We tell ourselves that we will cut out fast food and eat healthy…but then find ourselves eating a cheeseburger. We tell ourselves we’ll get work done first thing every morning…then find ourselves sleeping in. No doubt about it, bad habits are hard to break and good ones are hard to start. But maybe that’s because of the flawed ways we go about trying to break and start them. 

When I was in high school, I was hit in the face with a baseball bat that had slipped out of a teammate’s hands. I ended up in a coma. After coming out of the coma, I experienced months of seizures and serious vision ­problems—I literally couldn’t see straight. Yet six years later, I was named the top male athlete at my college, I was the captain of the baseball team, and I was one of 33 students nationwide named to the ESPN Academic All-America team. 

There wasn’t some miracle solution that suddenly solved my physical challenges. In addition to going through extensive physical therapy, I achieved what I did partly by developing healthy habits day in and day out—good sleep habits, good study habits and good fitness habits. I didn’t set out to have great habits, I just knew I’d have to work hard every day to overcome my injury.

In the years since then, I’ve made a study of habits, keeping up with the latest academic research and reading about the habits of successful people and organizations. Eventually I started a website about habits and then began training other people in ways to ­improve their habits. 

Six surprising ways to form good habits and break bad ones…

To change your habits, change your identity. How we see ourselves can dramatically affect our habits. A paper published in 2011 by a team of Harvard and Stanford researchers found that people were significantly more likely to vote if they were asked prior to the election, “How important is it to you to be a voter?”…and less likely to vote if they were asked, “How important is it to you to vote?” 

What’s the difference? The first question makes people think about their identity—not just about an action they might or might not take. Once someone identifies himself/herself as “a voter,” he no longer has to force himself to get to the polling station on election day—it becomes a natural thing to do. 

What to do: Label yourself as someone who already has the habit you want…or who doesn’t have the habit you want to break. 

Example: If you would like to stop smoking and you’re offered a cigarette, don’t say, “No thanks, I’m trying to quit”…say, “No thanks, I’m not a smoker.” If you want to exercise regularly, don’t tell yourself when you wake up in the morning, I’ve got to get out of bed and go for a bike ride…tell yourself, I’m a biker. 

Conversely, if you already have assigned yourself a negative identity, reassure yourself that it need not be permanent. Refer back to a time before this was your identity, if possible. Example: If you often tell yourself, I can’t get in shape, I’m just built this way, remind yourself that there was a time back in childhood or early adulthood when you were fitter and more active. 

Stack the new habit you want on top of a habit you already have. Many of our habits come in series, with one leading automatically to the next. In the morning, perhaps you shower…comb your hair…brush your teeth…get dressed…then brew coffee. You don’t have to force yourself to brush your teeth—you pick up your toothbrush without thinking as soon as you put down your hairbrush. This phenomenon can be used to instill new habits using a strategy called Tiny Habits developed by Stanford University behavior scientist BJ Fogg, PhD.

What to do: When you want to instill a new habit, don’t just decide to do it—decide to do it immediately following a habit that you already have. If the new habit is something you wish to do every morning, such as 10 minutes of stretching, you might stack it on your morning-coffee-brewing habit—get the coffee going, do your stretching, then return to the kitchen to find your coffee waiting for you. At first, you’ll have to remind yourself to exercise after starting the coffee—a note left by the coffeepot will help—but within a week or two, it will become a habit that you do without thinking, such as brushing your teeth.

Focus on the simple act that sets the stage for the challenging habit. Do you belong to a gym but rarely manage to get there to exercise? Stop focusing on the exercising, and focus instead on the getting there. Committing to working out for 60 minutes four times a week is daunting—so don’t do it. Commit instead to putting on your workout clothes and driving to the gym. Those are both easy things to do. Once you’re at the gym in your exercise clothes, you might discover that the workout happens almost automatically. 

What to do: When the habit you want to establish seems daunting, instead get in the habit of completing the initial simple step that sets the stage for this habit. Often that’s enough to get the ball rolling. Example: If you struggle to get in the habit of writing a book, instead get in the habit of sitting at your computer with a word-processing program open (and potential distractions such as e-mail alerts and Internet-browsing programs closed). 

Stop focusing on goals. When people resolve to establish or abolish a habit, the first thing they tend to do is set a goal. Examples: I’m going to quit smokingI’m going to stop watching so much TV and read books instead. 

But when we focus on a goal, we often revert back to our old ways soon after achieving that goal (or after realizing that we will fall short of the goal). Someone who resolves to lose 20 pounds might successfully shed that weight…only to gain it right back.

What to do: It’s fine to have a goal—goals sometimes provide useful initial motivation. But after you set a goal, set that goal aside and focus instead on establishing a system that will get you where you want to be. Systems are much more important than goals because goals tend to be short-term targets, while systems can become lasting habits. Example: Rather than focusing on the goal “save money for retirement,” focus instead on creating a system that trims your ongoing spending so that savings happen automatically.

Point at and call out your bad ­habits. One reason bad habits are so hard to break is that they can become so ingrained that we barely notice we’re doing them. The Japanese railway system has developed a very effective solution for this lack-of-attention problem—it’s known as “pointing and calling.” When a train approaches a green light along the track, Japanese train drivers point at the light and say, “Signal is green.” When pulling into a station, they point at the speedometer and say their current speed. Train conductors do the same when they can see signals or speed. It may sound silly for someone to do this day after day, but it forces the person to be aware of things that might otherwise have occurred with little notice. It is credited with reducing errors by 85% and accidents by 30%. 

What to do: Literally point at and call out the habits you wish to break or create. If you waste too much time staring at your cell phone, point at the phone and say, “Wasting time,” when you catch yourself doing so. If you chronically forget your wallet when you go out, point at the wallet and say, “Wallet,” as you head for the door. Soon you’ll discover that you’re paying more attention to the behavior you want to change and heading off the bad habit before it occurs most of the time. 

Praise yourself for your bad-effort days. There will be days when it’s especially difficult to follow through with a new habit because you’re under the weather, unusually busy, distracted by new concerns or for any number of reasons. 

What to do: Make a very modest effort on these days. Is your habit doing 50 push-ups? Do five. Reading one chapter of a textbook? Read one page. Put a positive mental spin on these minimal efforts by telling yourself, Even when I’m feeling my worst, I still don’t miss a day. 

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