In the quest for personal growth and self-improvement, the power of habits cannot be overstated. Habits shape our daily lives, influencing our actions, thoughts, and ultimately, our health trajectories.
With this month marking the start of a new year, many well meaning individuals declare grand ambitions to give up all our “bad” habits and magically become completely different people. Such as waking at 5am and going for a run everyday. Or meditating every day for 30 minutes. Or finally making this the year they completely give up sugar.
Unfortunately, even with the best intentions, studies show that as many as 80% of resolutions fail.
The second Friday in January (January 17th in 2024) is even informally declared as “Ditch New Year’s Resolution Day” or Quitters Day since it is thought to be the most likely day for people to give up on their New Year’s resolutions.
So how can we can change this unfortunate fact, so we no longer have to watch our good intentions fizzle out?
The First Key to Habit Success: Make it Fun!
Something we often forget is that resolutions (and new habits) can actually be fun!
Most resolutions fail, because they aren’t enjoyable. Following a strict diet, giving up coffee, or doing an exercise routine that feels like torture…no wonder these resolutions fail so often.
Instead of punishing yourself, consider choosing a goal that improves the quality of your life, and one you can actually feel good about. Think about doing more of what makes you feel good (spending time connecting with friends, pursuing a hobby, getting quality sleep, moving your body), rather than what makes you feel bad (yelling, overeating, social media use, procrastinating).
Connect with what allows you to act on your values, such as volunteering, gratitude, adventure, compassion, health or creativity. Maybe you commit to a call with your BFF every Tuesday night, try a new recipe each week to explore different cuisines, or embrace your love of dance by holding weekly zumba sessions in your living room while blasting your favorite tunes.
In recent years, researchers like Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, and authors like BJ Fogg, the mind behind the concept of Tiny Habits and founder of the Behavioral Design Lab at Stanford University, have delved into the science of habit formation. Their insights provide valuable guidance on how to create lasting habits that can lead to positive change.
Understanding the Habit Loop Changes Everything
Wendy Wood’s research, particularly her work on the habit loop, has shed light on the neurological and psychological mechanisms that underlie habit formation. And more importantly, how to make habits self-sustaining and consistent for anyone, instead of just hammering away on our habit ambitions with willpower.
The habit loop consists of three key components: cue, routine, and reward. According to Wood, sustained habits are created when these three elements are consistently linked together.
Cue: This is the trigger that initiates the habit loop. It could be a specific time of day, a particular emotion, or even a location. Identifying the cue is crucial for understanding and modifying habits.
Routine: The routine is the behavior or action that follows the cue. It is the habitual part of the process, the action that you want to turn into a positive habit.
Reward: The reward is the positive outcome or feeling that follows the completion of the routine. It reinforces the habit loop, making it more likely for the behavior to be repeated in the future.
How to apply that to your goals:
Maybe your intention this year is to keep a tidier house. An example of this is that when you get home (cue) you always toss your bag and coat on the couch (routine), instead you change the routine (aka your habit) and respond to the cue of coming home and hanging up your bag and coat on the hook and you reward yourself with brewing a cup of tea or putting on a fun song (reward).
It’s important to make the reward part personal, since this is what reinforces your new habit, making it more likely for you to do in the future. We find this approach tremendously helpful here at Starkel Nutrition as we gently guide our patients towards sustained health and their personal health goals, working with each patient to create lasting change in their lives. (Reach out if you’d like some expert support with our master-level nutritionists)
The Tiny Habits Philosophy: Make it easy!
Building on this understanding, BJ Fogg, in his book “Tiny Habits,” introduces the concept of starting small. Fogg argues that by breaking down larger habits into tiny, manageable and easy actions, individuals can increase the likelihood of success and create lasting change.
Start Tiny: Instead of aiming for a complete overhaul of your routine, focus on small, achievable changes.
These tiny habits are less daunting and can pave the way for more significant transformations over time. The philosophy here is to start with a behavior so small, it feels almost effortless, removing barriers to entry and creating a positive feedback loop that encourages repetition and gradual expansion of the habit.
This also helps you build confidence and trust in yourself and your ability to follow through, which is invaluable!
Examples of Tiny Habits:
Cue: After pouring your morning cup of coffee.
Tiny Habit: Do one minute of stretching or light exercise.
Cue: When you receive a text message or email.
Tiny Habit: Take a deep breath and practice a moment of mindfulness for 30 seconds.
Cue: After sitting down to a meal.
Tiny Habit: Put your fork down between bites, promoting mindful eating and slowing down the pace of your meal.
Cue: When you hear your phone’s notification sound.
Tiny Habit: Take a few sips of water to stay hydrated.
Cue: Before going to bed.
Tiny Habit: Write down one thing you’re grateful for that day in a journal.
Cue: When you enter your home.
Tiny Habit: Take a moment to do a quick lap around your living space to get in a bit of movement.
Cue: When you’re waiting for your computer to start up.
Tiny Habit: Do a set of five bodyweight squats.
Cue: When you brush your teeth at night.
Tiny Habit: Perform a quick and simple bedtime stretching routine.
Cue: After using the restroom.
Tiny Habit: Take a moment for a brief mindfulness or gratitude practice.
Cue: When you walk through a doorway.
Tiny Habit: Stand up straight and take three deep breaths to reset and relax.
Celebrate Success: Fogg emphasizes the importance of celebrating small wins when building a habit.
By acknowledging and appreciating your progress, especially immediately after you complete the tiny habit, you create positive reinforcement that encourages the repetition of the behavior. This could be a mental pat on the back, a positive affirmation “you did the thing!”, or a small personal reward such as purchasing a new piece of workout clothing.
Anchor to Existing Habits: To make the new habit more automatic, Fogg suggests anchoring it to an existing habit.
By associating the new behavior with something you already do consistently, you leverage the power of established routines. For example, if you’d like to establish a meditation habit, link it to brushing your teeth or having a morning cup of coffee.
Practical Steps to Establish Lasting Habits:
Identify Cues: Take note of the cues that trigger your current habits. Understanding the cues will help you recognize when and how to insert new, positive behaviors.
Define YOUR Tiny Habits: Break down your desired habits into small, manageable actions. Instead of aiming to run five miles a day, start with putting on your running shoes. The key is to make it easy and accessible.
Celebrate Consistently: Acknowledge and celebrate your achievements regularly. This positive reinforcement strengthens the habit loop, making it more likely for the behavior to become ingrained.
Anchor to Existing Routines: Integrate your new habits into existing routines. If you want to establish a meditation habit, link it to brushing your teeth or having a morning coffee.
The science of habit formation, as explored by researchers Wendy Wood and BJ Fogg, provides valuable insights for anyone looking to create lasting change in their lives. By understanding the habit loop and implementing the principles of starting small, celebrating success, and anchoring to existing routines, individuals can build habits that stand the test of time.
In the journey towards personal development, embracing the science of habits can be a powerful ally in achieving sustained positive change. Don’t forget to have a little fun in the process, too!
Our nutritionists are experts in the science of behavioral change and can be an invaluable resource when setting goals, and making positive changes. Reach out to schedule your support today!
Riana Giusti, MS, CN
Functional Medicine Nutritionist | Brain Health Specialist
Riana is a Functional Medicine nutritionist that helps her clients make lasting and positive change toward a healthier life. She provides individuals with the essential tools to strengthen and recover from illness and develop a nourishing relationship with food.