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Stanford University School of Medicine

Fostering good habits: A step-by-step guide

write-593333_1920I've picked up quite a few bad habits over my nearly four decades (mmmm, Diet Coke) and it usually takes quite a huge warning sign for me to make any changes (am I really spending that much on my soda pop habit)?

But where to start? The thought of major change alone is enough to send me scurrying to the fridge. Also, for full transparency, I'm not a fan of self-help anything.

Yet, when I spotted "How to make good habits stick: 6 secrets from research" in Time recently, I started reading. And, although I was prepared to encounter nonsense and quickly click away, I made it all the way though. It's science-based advice, minus cheesy happily-ever-after endings.

First, pick your habits carefully, columnist Eric Barker writes. Exercise is a "keystone habit." Those who exercise, for example, are more likely to eat better. "Keystone habits change how you see yourself. And that’s what causes the cascade of positive change," Barker says.

The next key principle is to start small. Barker quotes BJ Fogg, PhD, director of Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab:

Make it tiny. To create a new habit, you must first simplify the behavior. Make it tiny, even ridiculous. A good tiny behavior is easy to do — and fast.

Like, Barker suggests, flossing one tooth. Just one, that's it.

Next, create a plan. Set goals. Write it down. Be concrete.

This next one is good — reward yourself. So, should I treat myself to an ice cream cone instead of a diet Coke? No, no, no. Then I'd just have another habit to correct. Instead, Barker suggests, citing the University of Pennsylvania's Katherine Milkman, PhD, tie something you want to do with an activity you should do.

For example, listen to a favorite audiobook only at the gym. Play video games only after cleaning the cat litter. You get the idea.

Then, remind yourself. Set alarms. Hide notes. Make a list.

Finally, to cement that habit in, 'fess up. Tell your friends, your spouse, your brother. As New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg says:

One of the big important things is that when you’re trying to change a habit, you have to believe that change is possible. It’s what’s known as an internal locus of control. Part of getting that belief, oftentimes, comes from participating in change in a group environment.

Finally, support yourself, Barker writes: "Forgive yourself and start again."

Previously: Jumping on the "happiness track" with author and Stanford psychologist Emma Seppäla, Advice for changing health behavior: "Think like a designer"Online Stanford nutrition course improves participants' eating habits, study finds and Using a traffic light system to encourage healthier eating habits
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