Building new habits is hard because change is hard. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that behavior science leaves clues about how to change your habits more effectively. Learning to harness the power of habits will help us improve our wellbeing for the short and long-term. 

Do what you want to do

Start by deciding what you want to do rather than what you think you should do. If a new exercise fad isn’t appealing, or your closest friends are eating plant-based but you hate vegetables, changing your habits to match isn’t likely to stick. Instead, start with something you like. For example, join your friends at the gym and take a class you love or enjoy a meal with them and swap the fries for a salad. If you want to change your habits, these smaller changes that are better aligned with what you like and want to do (aka: exercise more consistently and eat a bit better) will help you build habits that stick

Harness the fresh start effect

Behavior scientist, Katy Milkman, coined the term “fresh start effect” after discovering that there’s a time in life when it’s easier to change your habits. She noted that times when you are on the threshold of something new you are better able to separate your old self from your new self and are more likely to change your habits. These times of transition might be a specific date, like the new year or your birthday, or a change of job or relocation. The fresh start effect provides a new perspective, new motivation, and new opportunity to change your habits and improve the likelihood of them becoming part of the new you.

Be consistent but flexible

In her new book “How to Change,” Katy Milkman shares a surprising discovery about habit building. To effectively change your habits, behavior scientists will most often tell you that consistency is key and that locking in a new behavior is best achieved by building it into your routine at the same time each day. While repetition does build habits, rigidity can sabotage a new habit. In a study by Milkman and her colleagues, they discovered that people who had an elastic habit, one that had flexibility, were more effective habit builders than ones that were rigid. Commitments like “I’ll exercise today, no matter what” are more effective than “I’ll exercise today at 7am” because they allow for unexpected bumps in your daily routine. Flexibility will help you change your habits.

Build in a reward

When you make habits rewarding, you are more likely to repeat your new habit. What feels good gets repeated. These good feelings can happen through an intrinsic reward, like feeling proud of yourself, or an extrinsic reward, like enjoying a cup of coffee after a workout. You begin to crave the reward, which increases your motivation to change your habits. When you are building a new habit, you may be more successful by establishing an extrinsic reward to celebrate your new habit. Intrinsic rewards, or feeling of a job well done, are longer-lasting and will eventually provide all the motivation you need to make a behavior your new way of life.

Harnessing the findings of behavior science can help you change your habits and lead to a healthier and happier you!