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5 essential strategies for forming new, positive habits

Discover proven techniques to build lasting good habits and transform your life

Embarking on the journey of self-improvement involves not just breaking bad habits, but also cultivating new, positive ones. Success in habit formation hinges on understanding and applying the habit loop: cue, routine, and reward. Our guide explores five key strategies to effectively build new habits that stick. Whether your goal is to exercise more, improve your diet, or practice mindfulness, these techniques, backed by psychology and research, will set you on the path to a healthier, more fulfilling life.

Start small

Technique: Begin with small, manageable changes.

Why It Works: Behavioural psychology and habit formation research suggest that small habits reduce the psychological barrier to taking action. BJ Fogg, a Stanford psychologist, emphasises in his book “Tiny Habits” that by starting small, you minimise resistance and make the habit more achievable, leading to a higher success rate. The lesser the effort required, the more likely the behaviour will become consistent.

Example: If your goal is to exercise more, start with three 40-minute gym sessions a week rather than six hour-long ones.

Attach the new habit to an existing one

Technique: Known as ‘habit stacking,’ this involves adding your new habit to a habit you already have.

Why It Works: James Clear, in his book “Atomic Habits,” discusses how linking a new habit with an existing one creates a natural trigger for the new behaviour. This method is effective because the existing habit acts as a consistent and reliable cue, making it easier to remember the new habit.

Example: If you already drink coffee every morning, stack the new habit of taking vitamins by placing them next to your coffee maker.

Be consistent in timing and environment

Technique: Perform your new habit at the same time and in the same place every day.

Why It Works: Consistency in timing and environment helps in forming strong associative cues, as suggested by habit formation research. The context becomes a powerful trigger for the habit, according to a study that appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Example: If you want to start practicing mindfulness, do it every morning in a specific chair or place in your home.

Make it enjoyable

Technique: Find ways to make your new habit enjoyable or rewarding.

Why It Works: Positive reinforcement plays a crucial role in habit formation. Enjoyable activities stimulate the brain’s reward system, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure, as explained in neuroscience research. This makes the habit more likely to stick.

Example: If you’re forming a habit of running, listen to your favourite music or podcast while doing it or arrange to run with a friend.

Use visual cues and reminders

Technique: Place visual reminders of your new habit in your environment.

Why It Works: Visual cues act as triggers for new behaviours, according to the principles of classical conditioning in psychology. They serve as constant reminders, keeping the desired behaviour at the forefront of your consciousness. This concept is supported by research in cognitive psychology on the effectiveness of environmental cues.

Example: If you’re trying to drink more water, keep a water bottle visible on your desk.

Track Your Progress

Technique: Use a journal, app, or calendar to track your adherence to the new habit.

Why It Works: Self-monitoring is a well-established technique in behavioural psychology that enhances awareness of behaviour and progress. Tracking habits can increase motivation and accountability, according to studies on goal-setting and behaviour change that show how visual representation of progress can be highly motivating.

Example: Mark each day you complete your habit on a calendar.

Overcoming Challenges 

Setbacks are an inevitable part of the habit change process. They can be caused by various factors, such as stress, changes in routine, or underestimating triggers. Seeing setbacks as learning opportunities rather than failures is crucial for long-term success so here’s what to do when things don’t go to plan. 

Accept and reflect

Strategy: Accept that setbacks are part of the process and reflect on what caused them.

Why it works: Acceptance and reflection are key components of cognitive-behavioural therapy, which is effective in changing habits. As Charles Duhigg notes in The Power of Habit, understanding the habit loop (cue, routine, reward) is crucial, and reflecting on what triggers your habits is part of this. Acceptance reduces the negative emotions that can accompany setbacks, which has been highlighted by the psychologist Kristin Neff in her research on self-compassion.

Example: If you skipped your new exercise routine, identify what prevented you from completing the session. Was it lack of time, motivation, or something else?

Avoid an ‘all-or-nothing’ mindset

Strategy: Understand that one slip-up does not undo all your progress.

Why it works: This strategy is grounded in the psychological concept of cognitive restructuring. It helps in avoiding cognitive distortions like “all-or-nothing” thinking, which can derail habit change efforts. Habit expert and author James Clear is big on this and emphasises in his book Atomic Habits the importance of consistency over perfection.

Example: If you have a day of unhealthy eating, don’t view your diet as ruined; instead, focus on returning to healthier choices the next day.

Revisit and adjust your plan

Strategy: Reassess and modify your plan if necessary.

Why It Works: Flexibility in habit formation is recommended by the habit formation expert and author BJ Fogg. Adjusting strategies in response to setbacks is part of an iterative process that allows for more personalised and effective habit formation.

Example: If waking up early for a workout isn’t working, consider rescheduling it for a time when you feel more energetic.

Reinforce your ‘why’

Strategy: Remind yourself of the reasons why you wanted to change the habit.

Why it works: Reconnecting with your core motivation for changing a habit is a principle in motivational interviewing, an established technique used in behaviour change. This reflection can reignite the intrinsic motivation needed for successful habit change.

Example: If your goal is to quit smoking for health reasons, remind yourself of the health benefits when tempted to smoke.

Celebrate your wins

Strategy: Acknowledge and celebrate the progress you have made.

Why it works: Celebrating small wins is a form of positive reinforcement, a key concept in behavioural psychology. This strategy is supported by research that shows how positive reinforcement can strengthen the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated.

Example: If you’ve reduced your alcohol consumption, acknowledge the reduction instead of focusing solely on the days you drank.

Develop a recovery plan

Strategy: Have a plan in place for how to respond to setbacks.

Why it works: Having a predetermined plan for dealing with setbacks reduces the cognitive load during moments of weakness or failure, making it easier to get back on track. This approach is aligned with the concept of implementation intentions in psychology.

Example: If you miss a day of your new habit, plan to do a shorter or easier version of it the next day to rebuild momentum.

Photo Sven Meike

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