The Most Effective Method to Start New Habits
Last updated: October 2020
What’s the most effective way to start new habits? Maybe you’ve tried to motivate yourself to change, or you’ve tried to repeat the behavior over and over again. Instead, try the Tiny Habits method by B.J. Fogg to start new habits – it’s the most effective and backed by science. All you need to do is make your habit incredibly easy, add the habit to an existing routine, and celebrate your tiny victories. Starting new habits is simple when you use the most effective method.
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Start a New Habit
Many people want to change their behaviors. Whether you want to stop an undesirable behavior, or start a new behavior, change can be difficult without the correct tools. If you’re like me, you’ve often started and stopped new behaviors many times over.
This year in particular, I began keeping a bullet journal as a planner. While mine is more functional and straightforward than many of the spreads you’ve seen on Pinterest, I did want to implement a habit tracker as part of my monthly spreads.
Throughout the past year, I’ve attempted to track many different habits including, drinking water, reading daily, exercising daily, daily gratitude, writing more, among others. While I initially started maybe ten different habits, ten months later, I’ve only maintained a few consistently.
Does this sound like you? Often starting, then later stopping, the desirable behaviors you want to implement? It can be frustrating to see some progress, only to allow it to slip through your fingertips later on
Stopping behaviors before you can start new habits is disappointing!
Why is making and maintaining a habit so difficult?
The Most Effective Tools
I would argue that many times when we attempt to start new habits we aren’t using the most effective tools. Sometimes, we say “I just have to get it done”, or we think that if we do the behavior repeatedly for a month it will stick permanently. These beliefs might work for some people, but they aren’t really backed in behavioral science research.
While motivation is helpful in behavioral change to start new habits, motivation alone is not enough. Motivation is the will or drive to do something, and without it, we could never imagine doing new things. But we need more than just a want to change. Motivation to change is necessary, but not sufficient to start new habits.
Additionally, while there have been many studies pointing toward the correlation between repeating a behavior and having it stick as a habit, there are no research studies that look at the causality between repeating a behavior for x number of days and having it stick permanently as a habit.
That is, we must not assume if we do a habit for 21, or 90, or 365 days that it will be permanent – no matter our environments or personal beliefs regarding the habit. The number of times we engage in a behavior is meaningless without considering additional factors.
Starting a desired behavior and maintaining a habit is difficult because we aren’t using the techniques that work best.
The Most Effective Method to Start New Habits
Recently, I listened to a podcast with B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist at Stanford University.
For many years, he’s been studying what leads to behavioral change in consumer marketing and at the individual level. In this particular podcast, Fogg discussed how his background as a Mormon shaped his fascination with why people engage in certain behaviors and lead him to pursue behavioral research. Today, his purpose is to give back and help others understand how to improve their lives through behavioral change.
After 20 years of formal research, Fogg has published his book Tiny Habits which discusses the research backed ways to make small changes to your habit and the environment to cultivate new habits. As he discussed in this podcast, Fogg’s Tiny Habits technique requires the individual (that’s us!) to alter the environment for a successful new habit start.
Today, we’re going to cover a summary – the very, very basics – of what Fogg discusses in his book.
So, let’s get to it and talk about what behavioral researcher Fogg explains are the three steps to effectively starting a new habit.
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1. Make Your New Habit Easy
Fogg explains that the first thing you must do to start new habits is make them incredibly easy to complete. This might mean making your short term habit much more simple than the actual end goal, or changing the duration of the habit to be much shorter. Any way you slice it, your new habit must be simple.
If you want to start reading every day, instead of committing to reading a whole chapter in a day or reading 52 books for year, you might start smaller. You could read one page every single day. Or even one line of the book each morning.
The goal is to make the habit so easy so that even when you’re tired or angry or bored of the habit, you won’t have any excuse not to do it. This way, on a normal day, your habit will be so easy to complete, you won’t even have to think about it!
Consider what you might do to make your desired new habits incredibly easy so that you can start new habits without trouble.
2. Add Your New Habits to Your Routines
The second step in the most effective method to start new habits is adding the habit to an already existing routine.
Think about it. Every day you already engage in some sort of routine. Whether this routine is your ideal is a different story, but it’s a routine nonetheless.
For me, one of my routines is my morning routine. To start my morning routine right now, I wake up, turn off my alarm, go to the bathroom, and get in the shower. If I wanted to add a new habit to my existing morning routine, I could add it to the beginning, end, or middle of this process.
To continue the reading example, maybe I add my new habit of reading one page daily to my morning routine. I would need to place my book on my nightstand (part of making it incredibly easy!), and grab the book after I turn off my alarm. While I could read after my shower or another step in my routine, it makes the most sense at this point because I’m already next to my nightstand when I wake up.
When you start new habits alongside your existing routines, you train your brain to expect them at certain times. Your brain learns, “Once I do x, it’s time for y“. Your brain will do the hard work and remind you to complete the next step in your routine – your new habit.
3. Celebrate Tiny Victories in your New Habit
Fogg believes that celebrating the tiny victory of starting your new habit is the most important part of this habit-forming process.
If you’re familiar with behavioral research, you might recognize the term “reinforcement”. A reinforcement is something that an individual likes.
In the natural world, when we complete a behavior, we either receive a reinforcement, lose a reinforcement, or receive a punishment. If you want to increase a behavior in someone, you can give a reinforcement whenever this behavior is completed. While this is a simplified version of behaviorism, it does work.
Consider this example. If you’re a parent, you likely got excited when you’re baby first made babbling sounds remotely similar to “mom” or “dad”. That’s how your baby knows to repeat those sounds. You gave a reinforcement (praise) when your baby engaged in a desirable behavior (“dada” or similar).
As an adult, we don’t get the same reinforcements from others that we did as a baby. So, we have to give ourselves that praise!
After you complete your tiny habit, tell yourself “Good job!”. Maybe you need to hear why the behavior was good for you, or how this new habit is going to change your life. Either way, you must celebrate your tiny victory immediately after the new habit for this to be effective.
And when I say give yourself praise, I mean exactly that. You might not want to say it aloud – thinking the praise inside your head is just as powerful!
“Good job, Caroline. Reading every day will help your brain learn and improve your intellectual and emotional wellness.” works whether you say it with your mouth or your inner voice.
To start new habits, you must celebrate your tiny victories.
4. Have mindful awareness
The last step in cultivating the most effective method to start new habits is one that I’ve created and isn’t promoted by Fogg as part of the Tiny Habits Program.
Personally, I think that a mindful awareness of your thoughts, behaviors, and emotions is one of the most important aspects to starting new habits.
Often times, when starting new habits, we get so frustrated with ourselves!
Why haven’t I been able to do this yet? When am I going to have this down? Where am I lacking? Harmful thoughts often run through our heads. We tell ourselves that we are not good enough.
Just as the tiny celebration is effective even if not state aloud, these thoughts are harmful, even if only in our heads.
Having a mindful awareness of our thoughts, behaviors, and emotions allows us to notice what we are doing, thinking, and feeling, and not judge them as good or bad.
Maybe you haven’t engaged in your new habit for a few days. Instead of getting angry or disappointed with yourself, notice how you’re feeling (e.g., anger, disappointment), notice what you’re doing (e.g., sleeping too late to read), and decide to do something about it (e.g., set your alarm five minutes earlier).
Having a mindful awareness regarding our new habits allows us to make changes without being judgmental of ourselves or our progress. Mindful awareness helps us to maintain our positive movement, and helps the tiny celebrations to maintain effectiveness. They don’t have to work hard to combat routine negativity.
Try adding a mindful awareness to your habit forming, and I think you’ll see positive results!
What Habits Will You Start?
Now that you have the most effective habit starting tools in your pocket, consider which habits you’d like to successfully add in your life. How will these habits help you grow and improve your current wellness state? What choices will you make to create easy habits that are attached to your existing routines? How will you celebrate your victories?
When you take small steps today and tomorrow, down the road you’ll see a great movement in your life.
Disclaimer: Although I am a mental health professional, I am not YOUR mental health professional. The information provided on this website is for educational and informational purposes only and using this website does not establish a counselor-client relationship, or constitute provision of mental health services. I am not responsible for any damages resulting from your use of the content on this site, as the information provided does not substitute for collaboration with a health professional. Please consult with your health professional before making changes to your health regimen.