Focus on baby steps

By Eric Barker
January 02, 2019
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Credit: Getty Images

We all want to get to the gym, be more productive, be kinder to our loved ones… and then we don't do it. Why?

Well, building solid personal habits can be hard. In fact, research shows it takes an average of 66 days to build a new good habit.

But it doesn't have to be that difficult. I've written before about the secret of how to break bad habits, so now let's take a look at the scientific tricks to building good habits — and ones that stick.

For instance, wouldn't it be nice if you could build three good habits for the price of one?

Actually, research says you can…

1) Start With "Keystone Habits"

Exercising isn't just good for you. It's also a "keystone habit." It's a good change that often triggers other good changes, passively.

When I spoke to Charles Duhigg, author of the excellent book "The Power of Habit", he explained that exercise leads people to unknowingly create other, often unrelated, good habits.

It makes you eat better. And helps you use your credit card less. And makes you more productive at work. Here's Charles:

So maybe you already exercise. Or perhaps committing to the gym seems too daunting right now. What are other keystone habits? What alchemy do they all have in common?

Keystone habits change how you see yourself. And that's what causes the cascade of positive change. Here's Charles:

So start with a habit that makes you see yourself as the kind of person you want to be.

(To learn how to end bad habits for good, click here.)

Okay, picking a habit that changes how you see yourself is like a "three-for-one" deal. That's great. But making that one change can still be a lot of work, right?

Wrong…

2) Use "Minimum Viable Effort"

Want to floss more often? Okay, just floss one tooth. Sound silly? That's fine.

Just like your mom told you: focus on baby steps.

It's okay to be a little lazy at first. The key to new good habits is to do the minimum and be consistent.

BJ Fogg, head of the Stanford University Persuasive Tech Lab, calls it "Minimum Viable Effort." Here's what BJ says:

Do not be ambitious yet. That leads to failure. Consistency is what you're shooting for here, so make the hurdle as low as possible.

And once you're flossing one tooth consistently, try flossing two teeth…

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)

Okay, keystone habits and minimum viable effort. Now how do you really make sure you actually follow through?

3) Make A Plan

Think like Hannibal from the A-Team: you love it when a plan comes together. But does creating a plan make a difference when it comes to building good habits? Yup.

Researchers wanted to convince students to get a tetanus shot. They showed them grisly photos of what could happen if they didn't. And students who saw the pictures were far more likely to say they would get the shot. But did they follow through?

Of course not. What did make students show up and do what they said they would?

Giving them a map and having them make an appointment in their calendar. In short, creating a simple plan for how to get the job done.

Thinking about the details makes you more likely to follow through. And another small thing that makes a big difference is just writing down your plan.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Alright, I know: planning feels like homework. Where's the fun? Well, since you asked, I shall bring the fun

4) Reward Yourself

Research shows that bribing people to go to the gym works:

So how should you "pay" yourself to follow through on good habits?

Katherine Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania suggests you tie a "want" to a "should."

She wanted to listen to the audiobook of the "Hunger Games." And she knew she should exercise. Solution?

She only let herself listen to audiobooks at the gym. It worked for her — and when she did a study of 226 students it worked for them too. So reward yourself.

Tie a "want" to a "should." When you do what you're supposed to, you get the treat.

(To learn an FBI behavior expert's secrets to getting people to like you, click here.)

Alright, so maybe you're doing all this stuff but you're busy… and you just forget to follow through on your good habit now and then. How do you make sure you remember?

5) Use Reminders

When you're trying to break bad habits, you need to resist. But with good habits, you need to remind.

That alarm app on your smartphone isn't just for waking you up. Numerous studies show simple reminders have impressive effects:

  • Mentioning the Ten Commandments before a tempting situation reduced cheating on a test.

What's the best way to use reminders? Have a checklist.

Atul Gawande, MacArthur "Genius" award winner and bestselling author of The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, tells the story of how much of a difference checklists made in a hospital ICU.

What happens when doctors used checklists? Twenty-one fewer people died:

(To learn how five little post-it notes can make you happier, more confident and more successful, click here.)

Okay, I know, checklists are kinda like work. Let's make it fun again. And what's more fun than anything? Friends.

6) Get Help From Friends

Like mom told you, role models are important. Who around you has good habits you'd like to have? Email or text them right now and set a time to hang out.

When I spoke to Nicholas Christakis of Yale University, he said that tons of research shows that the people around you dramatically influence your behavior. Here's Nicholas:

Why are friends with good habits so critical to improving your personal habits?

A support network shows us that change is possible. In fact, tons of research shows that the people around you might be the key to lasting change in life. Here's what Charles Duhigg had to say:

(To learn the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)

We've learned a lot. Let's round up all this info and find out what scientists and ancient Stoic philosophers agree you should do when you screw up while trying to build a good habit…

Sum Up

Here's what the research says builds good habits:

  • Start with "Keystone Habits": It's like three good habits for the price of one. Get to the gym.
  • Use "Minimum Viable Effort": Floss one tooth. It's that simple.
  • Make a plan: Like the A-Team. Think through the details and write them down.
  • Give yourself rewards: Tie a "want" to a "should."
  • Use reminders: Mark the calendar. Set the alarm. Use a checklist.
  • Get help from friends: Peer pressure rocks. Hang out with pals who have the habit you want.

And if you screw up (and we all do) on following through with your good habit, make sure to mercilessly beat yourself up.

Just kidding. That's the completely wrong thing to do.

What did the great Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius say was the best way to handle setbacks?

Forgive yourself and try again.

Research agrees. Blaming yourself reduces self-control. Showing self-compassion increases it.

You're not perfect. You don't need to be. But you can be better.

As the old saying goes, "First we make our habits. And then our habits make us."

So make them good ones.

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This Story Originally Appeared On Time