Seven science-backed tips for forming habits that stick

Making a promise you can keep.
Making a promise you can keep.
Image: Reuters/Will Burgess
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Banishing bad habits and converting them to good ones is not easy. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Habit is habit, and not to be flung out the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time.” But how do we coax the bad habit down the stairs and out the door while encouraging the new one up the stairs and into the parlor?

Changing a habit takes several concrete steps; you cannot just make a proclamation about your weight or introversion and expect that it will come to pass. Changing behavior requires replacing undesirable mental cues and associations with constructive ones—that is, rewiring your brain through thoughts and deeds. All learning is a gradual process of forging new mental connections and reinforcing them through practice so that the desired action becomes the natural impulse over time.

As the co-authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, we have devised seven steps to setting new habits. We use the goal of losing weight through alterations to diet and exercise as our example here, but the same techniques work for any habit you wish to banish or cultivate: The challenge is to replace the undesirable habit (parking in a corner at parties and stuffing in the chips) with desirable ones (snacking less and spicing the revelry with your wit).

1. Powerful verbs. State your habit through powerful verbs of commitment. Studies show that when you phrase your resolution as a hope—“I want to try to lose weight”—you probably won’t succeed. Instead, state it as a fact: “I am committed to losing ten pounds” or “I am determined to fit into my favorite jeans.” Stating your desired change as a wish is like paging through a travel catalogue, but stating it in unequivocal terms is like putting your foot firmly on the path.

2. Public commitment. Don’t just promise to yourself in a moment of strength that you will keep your resolution. Even with a determined commitment, you are more likely to sustain it if you tell your family and your co-workers and ask for their support. Tell them your workout schedule, and report with satisfaction on how well you are sticking to your plan.

3. Remind yourself several times a day about your commitment to your resolution. When you wake up, speak to yourself in the mirror and affirm your resolution out loud and how you expect to achieve it. When you succeed in the new behavior, acknowledge doing so and relish the satisfaction of renewed self-control. Make several explicit commitments about your goals and practice saying them every day. Just like new learning in academia and motor skills, new behaviors are strengthened when you practice recalling and applying them. Action strengthens new mental connections, helping them to become dominant.

4. Cues for positive actions. Where you can, create physical cues to help manage temptations. If your weaknesses are crackers, cheese, and cookies, but you live with others who keep these on hand, put sticky notes on them that say, “Paul, don’t eat the cookies.” That way when the impulse of the old habit drives you to the cupboard, you will be more likely to pause, reflect on your goal, and find the resolve to turn away.

5. Constructive imagery. This advice is often given in the wrong form, such as imagining an end state like “Think of yourself as 25 pounds lighter.” That sort of image does little good—instead, imagine the steps you need to get there. Form images of your being tempted by an unhealthy snack and then choosing the healthy alternative. Mentally practice going out to dinner or to a party and picking only healthy foods to eat. Imagine eating only half an oversize diner dinner and taking the rest home for lunch the next day. Imagery and mental rehearsal are powerful training strategies. Football players use these tools to master their playbook by imagining an opposing player’s actions and then mentally rehearsing their own responses. Surgeons, police, and pilots use such strategies to embed the correct impulses for responding to varying circumstances.

6. Friendly support. Associating with a group of people sharing similar goals can provide a source of affirmation and moral support toward your goal. Breaking a long-established habit is a sustained ordeal, and having a group to whom you feel accountable, share your challenges, and help celebrate your progress can help you stay in the game. Whatever your goal, the odds are good you can find a group of like-minded people in your community who are supporting each other on the path to success.

7. Self-compassion and dogged persistence. Finally, it is easier to go the distance if you accept your human frailty and refuse to beat yourself up over setbacks. If you go to a party and stray from your goal, when you wake up the next morning, your old habit would like nothing better than for you to throw in the towel and declare yourself a failure. Don’t listen. Tell yourself that to be human is to be flawed, but you are still committed to your goal. Pull up your socks, reaffirm your commitment, and press ahead. Hard to do, but essential.