Ten Tips for Changing Habits, Adopting New Behaviors, and Achieving Your Goals
By Adam Brown
One of my favorite role models, Benjamin Franklin, once said, “It is easier to prevent bad habits than to break them.” Sound advice for sure. But most of us already have at least some bad habits, which makes it a bit disconcerting as well. Fortunately, there is a lot of research out there on forming habits and behaviors and changing them. I recently read two outstanding books related to this topic – The Power of Habit and the Willpower Instinct – and thought to share some of the habit- and goal-related tips from these books and from other articles I’ve read over time.
1. What is your goal? When it comes to making any change, you need to start at ground zero – what are you trying to achieve? Lose weight, train for a marathon, make more of your children’s soccer games, meditate for five minutes every day? Whatever habit you are trying to break or behavior you are trying to change, set a goal and write it down. Just make sure that your goals are specific, actionable, and ideally have a time horizon associated with them. Two of my New Year’s resolutions this past January were to “do a 50 mile or more cycling event in 2013” and to “meditate for five minutes before bed every night.” Notice how these specific goals are better than to “Get more fit” or “Meditate more often.” It’s easier to track your progress and hold yourself accountable when you phrase your goals the right way.
2. Get started! A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. When you have a big goal or problem to tackle, starting seems like the hardest part. The key is to just do something to move in the right direction. If your overall goal is to lose 20 pounds, start with a smaller goal – lose one pound this week. Remember that you can almost always break down daunting tasks and goals into more manageable sub-goals. If one pound per week seems like too much, how about walking 5,000 steps every day, or even going out right now for 20 minutes?
3. Use “commitment devices.” I’m a big fan of these, which the Freakonomics blog defines as a “mind trick to help you accomplish a goal that you don’t quite have the willpower to achieve on your own.” When I made the above New Year’s resolution related to cycling, I immediately signed up online for a 100-mile bike ride in April. I paid the registration fee, put the event on my calendar, and set reminders on my calendar to bug me every two weeks. I even put together a loose training plan – short rides before work on Tuesdays and Thursday, long rides on the weekends. Although I ended up being totally undertrained for the East Bay heat, hilly terrain, and staggering distance, I’m proud to say I completed the ride. The commitment device unquestionably helped. One word of caution, however: commitment devices can backfire and result in wasted money and time, so be careful. Make sure your heart is in it before you try this strategy (see #10).
4. Understand the habit loop. In the Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg breaks down habits into a loop: cue, routine, and reward. First among them is a cue – something that starts the cycle. This could be as simple as seeing your favorite snack on the pantry shelf or hearing your child cry. The cue triggers a routine, such as eating the snack or helping your child. Then, there is a reward: the pleasant taste of the snack or the engaged child. If you can break down your unwanted habit into these three components, you can figure out what is triggering your behavior and how you can intervene. If you tend to snack whenever you see Goldfish crackers in your pantry (my downfall as a teenager), you could avoid buying them in the first place or put them somewhere besides the pantry and preferentially out of sight.
5. Be solutions oriented and figure out what’s stopping you. While figuring out cues is useful for stopping unwanted habits, it’s also useful to look at what’s impeding your ability to complete a goal. For example, if your goal is to exercise more often after work, it’s key to understand why you don’t do it right now. Perhaps you work long hours, are too tired at the end of the day, it’s too cold outside to exercise, or your gym is too crowded after work. This type of analysis can yield lots of solutions – get out of work earlier, switch workouts to the morning, or find an indoor activity you like.
6. Stay positive, celebrate progress, and embrace small wins. When you have a big goal in mind, it’s easy to get down on yourself if it doesn’t feel like you’re on a positive trend. The most important thing is to stay positive – nothing is worse than feeling sorry for yourself and thinking negatively. In these cases where things are tough, it helps to be solutions-oriented (#5) and find support (#7). When you do make progress, celebrate it! All of us need to feel like we’re moving toward our goals. If running a marathon is your goal, celebrate small wins when you hit personal records.
7. Hold yourself accountable and find support. Friends and family can definitely help you stick to your goals and support you when things don’t seem to be going right. Technology can also help on this one – many are fans of www.stickk.com, which calls itself “The smartest way to achieve your goals.” Individuals make an account, set a goal, set stakes (e.g., sending your own money to a friend, a charity, or even an anti-charity [an organization you hate!]), get a referee (someone you know), and add friends for support.
8. Make it competitive. I’m consistently amazed at how a bit of competition drives all of us to go the extra mile. My favorite cycling app, Strava, not only logs my personal records automatically, but it ranks me against friends on certain road segments. Every time I go for a ride in the Bay Area, I go all out on Conservatory of Flowers hill, putting every ounce of energy into beating my friends into a pulp. I’m still in second place…
9. Make it visible. When it comes to breaking habits or achieving goals, it often helps to get into your own face. Post your goal on your fridge, set a daily calendar reminder, or write a FutureMe email. The more you are reminded of what you’re trying to do, the easier it will be to make the right choices.
10. Make it fun! We all enjoy and tend to prioritize doing things we love, while we avoid and deprioritize things we dislike. This distinction can often mean the difference between completing and not completing a goal. If exercise or weight loss is your aim, you’ve got to find ways of achieving those goals that you will enjoy; otherwise, it’ll never happen (or you may grind it out, but it will likely be a struggle and not very fun). It may not be optimal to sign up for a marathon if you really dislike running; set an athletic-related goal for a sport you know you love. As just one example of this phenomenon, I set a personal goal at the beginning of the year to re-obtain my personal training certification. In line with my point on commitment devices (#3), I signed up for the test (a $250 registration fee), bought the study books (over $100), and booked the test date on my calendar. As the date neared and I had barely studied, I rescheduled and pushed my test back a few months. By the time I had delayed it a few more times, I realized my heart just wasn’t in it. I cancelled the test and got my money back. A huge part of this was I wasn’t having F-U-N studying. So I cut my losses and moved on. We all have limited time in this life, so best to spend it doing things we love.
I hope these tips offer some useful advice for achieving goals and ridding yourself of unwanted habits, but I know I missed plenty of great ideas! Please let me know if you have any others I should include.
Adam is the co-managing editor of diaTribe and a Senior Associate at Close Concerns. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 12 and has worn an insulin pump for the last 11 years and a CGM for the past three years. Most of Adam's writing for diaTribe focuses on diabetes technology, including blood glucose meters, CGMs, insulin pumps, and the artificial pancreas. Adam is passionate about exercise, nutrition, and wellness and spends his free time outdoors and staying active. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or @asbrown1 on twitter.