Two Keys To Making A Habit That Sticks

by Grace McCalmon

As a nutrition coach, one of the biggest hurdles I face with both clients and myself is compliance, especially when it comes to taking supplements.

But when I started at SmartyPants this was no longer a problem.

My friends, family and clients were moving through bottles like hotcakes and as I reached for my 6th gummy of the day (vowing it would be my LAST ONE… until tomorrow), I got to thinking: is the key to creating a habit making it taste good?

Turns out, yes. At least that’s part of it. According to recent research and influential experts, two keys to forming a habit that sticks are achievability and reward.

According to James Clear, author of Transform Your Habits: The Science of How To Stick to Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (and just about every other authority on the subject) starting small is critical.

“You need to make the habit so easy it requires little motivation to finish.” Clear uses the example of pushups: start with one, then increase by one every day. This approach is also championed by BJ Fogg, Ph.D, founder of the Stanford University Persuasive Tech Lab and writer/developer Nathan Berry. Fogg is famous for advising people to start flossing with just one tooth, while Berry became a best-selling author by forcing himself to write 1,000 words per day (and then telling people about it.)

Heard this advice before? Probably. But how often do you actually follow it? Personally, I know it’s better to start small, but something inside me always says “go bigger.”

If I do just a little more now, I can reach my goal faster. But trying to get to the finish line quickly can mean changing too much and ultimately failing. By making goals smaller and achieving them, we literally rewire our brains to want to keep doing what works.

According to research conducted at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, we learn when we do things right. Failure doesn’t register the same way.

“We have shown that brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviors were successful or not,” said professor of neuroscience Earl K. Miller.

When a behavior is successful, brain cells became more finely tuned to what is being learned, but failure produces little or no change in the brain.

This enhanced learning could be due to the presence of dopamine. Dopamine is one of our “happy hormones,” and when we succeed at something, no matter how small, dopamine flows into our brain’s reward pathway (the part responsible for pleasure, learning and motivation).

Naturally, our brains want to re-experience the activity that caused this chemical release. When we fail, no dopamine is released and nobody wants to repeat that.

According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, habitual behaviors are driven by reward. Rewards (like the sweet taste of SmartyPants) also release dopamine in the brain.

So, to double your dopamine hit, simply attach a reward to a behavior you complete successfully.

Gretchen Ruben, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Everyday Life recommends making your reward something to do with the habit you’re trying to form. So if you want to start practicing yoga make the reward a fancy new mat or some motivational apparel.

But Clear says the reward can be as simple as telling yourself good job. We think a good reward to start with could be your social media: you can only check Instagram (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) once you’ve done your pushup, flossed your tooth, or written your 1,000 words.

For most people, the motivation to start a new habit comes from thinking about the end result. But instead of fantasizing about hitting the beach with buns of steel, this study says you should fantasize about the sumo squats instead.

Researchers found that participants who visualized the process of what needed to be done (in this case it was studying for an exam) did better than those who just imagined getting a good grade.

Most habit experts also recommend attaching your new habit to something you already do. This is also referred to as “if-then” planning, where instead of “I will exercise more,” you decide: “If it’s lunchtime, then I will walk for fifteen minutes.” Using a trigger, or cue, means you can rely more on context than willpower when remembering to do the habit.

Of course it’s not that simple. Forming a new habit is hard. Just because the task is relatively easy, and you’re getting a reward, doesn’t meant the habit will stick. According to Duhigg, the habit only sinks in when, through enough repetition, your brain comes to desire the habit itself.

“Only when your brain starts expecting the reward – craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment – will it become automatic to lace up your jogging shoes each morning.”

The theory is that after doing enough burpees your brain will begin to hanker for the endorphins that come from exercise, rather than those that come from discovering the picture of your cat riding a Roomba got 95 likes.

That said, this is just a theory. I’m not sure this exact mechanism will work for every habit you want to form (this author is STILL waiting for her brain to start craving burpees), but I do think you can apply the key principles to give yourself the best possible chance at success. When you want to start doing something new, remember to start small and treat yo self.

Know anyone that’s trying to start a new habit? Share this with them!

What do you think? Ever tried any of these tips? Maybe you have some other tips of your own? We’d love to hear in the comments!

Posted on May 8, 2015

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Grace McCalmon

Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.