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While countless articles have been published during the pandemic containing suggested actions to take to improve one's well-being and resiliency, very little information has been provided to help people succeed in actually adopting these suggestions. This article is designed to provide science-based tools to help readers build new habits so they can achieve their well-being goals.
If you are like us, your inbox and LinkedIn feed are flooded every day with a new avalanche of stress resiliency and well-being tips to combat the difficulties of our current situation: “Meditate daily!” “Exercise regularly!” “Establish a daily schedule!” “Stop eating unhealthy foods!” “Build a new work-from-home routine!” “Begin a daily gratitude practice!” “Do one selfless act for others each day!” “Reduce your television/online consumption!”
So apparently, in order to combat the stress and challenging emotions we are feeling during this unprecedented time, all we have to do is instantaneously become a fitness junkie who meditates every day and rigorously adheres to a daily schedule and new work routine while selflessly giving to others, practicing gratitude, reducing our screen time, and resisting unhealthy foods. Can we add “levitate daily” to the list, please?
While these stress management and well-being tips are all well-intentioned and certainly will reduce stress and increase well-being if they are successfully adopted, here's the problem: the suggestions do not account for how difficult it is to build a new habit in life—much less several simultaneously (all while in the middle of a global pandemic), nor do they account for the increase in stress that results from failed goals.
As a result, altruistic suggestions of adding stress reduction practices into one's life can quickly backfire into another set of behaviors that we believe we “should” be doing, but are not. Which, in turn, increases our self-judgment and stress to levels higher than they were before we set the intention in the first place.
Indeed, a large body of research shows that when we fail to achieve the goals and intentions that we set for ourselves, our mental health and emotional well-being suffers considerably. Now that is irony at its finest: in order to reduce our stress, we decide to adopt certain stress reduction practices, which we ultimately fail to adopt, leading to even more stress and self-judgment than we started with.
With this quagmire in mind, it is crucial that anyone seeking to adopt new well-being practices into their life be equipped with tools that will allow them to actually succeed in doing so. In that vein, here are seven science-based tips that will allow you to turn your well-being goal into a successfully adopted habit.
This is critical. All of the habit research shows that building a new habit requires laser-like focus on one new behavior at a time. The willpower required to build a new habit or break an old habit is immense, and if we dilute our willpower across several well-being habits or goals at the same time, we are likely to achieve none.
So take caution when you read articles such as, “Four Ways To Decrease Stress During the Pandemic” or “Five Ways To Improve Your Well-Being During The Quarantine.” Several of the suggested behaviors will likely resonate with you, but do not take the bait by trying to adopt more than one at a time. If you are trying to build a meditation practice at the same time you are trying to exercise more, which is the same time you are trying to reduce your television consumption, you have created the perfect recipe for becoming a non-meditating couch potato who watches television all day!
Select one well-being goal you would like to accomplish at a time, and harness your available willpower into turning that behavior into a habit—using the habit formation techniques that follow. Once that habit is firmly entrenched in your life, then you can begin working on the next well-being goal.
Once you have identified the single well-being goal you would like to adopt, now it's time to break it into smaller pieces. Research shows that approximately 95% of New Year's resolutions fail, despite the strong desire for change and regardless of the character of the person involved. Why is this? The research shows that the primary reason resolutions fail (with over half failing before the end of January) is because we set a goal that is simply too idealistic as a starting point.
Habit researchers classify goals into two separate types: “ultimate goals” and “interim goals.” Most people make the mistake of setting their ultimate goal as the first goal in the New Year. So despite not having exercised for two years, their resolution is to go to the gym three days per week. So they buy that gym membership (including the hefty non-refundable “initiation fee”) and within weeks, their gym card is on a shelf serving as a coaster for their car keys.
This occurs because the gap between our available willpower and the willpower required to go to the gym three days per week is simply too vast. By aiming for too lofty of a goal from the outset, we have set ourselves up for failure. So researchers suggest identifying your ultimate goal (i.e., “go to the gym three days per week”), and then break the ultimate goal into at least 5-10 interim goals.
For example, what follows is a progressive set of interim goals that will lead to the ultimate goal of going to the gym three days per week. (Although gyms are sadly closed right now due to stay-at-home orders, we are using the “gym” example because it is a common goal that can still serve as an illustrative example of this technique.) Very important: only once each interim goal becomes a consistently-performed habit should we move to the next interim goal:
• Walk around the block once every Tuesday and Thursday.
• Walk around the block twice every Tuesday and Thursday.
• Jog around the block once every Tuesday and Thursday.
• Jog around the block once every Tuesday and Thursday, and after each jog, do 10 pushups and 10 sit-ups.
• Jog around the block twice each Tuesday and Thursday, and after each jog, do 15 pushups and 15 sit-ups.
• Jog around the block twice each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and after each jog, do 15 pushups and 15 sit-ups.
• Jog around the block three times each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and after each jog, do 15 pushups, 15 sit-ups, and 15 jumping jacks.
• Go the gym every Monday and run on the treadmill for the equivalent of three blocks, followed by 15 pushups, 15 sit-ups, and 15 jumping jacks. Every Wednesday and Friday, stick to the same routine as before.
• Go the gym every Monday and Friday to do the above routine, while continuing to do the home workout every Wednesday.
• Go to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, following the above routine.
• Slowly increase your time in the gym by 5 minutes, adding a new exercise technique, once each level becomes a habit.
Before you know it, you will be going to the gym three days per week for 45 minutes each time (once gyms reopen), and you will have formed a deeply-ingrained exercise routine that is built to last and that does not overwhelm your willpower reserves. It will take longer to build this habit than suddenly proclaiming that you are going to go from no workouts to three gym days per week, but unlike the sudden proclamation, this process will actually lead to long-term success.
In behavioral psychology, this technique is called “behavioral shaping,” while in executive coaching it is often called “small victory” theory. The key is to make the first interim goal ridiculously easy to achieve, and once that turns into a habit, the next successive goal should be equally easy to achieve (from that new starting point).
If the first interim goal doesn't feel extremely doable, lower the goal. And if you don't feel like creating an entire list of interim goals, no problem, you can skip that. Just start by picking a first-level goal that is extremely doable, and once that goal becomes a habit, increase it slightly to the next extremely achievable level.
We have helped hundreds of lawyers and corporate employees build daily meditation practices using this technique. The single most common reason we see people fail to establish a daily meditation technique is because they originally tried to meditate for 10 or 20 minutes per session from the outset. That gaudy target quickly becomes a conceptual “monster” that feels intimidating and overwhelming, so they stop meditating, and then they feel like failures, spiraling further downward than they were before trying to meditate.
We always recommend that new meditators set the interim goal of meditating each day for one minute maximum! If that feels uncertain, set 30 seconds of meditation as your daily goal. Once meditating for 30 seconds each day becomes a habit, you can increase it to one minute. Before you know it, you will be organically meditating 10 minutes every day, and it won't be that hard.
So whatever your well-being goal is at this moment, be sure to attack it by using “small victory” theory. As Lao Tzu said long ago, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
New goals often fail because they are vague or amorphous. Behavioral modification research reveals that goals such as “start meditating daily,” “begin exercising regularly,” or “eat healthier” are significantly less likely to lead to modified behavior than goals such as “meditate each morning for one minute right after I wake up,” “jog outside for 10 minutes on Mondays and Thursdays as a break after two hours of work,” or “eat only the following six types of foods for dinner this week.”
Vagueness is the enemy of habit formation. Countless studies show the more tangible, specific and measurable we can make each interim goal, the more likely we are to achieve it. Scientists call this an “implementation intention,” which is a specific plan that describes the how, when and circumstances under which you will engage in the targeted behavior. An easy structure to create an effective implementation intention is the following:
“I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] on [DAYS OF WEEK] in [LOCATION] for [DURATION]”
Although creating this sort of statement is rather easy to concoct, it significantly elevates the success rate of our goals. Without this detailed articulation of our intention, our inertia and lethargy almost always win out. If we simply tell ourselves, “I am going to meditate tomorrow,” we inevitably come up with an excuse for not doing it when we wake up, whether it's “I have to check email” or “I have to make breakfast for the kids.”
Then a couple hours later when meditation crosses our mind, we utter to ourselves, “I need to finish this urgent task, I'll meditate later.” Then in the afternoon, we say, “I have to handle this unexpected issue that arose earlier today, so I'll meditate later.” This continues throughout the day, until we arrive at the end of the night, when we say, “I'm exhausted, the last thing I want to do is meditate, so I will meditate tomorrow!” This cycle continues for days, or weeks, until we conclude that we are apparently incapable of meditating, leaving us feeling dejected and disempowered.
A highly tangible “implementation intention” (preferably written) is a tool we can use to induce self-accountability and defeat the inertia and distractions that are waiting in the wings to undermine our goal.
In the early 1990's, neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered a breakthrough in habit research: all habits involve a three-part neurological reaction. First, there is the cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and initiate the particular habit. Second, there is the routine, which is the behavior or action at issue. Third, there is the reward, which is the neurological validation (e.g., a release of endorphins) that immediately follows and further strengthens the habitual behavior.
The MIT neuroscientists labeled this three-part process (Cue-Routine-Reward) that is present in all habits “the Habit Loop.” Each time we commit the behavior and the Habit Loop is triggered, the behavior becomes slightly more habitual, and our brain requires less resources to convince us to commit the behavior. Over time, the behavior becomes automatic, i.e., it becomes a habit.
In The Power of Habit, a best-selling book on habit formation, author Charles Duhigg outlines the Habit Loop and how to exploit the brain's wiring in order to build new habits. One of the most effective things we can do, according to Duhigg, is to identify a “cue” that we predictably experience in our life, and immediately follow that “cue” with the desired behavior. If we use the same “cue” every time we commit the behavior, the behavior will get ingrained into the brain as a habit far more quickly. (Some neuroscientists call this “habit stacking,” as we are stacking the desired habit upon a pre-existing habit, in order to neurologically link the two.)
So if you want to start meditating one minute per day, rather picking an arbitrary time of day (such as “11:00am each day”), select an event that occurs at the same approximate time each day and make that the trigger for your new behavior. For example, meditate for one minute right after waking up, right when you are about to start eating lunch, right when you park your car in your home driveway after work, right after eating dinner, or right after your evening shower. Pick one of these “cues” (or any other one you prefer), and meditate each day immediately after the “cue.” (You can edit the above “implementation intention” in Section (3) by replacing “TIME” with “CUE”.)
Each time you meditate (or engage in your targeted behavior) immediately after the same “cue,” you will be exploiting the brain's Habit Loop and accelerating the habituation of this behavior.
A simple hack that increase the likelihood of building a new habit is proactively removing the barriers that prevent us from taking action once we are “cued.” Shawn Anchor, the Harvard professor who taught the wildly popular class Happiness and the author of the best-selling book The Happiness Advantage, found in his research that our ability to build new habits is often undermined by the small, logistical barriers to the desired action.
For example, in a study assessing participants’ ability to begin a morning exercise routine, it was found that that the group of participants that was instructed to leave their exercise shoes and socks out by the front door the night before were more than twice as likely to form a morning exercise routine than the people who were not given this simple instruction. By putting their shoes and socks out the night before, these participants required less “activation energy” (i.e., the amount of energy needed to initiate the desired act) at the pivotal moment, and therefore were less deterred from working out.
Anchor explained that an effective hack in building a new habit is completing as many of the small logistical items in advance, so that when it's time to do the behavior, we can immediately launch into it. Even the smallest of logistical hurdles can derail our momentum in taking the desired action, so the idea is to eliminate as many of these micro-hurdles as possible in advance.
If you are trying to build a daily practice of gratitude journaling, leaving the journal and pen out and on the very piece of furniture you intend to use while you journal, can be the difference between succeeding and failing. Anchor explains that if we have to scramble more than 20 seconds to find the logistical items necessary to perform the act, we are exponentially less likely to actually complete the act.
The same occurs in reverse. If we are trying to break an undesirable habit, deliberately creating logistical hurdles advances the process by increasing the “activation energy” required to commit the habit. So if we are trying to reduce our television consumption, Anchor recommends taking the batteries out of the remote control and placing them somewhere in your home that will take at least 20 seconds to get to. If we are trying to reduce the frequency with which we are distracted by checking email in the midst of drafting complex documents, Anchor suggests turning off email notifications, hiding our email icon in a file that requires several “clicks” to arrive at, and if necessary, deleting the auto-storage of our username and password. Rest assured, if you have to go through all of these annoying steps just to check email, your obsessive and self-sabotaging email checking will plummet, and your productivity on the complex drafting will skyrocket.
So in order to enhance your ability to build your new habit, be sure to set up the goal by preemptively eliminating the micro-barriers to success.
One of the best things we can do to help build a habit is to reward ourselves each time we commit the targeted behavior (until it becomes a habit). James Clear, author of the best-selling book Atomic Habits and one of the world's leading experts on habits, describes self-rewards as “the cardinal rule of behavior change.” As Clear explains, “In the beginning, you need a reason to stay on track. This is why immediate rewards are essential. They keep you excited while the delayed rewards accumulate in the background.” Over time, the “delayed rewards” of the habit (for example, improved health, vitality and energy from a long-term workout regimen) become pronounced, and the artificial self-rewards become unnecessary.
By giving ourselves a reward each time we complete the desired behavior, we are replicating the brain's “reward” component of the 3-part Habit Loop, and thereby jump-starting the brain's habit formation mechanism. For this reason, Duhigg encourages us to provide a truly enjoyable reward each time we complete the targeted behavior. When it comes to exercise, he reports that the research shows that one of the most effective ways for a person to build a new workout routine is to eat a small piece of chocolate right after each workout.
Yes, the research shows that eating a post-workout piece of chocolate (or other yummy treat) is one of the most effective ways to build this new habit. Duhigg says that if we just eat something healthy, like kale, we are deactivating the “reward” component of the habit loop, and neurologically slowing down the habit formation process.
This is why one of the authors of this article, who shall remain nameless due to shame, would eat Taco Bell after every yoga class they attended many years ago when they were trying to build a yoga habit. Taco Bell was never allowed, except immediately after a yoga class. (The author was likely the only yoga practitioner in the world to follow each class with Taco Bell!) Although this is probably taking the science a bit too far, the author successfully built a yoga routine consisting of several classes per week for many years, and shortly after it became a habit a couple months into the experiment, the Taco Bell reward became unnecessary and was phased out.
So whatever goal you set for yourself, be sure to immediately follow each successful act with a small reward. Your brain will thank you.
The final tip for building a new habit is this: track your progress through a very simple self-monitoring tool. “Reactivity” is a long-standing phenomenon of behavioral psychology that shows that people's behavior improves when they are being observed by others. What is fascinating, though, is that recent research reveals that peoples’ behavior also improves when the person observing them is him or herself!
This was discovered when therapists would ask new clients to track in writing, in between sessions, the behavior that brought them into therapy, so that the therapist could establish a baseline of the client's normal functioning, in order to measure future improvements. What kept occurring is the clients would return to the therapist's office the next session to share that their monitored behavior in between sessions was not representative of their typical behavior because, oddly, they experienced marked improvement in their behavior while they were tracking it. This eventually led to the finding that merely tracking one's own behavior in a concrete manner mysteriously improves the behavior.
Habit researchers have studied this phenomenon, and now recommend a simple “self-tracking” process when attempting to build a new habit. In one such example, as documented by Duhigg in The Power of Habit, 1,600 obese individuals participated in a nutrition-based weight loss study in 2009 funded by the National Institute of Health. Some were asked to write down what they ate one day per week.
Six months into the study, the participants who conducted this weekly “food journaling” lost twice as much weight as the participants who did not. Some theorize that tracking one's own behavior over time creates a different level of self-accountability, while others believe it generates more thorough insights about one's patterns and idiosyncrasies that help improve behavior. Whatever the reason, a large body of research reveals that it works.
So here's what we suggest: create a simple “Yes-No” chart when you are about to start building the new habit. It can be a single piece of paper, with the dates listed for the next four weeks in a single column on the left side of the page. This can also be done on your smart phone in the “Notes” App. Then at the end of each day, simply mark a “Y” (for “Yes”) or “N” (for “No”) next to each date, reflecting whether or not you completed the behavior. You can adjust the structure of the chart to conform to the specific goal you set.
Even though this simple exercise takes just a few seconds per day, the research reveals it will materially increase the likelihood of you succeeding in building your new habit.
The well-meaning advice in scores of published articles urging you to adopt several new habits during the coronavirus quarantine is likely (and ironically) causing you additional stress as you struggle, as we all do, with the process of adopting a new habit. So, to summarize, here are the seven tips for actually turning your well-being goal into a true habit:
1. One goal at a time: Don't “goal juggle,” attack one goal at a time.
2. Baby steps: Break the ultimate goal into easily-achievable interim goals.
3. Tangible and measurable: The more concrete and detailed the goal, the better.
4. Pre-existing cue: Perform the behavior immediately after the same “cue” each time.
5. Set up the goal: Eliminate the small, logistical barriers to your goal in advance.
6. Reward yourself: Immediately follow the behavior with an enjoyable reward.
7. Track your progress: create a simple “Yes-No” chart to monitor your progress.
Now that you have these tools in your repertoire, we encourage you to go accomplish your first well-being goal!