The Betterment Project

The Science of Making Habits That Stick

The Science of Making Habits That Stick

By Julie Stewart

 

When a behavior becomes automatic, it graduates to a habit. And when that habit helps propel you toward a long-term goal, that’s power. You find yourself standing at the squat rack without ever consciously deciding to go to the gym, or cooking healthy food without even considering whether to order pizza.

 

To understand how to build good habits, we tapped the research and spoke to Dominick Gauthier, a former Olympic skier and current coach and business leader. It turns out, there’s a clear framework you can follow, and doing so will make it far easier for you to hit any goal you’ve set for yourself. 

 

Step 1: Set the bar as low as you can handle—at least at first.

If you’re a building a house, you don’t start by placing the big-screen TV where the living room will be. You start by pouring a slab of concrete that will serve as the structure’s foundation.

 

Habits have foundations too, and those are the small, attainable goals you hit on the way to your bigger goal. “What motivates us is meeting our objectives, says Gauthier. “And then you can set a new bar that’s higher. But if you don’t have small wins, you’ll never get that positive reinforcement.”

 

What does that mean for you? It means you should be patient. Research from the UK finds that it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. If you want to be a marathon runner but haven’t laced up your jogging shoes for years, start with a goal of one mile, every other day. Let running turn into a habit, and then you can scale up as your body adapts.

 

“We need to be realistic or we will be discouraged,” says Gauthier. And then you’re right back where you started.

 

Step 2: Set a consistent time and place.

Say you’ve decided to start using our Superhuman Supplements every day. Smart move! But don’t just stick them under the sink and expect to take them when you think about it. Aim to open each supplement packet at the same set time in your daily routine—preferably at a moment that’s flanked by deeply ingrained habits like turning on the coffee pot or brushing your teeth, says Gauthier.

 

In a study from the journal BMC Psychology, this sort of “context stability” helped people automate habits like flossing and taking supplements faster. In fact, establishing a set time and place for the new behavior improved the odds of success even more than the participant’s desire to form a habit. A lesson from the study is that wanting a new habit isn’t enough. You have to be strategic about building it.


In the example of running, you can plan on lacing up in the morning, during your lunch break, or in the evening. It doesn’t matter when, just so long as it’s the same time every day, says Gauthier.  

 

Step 3: Take one step early.

The first step is always the hardest, right? So knock it out beforehand and get yourself ahead of schedule.

 

Research in the Journal of Exercise and Sport Psychology finds that people who lay out their exercise clothes before they intend to work out are more likely to follow through on their goal of breaking a sweat. If you’re trying to make an early-morning workout, packing your gym bag the night before eliminates the first hurdle. All you have to do is grab it on your way out the door.

 
If you want to clean your apartment every Sunday, move the mop bucket and cleaning rags to your living room on Saturday night. If you want to apply our moisturizer with SPF every morning, set it next to the bathroom sink as you’re getting ready for bed the night before. You can rinse and chop vegetables before it’s time to cook a healthy meal, or wash your face an hour before your earlier new bedtime. Just identify your first step, and take it long before you have to.

 

 Step 4: Find your tribe.

Peer pressure hurts when it comes from an old high-school buddy who keeps pushing whisky shots in your face on a Tuesday night. But it can also serve as a potent source of accountability when you invite it from a friend or network that wants to help you form your new habit.

 

As social animals, we’re far more likely to do something when someone expects us to. That’s partly why Gauthier often asks his athletes to work out together. “Someone is waiting for you at a specific time and is there to make sure you do what you’re supposed to do,” he says. You’re letting others set expectations for you. You’re harnessing peer pressure for good.

 

For a workout, you can build in accountability by registering for classes ahead of time or asking a friend to join you for a run. But the effect works beyond fitness. Research from the University of California at Berkeley suggests that peer pressure could encourage more people to carpool. Trying to read more? Join a book club. Want to email your team weekly progress reports every Friday? Announce your intention and give them permission to hassle you if the report doesn’t come in. 

 

Once your habit involves other people, it’s no longer so easy to blow it off. 

 

 Step 5: Anticipate your excuses.

Say it’s too rainy to run outside. Now what?

 

Consider the various hurdles you’ll face beforehand, and then decide exactly how you’ll clear them when the moment comes. In a study published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, people who were trying to break the habit of eating meat—which is essentially forming a habit of eating other foods—were most successful when they set what experts call an “implementation intention.” They’d anticipate various scenarios, and do things like write down the food they’d order if they visited a cafeteria. (Hint: It wasn’t a cheeseburger.)

 

By building your own implementation intention, you’re being proactive about solving problems before they arise. So maybe the gym by your office has treadmills, and you can stop in your way to work. Or maybe you buy a rain jacket and decide to tough it out. Building a robust action plan keeps you on schedule in any scenario. You maintain consistency, and the behavior grows stronger.

 

At Asystem, we engineer subscription-based betterment products specifically to help you form healthy new habits. Check our TotalBody System to learn more.