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A Science-Backed Strategy for Forming New Habits

If you want to build better habits, then implement this proven strategy

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Creative Photo Corner/ Shutterstock
Creative Photo Corner/ Shutterstock

Part of the challenge involved in establishing a new habit—especially at the very beginning—is simply remembering to carry it out.

Despite your best intentions, your new flossing habit will inevitably fall by the wayside as soon as you find yourself running late for work and dashing out of the house without so much as a backward glance at the trail of frenzied kitchen destruction you left in your wake.

To help make your habit a more automatic part of your daily routine, various experts have found that it is often helpful to use an external cue or trigger that acts as a reminder that it’s time to execute your habit.

Ideally, the cue will be something that you are already consistently doing or interacting with on a daily basis. If the cue has already been hard-wired into your daily routine, and you always execute your habit immediately after the cue, your habit is that much more likely to become similarly engrained.

So, how can you identify a good cue?

First, identify some activities you do every day in the same way and/or around the same time. For instance, perhaps every morning after your shower, you hang your towel on the hook behind the door. Because that’s a relatively consistent activity, you could use that as a cue to trigger your habit. If your goal is to do three push-ups every day, you could do them as soon as you hang your towel up on the hook.

Or maybe you put your slippers on every morning when you get out bed. That’s the perfect time to make your bed, do some stretching, or spend 15 minutes writing in a journal. Because whichever new habit you choose, you are far more likely to continue on with the rest of your plan to engage in your new habit if it is linked specifically to the daily action of sliding on your slippers.

This whole concept of taking advantage of your existing daily routine to anchor new habits is what Peter Gollwitzer, a professor of psychology at New York University and leading researcher on the psychology behind goal-setting and planning, refers to as “if-then” planning or “implementation intentions.” There have actually been quite a few studies that ultimately discovered people are truly more successful in accomplishing their goals when they plan their intentions in advance.

For example in one study, German participants were asked whether they would voluntarily commit to writing and submitting an essay about their experiences on Christmas Eve by December 26. Half of the participants were also asked about when, where, and how they would be writing their essays.

Those who engaged in if-then planning were actually three times more likely to successfully complete the essay. The results speak for themselves:

71% of the participants who established implementation intentions actually followed through with the task, while only 32% of the participants in the other group sent in their essays.

Another research study focused on participants who were attempting to establish a regular exercise routine.

Of those who used an if-then planning strategy to help stick to their goal, 91% were successful in following through. In comparison, only 39% of the participants who did not use if-then planning were able to stick to their exercise routine.

These two studies are not alone. In fact, there have been somewhere in the ballpark of 100 other studies conducted that similarly prove the power of if-then planning.

So what’s the takeaway for those of us trying to develop some new sticky habits?

Create your if-then implementation plan using the formula below:

If it is X, then I will do Y

Here are a few examples to inspire you to create your own implementation plan:

“If I am on the taxi, then I will open the Kindle app on my phone and read one page.”

“If I am in the shower, then I will close my eyes and meditate for 30 seconds.”

“If I’ve just arrived at my office in the morning, then I’ll eat one piece of fruit.”

“If I’ve just finished drinking a cup of coffee, then I’ll drink a glass of water.”

You get the picture: Existing environmental cue plus new habit equals an improved chance of success.

Whether you desire to exercise more, eat healthier or be more productive, start by creating your if-then implementation plan. Identify the existing environmental cue, and then tag your desired new habit onto it to create a habit chain.

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