How to Start Good Habits and (Actually) Stick to Them, According to Stanford Psychologists

And you can actually have fun in the process.

Westend61 / Getty Images
Westend61 / Getty Images

Starting a new habit is easy, but how do you stick with it? Psychology has a surprising solution.

The Internet is chock full of habits that can massively improve your life (in fact, I’ve written about quite a few myself). Actually sticking to your habits, however, is an entirely different story.

Although we know which habits — like eating healthy — are good for us, our brains and willpower seemingly work against us. When deadlines and responsibilities pile up, even the simplest of habits are impossible to stick to.

Look no further than BJ Fogg, a renowned habit expert and Stanford Psychologist, and his team for the solution.

Fogg and his team spent years studying mega-successful companies, like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, that have made billions testing — and figuring out — how to make people use their products as automatic habits. The findings apply to much more than how to get people to click “like,” however.

In his research, Fogg discovered a remarkably simple and elegant solution to make positive habit-building automatic, and — dare I say it — even enjoyable.

Read on to see how you can make positive habit-building a lot more fun and achievable:

Harness the dopamine effect.

The explanation for why we are inclined to click around on Facebook rather than eat a vegetable is actually quite simple; if it feels good, our brain reminds us to do it again.

That’s why Fogg’s system revolves around starting making habits something to feel good about (rather than being excruciating).

To begin, you must identify the desired outcome; what are you really trying to accomplish here? Are you exercising to fit into a specific pair of pants? To have better overall health? Understanding the root of your desire for change will ultimately help you to design positive behavioral changes and will structure the process.

If your goal is to follow a healthier diet, for example, try to viscerally picture how you will feel from the end results. Think about how you you want to have more energy, or better skin, or how you’ll protect yourself from heart disease. Mentally walking yourself through the process of success and the joys and benefits it brings can teach your brain to be motivated by something other than dread.

Then, start with baby-steps.

“It’s much easier and it’s much more reliable to start habits that are small and get them firmly rooted in the ground by feeling successful” — BJ Fogg

Next, you should identify the behaviors that Fogg refers to as “tiny habits” — Fogg explains in this Ted Talk that we should start with small actions that we can celebrate.

After all, the best diet isn’t the one that’s most effective on paper; it’s the one you are actually able to follow. Fogg recommends starting with three of these mini routines, which should be easily integrated into your daily schedule and should take less than thirty minutes each.

If you want to get in shape, for instance, start by lifting moderate weights for ten minutes a day, and giving yourself a pat on the back after.

By reinforcing ourselves after the behavior we are creating a feeling of positivity and reward, which eventually helps our brain to associate the action as something that makes us feel good (so get over it if you feel a little silly giving yourself a high five)!

Use triggers.

In addition to being simple, enjoyable, and easy to incorporate, Fogg insists that these new habits follow other routines that are already ingrained into your daily life; he refers to these as “the trigger.”

This way, every time you complete this already existing behavior, there will be a trigger, or an automatic reminder, in your brain to do the new one. For example, every time you use the restroom (in your own home, of course) do five push ups or every time you hang up the phone at work take thirty seconds of silent reflection.

By the end of the day, you will have done quite a few push-ups and meditated for a significant amount of time — and suddenly, you find yourself as an exerciser and meditation guru without even really trying too hard!

Let it snowball.

Sure, it might not seem like a massive achievement to do five push ups or wake up ten minutes earlier. But according to Fogg’s research, these habits will snowball into something amazing if you keep going:

“The good news is your tiny habit will naturally expand to the bigger behavior. Just keep your tiny habit going. Eventually, without much effort, you’ll be doing the full behavior. Life lesson: believe in the baby-steps.”

No matter what the headlines say, the “next big thing” didn’t just spring into action overnight. Great ideas and positive habits take time. For every success story that looks instantaneous, know that it took years of hard work behind the scenes to set the stage.

Positive habits and sweeping change in your life won’t happen overnight, but they will happen eventually.

You may also like: 

5 Rare Habits of Managers Everyone Would Die to Work For

Ambition (Alone) Won’t Guarantee Your Success — but These Habits Will

8 Horrible Habits That Are Ruining Your Productivity (and How to Fix Them)

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