The 4 Best Tips on Habit Formation

By Gregory Ciotti

Below is some of the most concise advice on habit formation that researchers in the field have been able to show works effectively. The big takeaway here is avoid making grandiose “resolutions,” as they are the most likely to be abandoned (which then hurt your self-esteem & motivation).

Tip #1: Improve one aspect of the habit. Instead of trying to “force” a tough habit into your life all at once, try tackling it in small chunks. Focusing on exercising more is great, but trying to force yourself to go to the gym every day to do heavy exercise might be too much if you’ve never been a big gym person before. Stanford professor Baba Shiv notes that “cognitive overload” can occur, and you’ll likely be back to your old ways in no time. Instead of re-structuring your whole diet, start out by making sure dinner is always healthy and full of vegetables, and work your way down the line.

Tip #2: Use “hacks” only to remove friction. While many of us can’t stand the gym, I truly hate going to the gym in the morning when it’s cold outside (you might be able to relate). As a result, I’ve found that preparing the clothes I need and placing the right next to my bed the night before is one of the few things that can get me to go that early in the morning. That’s because it removes the friction of getting my clothes out and getting ready (small, but remember we’re always looking for “an out” when it’s something we don’t want to do).
If you find there’s a small thing that you always rationalize as a way out (“I can’t floss because…”), try to use small tweaks to eliminate the friction that prevents you from getting things done.

Tip #3: Maintain accountability by writing it down. In my video/post on how to be more productive, I covered some interesting research on discipline that shocked a lot of people. The first set of studies came from the American Psychological Association, where drug addicts (a group notorious for their inconsistency) were tested on accountability, and researchers found that those who wrote down when & where they would complete an assigned 5-paragraph essay were 90% more likely to turn it in!

These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in “normal” people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet. The point: keep track to stay accountable!

Tip #4: Focus on positive reinforcement. It’s been discussed many times before (such as in this article), but you need to focus on “the carrot instead of the stick,” meaning self-punishment isn’t a very good way to reinforce goals. Many people don’t give enough credit to the changes they have made in their efforts. Jeremy Dean highlights a myriad of research on why small rewards and positive reinforcement is critical for long-term habit change in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits. You don’t want to have your brain “abandon ship” (via research from Janet Polivy) on habit just because you messed up once, so be sure to be mindful of the small progress you’ve made as you push forward.

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