10 proven ways to make or break a habit

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We're tired of not making our goals stick. Whether it's waking up 15 minutes earlier or resisting a guilty pleasure like a glass of wine after work, with our busy schedules and countless distractions, we sometimes feel we're no step closer to achieving those ambitions. But in the sobering words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". If you can make that new goal a habit, one that is as automatic as jumping in the shower in the morning, you will be able to stick to it.

Good news is, making a habit is scientifically proven possible. We round up ten simple methods that will help you make a new habit and banish bad ones.

1. Give yourself 66 days

Psychologists from the Health Behaviour Research Centre based at UCL have devoted extensive time and effort to find out what it takes to form habits.

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2009, they looked at how long it took 96 volunteers to reach a limit of self-reported automaticity (the ability to do things without occupying the mind, therefore a habit) for an initially new behaviour. They found it took, on average, 66 days (9.5 weeks) for the automaticity to reach its highest point.

However, researchers found there were quite large differences between individuals in how quickly automaticity reached its peak, from 18 to 254 days, proving that it can vary depending on who you are and what you are trying to do. "As long as you continue doing your new healthy behaviour consistently in a given situation, a habit will form," said authors of the study.

Summary: stay persistent and allow yourself a minimum of two months to make a new task routine

2. Think of the bigger picture

Researchers have found it helps to think of your overall goals and a wider picture when you're trying to nail or break a habit.

In a 2006 study on motivation published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, abstract thinking was found to be an effective method in creating a discipline. A variety of research around the Self-Determination Theory the study of human motivation and personality) also shows being motivated to do things internally, not through punishments or rewards, is an essential process of building habits that stick.

But try to be realistic. According to a study by UCLA, those who engage in visualisations that included the process of what needed to be done to achieve a goal were more likely to stay consistent and achieve them than those who simply fantasised about the result.

Summary: visualise your goal and the steps you'll take to get there

3. But, break down your goal into baby steps

Start with targets that are a simpler version of your overall goal and require almost no willpower or motivation to add to your routine. For example, "After I brush, I will floss one tooth," or "After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book".

BJ Fogg, PhD, of Stanford University has studied human behavior for 20 years and he believes taking baby steps is the best out of three approaches to change behavior in the long term (the other two being an epiphany and a change of environment).

Fogg has set up a five-day, email-based program that helps people take those minuscule steps towards three new habits. It's so far been used by over 26,000 people and has winning results. Sign up for Fogg's course at

The action-oriented education website 99u, describes this as “micro quotas” and ”macro goals.” Your goals should be the big picture items that you wish to someday accomplish, but your quotas, are the minimum amounts of work that you must get done every single day to make the bigger goal a reality. For example, writer and developer Nathan Barry forced himself to write 1000 words per day no matter what. The result was three self-published books.

Summary: start with small actions that require no willpower or motivation

4. Be specific. Very specific

You know an action is a habit when you don’t have to think about it. This essentially means you need to remove any excessive options from any new habits you're trying to build. For example, if you want to start eating healthy, don't experiment with different recipes, but stick to a select few you can continuously rely on.

Barack Obama famously revealed in a Vanity Fair interview, he never wears anything but blue and gray suits. "I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make too many decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make," said the President.

A 2008 report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that "making choices led to reduced self-control (i.e., less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations)...Further studies suggested that choosing is more depleting than merely deliberating and forming preferences about options".

This theory goes as far back as 1887, when pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James penned his booked Habit. In it, he outlines maxims for successfully forming new habits, writing, "The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work".

Summary: Simplify it. Remove all variations, complications and options from your goal

5. Link your new habit to your daily routine

Instead of “I will keep a cleaner house,” aim for, “When I come home, I’ll change my clothes and then clean my room/office/kitchen”. Instead of “I want to eat healthier,” try “If it is lunch time, Then I will only eat meat and vegetables.”

This approach is known as 'If-then' planning. It has been shown over 200 studies to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200-300% on average, says Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School and Senior Consultant for the Neuroleadership Institute.

Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them. Relying on these contextual cues is a successful method, as proven by participants enrolled on a weight loss intervention in a 2011 study by UCL.

Summary: Use the formula "If X happens, then I will do Y" to integrate your goal into your routine

6. Substitute a bad habit for a good one

Research shows willpower is very much like the muscles in your body - it can grow stronger with regular exercise and also sometimes get tired and jelly-like. In those moments you may resort to the habit you're trying to break, such as smoking or unhealthy food. Dr Grant Halvorson suggests preparing alternatives (such as a healthy snack or a positive activity) when you feel drained and vulnerable.

In 2013, William Klemm, Professor of Neuroscience at Texas A&M University tried to quit smoking. Only when he decided to take up jogging and forced myself to do it persistently was he able to substitute the positive reinforcement of nicotine with the positive reinforcement of the endorphins that are released during jogging.

"To substitute a better habit, you must pick something that is likewise reinforcing and repeat it enough for it to become a habit," writes Klemm in "It also helps to simultaneously remove the cues that trigger the old bad habit. For example, when I finally quit smoking, I made myself go jog when I had a strong urge to smoke. Even though I had an urge to smoke many times a day yet only jogged once daily, this single substitution act seemed sufficiently helpful."

Summary: replace the positive reinforcement of a bad habit with something good

7. Write it down

Just saying you’re going to change the habit is not enough of a commitment. You need to actually write it down, on paper.

Scientific research shows you learn better if you write rather than type. Handwriting causes more brain activity, and the physical act of writing out the letter is part of kinesthetic learning (learning through body position, muscle movement and weight).

Typically, handwriting is also a slower process than typewriting and the visual attention of the writer is strongly concentrated during handwriting, while during typewriting the visual attention is detached from.

Summary: jot down your goal, the steps you will take to get there and your progress

8. Stop and think five times a day

The best way to break an unhealthy habit is to pause five times a day and ask yourself two questions: "How am I feeling?" and "What do I need?", says Laurel Mellin, a nutritionist and the author of The Pathway : Follow the Road to Health and Happiness.

Defining the emotions that fuel the behavior you're trying to stop — overeating or smoking, for example — is the first crucial step. After noting the feelings, you can identify and practice ways of coping with them such as self-nurture and setting realistic limits, instead of subconsciously turning to "external solutions" like food, alcohol, or cigarettes.

Mellin implemented this scientifically-proven method called the Solution in a weight loss program she ran at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine. It stems from scientific literature that since 1940 has shown that at the roots of excessive behaviors, other than genetics, is the need for two very basic internal skills: self-nurturing and effective limits.

Summary: fight off a bad habit by identifying it regularly throughout the day

9. Tell a friend

Recent research by the Dominican University of California's psychology professor, Dr. Gail Matthews, shows that people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who merely formulated goals.

Matthews recruited 267 participants from a wide variety of businesses, organisations, and networking groups throughout the United States and overseas and randomly split them into five groups. The group that wrote down their goals and action commitments for each goal, shared these commitments with a friend and sent a weekly progress report to a friend, were the most successful, with an average 76% of their goals accomplished.

“My study provides empirical evidence for the effectiveness of three coaching tools: accountability, commitment, and writing down one’s goals,” Matthews said.

Summary: share your goal to make or break a habit with people close to you

10. Set a location to make a habit in

To create a habit you need to repeat the behaviour in the same situation. It is important that something about the setting where you perform the behaviour is consistent so that it can cue the behaviour, say researchers at UCL.

They describe the following scenario: Imagine that each time you get home each evening, you eat a snack. When you first eat the snack upon getting home, a mental link is formed between the context (getting home) and your response to that context (eating a snack). Each time you subsequently snack in response to getting home, this link strengthens, to the point that getting home comes to prompt you to eat a snack automatically, without giving it much prior thought; a habit has formed.

Similarly, the easiest way to break a habit is to control your environment so that you do not encounter the cue which triggers your habit.

Summary: Associated a habit with an environment or setting

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