The Science of Creating a Good Habit 0

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We’vephoenix-bird-image-edit2.gif all experienced this: we want to start a new habit, we’re successful for two weeks, and then we fall off the wagon and don’t get back on.  It’s a frustrating experience, and makes us less likely to try again.  But there is hope.  Psychologists have been studying how people successfully start and keep new habits.  The following recommendations are all based on research.  Real change comes from daily practice, and the more specific your plan for the new practice, the more likely you will succeed.

  1. Start with SMART goals.  Make it Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time specific.  For instance, instead of “I’ll exercise more,” your new habit might be, “I’ll walk outside for twenty minutes every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday starting at 5:30pm, and I commit to this for the next two weeks.”
  2. Get clear on the why.  Don’t follow “shoulds,” like my doctor said I should exercise more.  Instead, focus on the benefit you really want in the near future, like maybe you want to feel more energized.  So, what do you hope to gain?
  3. Ritualize it.  There are two types of habits.  One is a scheduled routine and the other is a protocol.   For the scheduled routine, you’d name the time and place that it will happen.  You should put this on an electronic calendar with a reminder.  The best practice is to add your new habit into a routine you already do.  For instance, you might exercise before drinking your first cup of coffee in the morning.  The other type of habit is a protocol.  That’s when the practice is dependent on a cue that could come at any time.  If X happens, then you’ll do Y.  For instance, “If I blow a commitment to someone, I’ll own up to it, commit to making it right, and offer a small make-up as soon as possible.”  In either the scheduled routine or the protocol, we’re ritualizing it so we don’t have to decide later to do the right thing.  We just do it automatically.
  4. Reward successes, even small ones.  How will you reward your small successes?  In the exercise before coffee example above, the coffee is the reward.  Make sure you give yourself those promised rewards.  How will you reward a milestone achieved?
  5. Log your efforts.  Use a journal or checklist.  Examples of log entries: Y or N, number of minutes, quality rating (1 to 10), number of miles, etc.  Consider posting your log online and sharing it with your accountability partners.  What will you do to log it?
  6. Get a support partner.  Who will you ask to provide support and hold you accountable?  It’s best to ask specific people.  If you ask a group to hold you accountable, it will only work if the group keeps a log and checks it regularly.  Good support looks like encouragement, recognizing good effort, asking you to stretch outside of your comfort zone, and asking what you might do differently to improve your outcome.  Share with your partners the specifics of your new habit.  What exactly will you ask them to do?  Is each person on your list likely to follow through with keeping you accountable in the way that you want?

To review: Use SMART goals, get clear on the why, ritualize it with a scheduled routine or a protocol, reward successes, log your efforts, and get a support partner.

One last bit of advice: Don’t try to add too many new habits at once.  Focus on one or two at a time.  If you would like me to be your support partner, let me know.  Check out the Good Habits support service.  Good luck with your new positive habit.  Post your questions and comments, including what new habit you plan to start.  And if you like this post, please pass along to friends.