying “After/Before I do [current habit], I will do [new habit].”

Sounds too easy? Here’s a few habit stacking examples to help you get started:

  • Write 500 words every day: “After I have my morning coffee I will write 500 words.”
  • Build your professional network: “After my lunch break I will send 1 email to a colleague or someone I want to connect with.”
  • Start a mindfulness practice: “Before I leave for work I will meditate for 5 minutes.”

These work because the habit you’re using as your trigger is already built into your life. You know you’re going to do it every day, so adding another action before or after it makes it more likely to stick.

Visualize the act, not the result of your new habit

exercise habits stick

You’ve probably heard of the power of positive visualization for changing behaviors. While it’s a great idea, unfortunately most research shows that simply visualizing change isn’t enough to make habits stick.

Instead, a study from UCLA found it all comes down to what we visualize.

Researchers found people who visualize the process of what needed to be done in order to change their habits were more likely to build that habit than their peers who just visualized the end result. For example, rather than simply visualizing knowing a new language, those who visualized going through the work and practicing every day were more likely to make the habits stick.

This works for a number of reasons:

  1. You become better at planning: By visualizing the process, it helps focus attention on the steps needed to reach the goal, rather than being overwhelmed by your long-term goal.
  2. You lower your anxiety for starting: Visualizing the process makes it easier to actually do what needs to be done as it feels more within our grasp.

How to use visualizing to make habits stick

Spend a few minutes every day visualizing the act of working towards your goal or habit.

If you want to be healthier or want to build the habit of hitting the gym, visualize yourself going through the workout, not how great you’ll look come swimsuit season. If you want to write a book, visualize sitting down and writing, not the final book.

Use unwavering consistency with your daily habits

You may have heard it takes 21 days for habits to stick. Unfortunately, not only is this a made up number, but it completely goes against the reason you’re trying to change your habits. A new, good work habit isn’t just about hitting some arbitrary number, but creating a new, healthier lifestyle for yourself.

As Shane Parrish of the Farnham Street blog explains:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to get up early or pick up and implement the Psychology of Human Misjudgment. Anything important happens pretty damn slowly.”

So forget about 21 days. Instead, focus on consistency.

Remember how our brains are lazy? As we do the same thing over and over, we make a physical connection in our brain, such as “wake up, check phone”. If you want to change that behavior to, say “wake up, meditate”, you have to physically rewire your brain, which takes energy.

Our ability to rewire depends on a number of factors. One of which is our brain’s neuroplasticity—or, its ability to change throughout our life.

When we’re younger and rapidly taking in new information, our brains have a high level of plasticity. But as we get older, habits get ingrained and it becomes harder to chain our brain. However, it isn’t impossible. Many studies have shown that we can make changes well into our adulthood. It just takes time.

How to use the benefits of consistency

To make your habits stick, commit to even the smallest version of it daily. This could mean flossing one tooth or simply putting on your gym clothes. As the habit starts to form, floss two or three teeth or go to the gym for 10 minutes. The key is to start almost excruciatingly small and build consistency. Keep at it daily and set a reminder for every few weeks to check in and make sure you’re keeping up with it.

P.S. If you want to learn more about the science of building and maintaining good habits, check out our in-depth guide on How to Build Good Work Habits.

Create a ‘time trigger’ to lower your chance of skipping habits

One of the hardest parts about building new habits that stick is working them into your schedule. With your old behaviors, they simply were just part of your day. These new ones, however, are strangers in your otherwise organized day.

One way to help maintain your new habit is to organize it around a specific time.

All habits are formed around some sort of trigger, with time being one of the most powerful. Think of how many habits you’ve already formed around waking up. You might reach for your phone to check emails or social media right away, or hop in the shower, brush your teeth, make a cup of coffee, etc…

You probably have other habits that creep up throughout the day. Maybe you go for a snack at a certain time every day, or open up Netflix as you sit down for dinner.

How to set up your own time triggers

Each of these moments is an opportunity to trigger your new good habit. For example, if you want to start meditating, make it the first thing you do when you wake up. This way it becomes an automatic response. There’s no bargaining or procrastinating. Your schedule makes your habits stick.

Tie your habit to a visual cue with the “Paperclip” strategy

the paperclip strategy

Time isn’t the only trigger that can help kickoff your healthy habits. In fact, one of the main reasons we fail is because our habits aren’t front and center in our minds. That’s why having a visual cue to attach to your habits can be another powerful way of keeping up your consistency.

On his blog, writer James Clear tells the story of a young Canadian stockbroker named Trent Dyrsmid who went from an unknown to sought-after professional through building his sales call habit. What was his secret to sticking with his habit?

“Every morning I would start with 120 paper clips in one jar and I would keep dialing the phone until I had moved them all to the second jar.”

It may sound simple, but when you dig into it it’s quite smart. In fact, this “paperclip strategy” pretty much mirrors exactly how habits are formed in the first place:

  • Trigger: The 120 paperclips in the one jar reminds us we need to start a behavior
  • Behavior: As we move paperclips, we get active feedback that we’re progressing towards our desired goal
  • Reward: The more we move clips to the ‘done’ jar, the more motivated we are to keep going thanks to what behavioral economists call the Endowed Progress Effect, which essentially says we place more value on things once we have them

How to use the “paperclip” strategy for yourself

Create your own visual cue for tracking your progress on a new habit. Want to drink 8 glasses of water in a day? Start with 8 paperclips on one side of your desk and move them over as you have a glass. Want to write every single day? Set up a calendar next to your desk and place a checkmark or sticker on every day that you put down some words. By not leaving the trigger to change, you have a better opportunity to make habits that stick.

Reframe your motivation to get rid of ‘ahh screw it!’ moments

Whenever you’re trying to make habits stick, you’ll more than likely run into moments where you want to throw your hands up and say ‘ahhh screw it!’ Or, as researchers call it—the ‘what-the-hell’ effect.

However, one study found that by simply reframing our motivation for doing the behavior, we can avoid this situation altogether.

In the study, a group made up of dieters and non-dieters were given the same slice of pizza. Afterwards, they were offered a plate of cookies and asked to rate them.

However, the cookie rating was a ruse. What the researchers really wanted to see was how many cookies a participant would eat when not given direction.

During the study, some people had been given a plate that made the slice of pizza appear bigger (although they were all the same size).

What they found was those who were on a diet and believed they’d eaten a large slice of pizza and blown their diet ate 50% more cookies.

This lead them to propose that when we feel like we’ve missed a daily goal we’re more likely to say “Ahh screw it!” and indulge.


How you can reframe your goals and stop saying “ahh screw it” to good habits

When it comes to making habits stick, you need to be aware of what’s motivating you.

Is it an inhibitional goal, as in I want to stop doing this. Or, an acquisitional goal, as in I want to keep doing this. 

In the study above, the dieters were following inhibitional goals. They didn’t want to eat too much. So when they missed the mark, they felt they had nothing to lose.

However, researchers have found that when we reframe goals from inhibitional ones to acquisitional ones, we’re more likely to keep them up.

For example, dieters can focus on the number of days in a row they’ve been eating healthy, while procrastinators can forget about their idling and focus on producing a certain amount of work a day.

So, ask yourself about your own habits. How can you reframe them from stopping a bad behavior to continuing a good one?

There’s no denying that making new habits stick is hard. Our brains don’t like change and will fight our good-intentioned changes. However, when we better understand how habits stick, we can make sure our efforts are worthwhile.

Have you successfully built new habits recently? If so, what worked for you keep up with them? Let us know in the comments.

Photos by Brad NeatheryFélix PradoSamuel Owoyemi

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.