Posted on April 08 2019
Have you heard that a habit is formed in 21 days? Or that to change a habit, all you need is willpower? Well, you can dismiss both notions.
According to behavioral scientist Dr. BJ Fogg, habits are actually a design challenge. Meaning that the habit-change recipe we create is in large part what determines success — not just sheer determination.
So whether you're trying to break a bad habit, establish a good habit, or both, Dr. Fogg believes it's good to start small and with a plan rather than simply gritting your teeth. Read on to learn more about what habits are, the benefits of establishing positive ones and how to create a tactical plan for achieving goals like working out regularly or saving more money.
What is a habit?
“A habit is a behavior that you do without thinking too much – you do it quite automatically,” Fogg says. He adds that habits have had evolutionary value for millennia. Habits save our mental bandwidth.
However, we often hear habits used as a pejorative term. For one reason or another, many people find themselves doing daily things detrimental to their own well-being. Working, eating, sleeping and even shopping can become part of a larger negative pattern, if left unchecked.
Part of the work Fogg does is to try to awaken people to their "automatic" thinking patterns and help them identify ways to shift their behavior over time.
How to create a good habit
Establishing a good habit — or banishing a bad one — isn't like flipping a switch. Start by identifying a realistic goal and map out small ways to work towards it every day.
Molly Drews, a personal trainer in Los Angeles, CA, agrees. “Usually [new clients] come in with very lofty goals. I try to get them to see the small changes they can make.” Her coaching encompasses all aspects of well-being. Drews wants to know what’s going on emotionally, how much clients are sleeping and what they think about themselves. She aims to get them to love their bodies and develop a habit of healthy self-talk.
For instance, she tells clients that even if they truly don’t believe they can accomplish something, their thoughts should be “I’m capable,” or “I am going to do this.” And she advocates for little habits like always having nuts and water in the car — because being stuck in traffic with nothing to eat can often activate unhealthy habits like overeating later or spending impulsively on fast food and harmful snacks.
Fogg has even developed his own proprietary method called Tiny Habits. The first step is to pick something easy and really small that you want to change. The second is to find where it fits naturally in your day. This is called “anchoring.”
Fogg offers the seemingly-hard-to-start habit of flossing as an example. Instead of just saying "I will floss every day," say, "After I brush, I will floss one tooth." If it works, keep going, and if it doesn’t, revise the design. Find another place where the habit can fit naturally in your life. “Plant a seed in the right spot, and it grows on its own,” says Fogg.
How to change a bad habit into a positive one
Fogg speaks from experience. He broke his practice of waking up in the middle of the night and surfing the internet by tricking his brain and implementing a tiny habit. When he woke up, instead of getting up or resisting the urge, Fogg would simply lay there for 15 seconds without judgment. Surprisingly, most of the time he’d think, “This feels so good, what was I thinking?” and go back to sleep.
Kerry Wekelo, managing director of human resources and operations for a financial services consulting firm in Reston, VA, also uses her work as a wellness coach and author to design habit systems for her coworkers. For instance, when the habit is to overwork when overwhelmed, she advises to get three things off your plate right away and delegate.
Once new habits were implemented at the firm, she noticed that employees seemed more satisfied. In fact, retention rates dropped from 33% to below 1% for the last three years.
Have the courage to go tiny...With one seed, it’s amazing what we can grow.
As a way of ensuring that the good habits established have staying power, Fogg suggests a method called “staging.”
For instance, if you’re trying to replace the habit of overspending or impulse purchasing at the market, make a shopping list every time. If after lunch, you have a habit of browsing a certain shoe website, pick another website that gives you pleasure without purchase options.
Not surprisingly, habit change has another added benefit, just like Dr. Fogg’s plant analogy: Once you develop one, new ones often blossom with it. “Have the courage to go tiny,” he reminds us. "With one seed, it’s amazing what we can grow."
Four small ways to make big changes:
- Make tech your friend. Wekelo is a fan of tracking her spending and saving by using her bank app to check in, versus only looking at her statement once a month. Drews recommends the Fitbit for tracking how much sleep you're getting, and MyFitnessPal for tracking macronutrients and calories.
- Take it slow. When testing a new habit, Fogg recommends thinking of yourself as a baby learning to walk. "Notice the baby doesn't blame itself if it stumbles, it keeps going and eventually gets better," he says.
- Use the buddy system. Drews suggests starting a new habit with a friend. A buddy can help keep you accountable and offer support and encouragement.
- Remember the why. Are you saving up for something special or for a long-term goal like retirement? "From the beginning, pick behaviors that you are motivated to do," says Fogg. "Clearly understand why you want to do something." Drews adds, "Be able to answer why you want something to change and what will change when you achieve it."
Stacy Suaya recently created a habit of taking an hour-long walk every morning, without a cell phone, in which she focuses on gratitude and visualization of goals. The Los Angeles-based writer’s work has appeared in The New York Times Styles, The New York Times T Magazine, Los Angeles Times, C Magazine and Robb Report.
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