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Most of us assume those hyper-achievers who are always able to squeeze in their workout, eat healthy foods, ace their exams and pick their kids up on time must have superhuman self-control. But science points to a different answer: What we mistake for willpower is often a hallmark of habit.
People with good habits rarely need to resist the temptation to laze on the couch, order greasy takeout, procrastinate on assignments, or watch one more viral video before dashing out the door. That’s because autopilot takes over, eliminating temptation from the equation. Having established good habits, little to no willpower is required to choose wisely.
Sounds great, right? The only catch is that building good habits takes effort and insight. Thankfully, science offers both guidance on how to begin and strategies to lighten your lift. Here are a few research-backed steps sourced from my book, “How to Change,” that can set you on the path from where you are to where you want to be.
1. Set a specific goal
The way you define the goal you hope to turn into a habit does matter. Goals like “meditate regularly” are too abstract, research has shown. You’ll benefit from being more specific about what exactly you aim to do and how often.
Don’t say “I’ll meditate regularly.” Say, “I’ll meditate for 15 minutes each day.”
Having a bite-size objective makes it less daunting to get started and easier to see your progress.
2. Create a detailed, cue-based plan
Now that you have established a specific goal, it’s time to think about what will cue you to follow through. Scientists have proven that you’ll make more progress toward your goal if you decide not just what you’ll do, but when you’ll be cued to do it, as well as where you’ll do it and how you’ll get there.
A plan like “I’ll study Spanish for 30 minutes, five days a week” is OK. But a detailed, cue-based plan like “Every workday after my last meeting, I’ll spend 30 minutes studying Spanish in my office” is much more likely to stick as a habit.
Making this kind of plan reduces the chances you’ll forget to follow through because the when and where in your plan will serve as cues to action that jog your memory. Even better: Put your plan on your calendar so you’ll get a digital reminder. An established, hyper-specific plan also forces you to anticipate and maneuver around obstacles and makes procrastination feel more sinful.
3. Make it fun to repeat
When we set out to build a new habit, most of us overestimate our willpower and set a course for the most efficient path to achieving our end goal. Say you hope to get fit by exercising regularly – you’ll likely look for a workout that can generate quick results like grinding it out on a treadmill. But research has shown you’ll persist longer and ultimately achieve more if you instead focus on finding ways to make goal pursuit fun.
When it comes to exercise, this might mean going to Zumba classes with a friend or learning how to rock climb. If you’re trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, it might mean swapping doughnut breakfasts for tasty smoothies, which can combine multiple servings of fruits and veggies in one delicious drink. Because you are far more likely to stick with something you enjoy and repetition is key to habit formation, making the experience positive is critical, but it’s often overlooked.
One excellent way to make goal pursuit fun is to try what I call “temptation bundling.” Consider only letting yourself enjoy an indulgence you crave while working toward your goal. For example, only let yourself binge-watch your favorite show while at the gym or enjoy a beloved podcast while cooking healthy meals. My own research shows that temptation bundling improves follow-through; it transforms goal pursuit into a source of pleasure, not pain.
4. Foster flexibility
By the time we put a behavior on autopilot, a lot of us fall into fairly consistent routines, tending to exercise, study or take our medication at the same time of day and in the same place. But when you’re in the start-up phase of habit building, contrary to popular opinion, my research suggests it’s important to deliberately insert some variability into your routine.
You’ll still want to have a first best plan – maybe an 8 a.m. meditation session if you’re trying to kick-start a mindfulness habit. But you should also experiment with other ways of getting the job done. Try to mix in a noon session and maybe a 5 p.m. meditation, too.
Successful habit building relies on frequently repeating a behavior, and if your routine becomes too brittle, you’ll follow through less often. A flexible habit means you can still do what you need to even when a wrench is thrown in your first best plans – say, a traffic jam on the way to dropping the kids off at school that gets in the way of your morning meditation.
One way to be flexible that’s proven useful is by giving yourself “emergency reserves.” Emergency reserves are a limited number of get-out-of-jail-free cards for those days when you really can’t squeeze in your 10 minutes of meditation, regular jog or Spanish practice.
It’s more motivating to set a tough goal for yourself – meditating every day, for instance – than an easy one, according to research.But missing multiple sub-goals along the way can be discouraging. A couple of emergency reserves each week give you the flexibility to miss a day when a real emergency arises without getting discouraged and abandoning your objective entirely.
5. Find the right kind of social support
This step is obvious but sometimes overlooked. Seek out social support. Social support isn’t just about having cheerleaders and people to hold you accountable – though both can add value, so I’d suggest telling your friends and family about your goals.
We’re strongly influenced by the behaviors of the people around us, evidence shows. Want to start running regularly? You’re probably better off joining an established running club than asking a few friends who aren’t yet in the habit of jogging to get in shape with you. People in the running club have already built the habits you want. You can learn from them about what works and gain friends who will make you feel like a slouch when you slack off.
Good habits are contagious, so try to catch some by hanging out with people who are a little ahead of you on the learning curve. It’s important not to get too crazy – if you try to train with marathoners when you’re just hoping to work up to a 5K, I’ve found it can be discouraging.
But in general, research by myself and others shows that finding people to socialize with and emulating those who have already accomplished what you want to accomplish can make a world of difference. As an added bonus, when you pursue your goals in tandem with people you like, that makes it more fun!
Award-winning behavioral scientist Katy Milkman is the James G. Dinan Professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, author of “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” co-founder of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, and the host of Charles Schwab’s “Choiceology” podcast.