Use This Trick to Form Healthy Habits This Year

In Januaries past, you may have made elaborate New Year’s resolutions—the kind which require more time, effort, and willpower than you’re able to muster right now. Especially during the pandemic, you may be more likely to make healthy habits stick by attempting small changes, rather than dramatic transformation.

“It is now harder to do big things than ever before,” says BJ Fogg, PhD, director of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. “Given the restrictions of COVID, we’re kind of tapped out emotionally, and when you are distracted, nervous, or upset, the only kinds of changes that are realistic are tiny ones.”

You may want to adopt micro habits because they’re easier to incorporate into your life than a full-fledged habit. Micro habits are helpful because they allow you to incorporate a new behavior into your routine without putting forth much effort. The key is that these small habits are anchored to specific existing daily behaviors. They don’t work unless you anchor them. It isn’t an effective micro habit if you say, “I’m going to be more grateful this year” or even if you say, “I’m going to think of one thing that I’m grateful for every day.” But it can be a micro habit if you say, “I’m going to think of one thing that I’m grateful for every day when I get out of bed… or right after I eat breakfast… or when I brush my teeth for bed.” 

Once you establish the micro habit, and you automatically practice gratitude at a set time every day, then you can work to expand the habit beyond one grateful thought. It’s much easier to do that once the habit is established, which allows people to adopt habits that can eventually have a large impact, even though they start out small.

How to adopt micro habits

In order to succeed, you need to be motivated to work consistently to adopt the change. (Every time you brush your teeth in the morning, for example, you have to do the new behavior afterward.) 

“Don’t entertain thoughts about whether you feel like it or not,” says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a Pennsylvania-based licensed psychologist and expert on New Year’s resolutions. “Think about these rules in the same way that you think about other non-negotiable tasks, such as getting up for work.”

To be effective, the habit also needs to be tiny enough. How small? A micro habit should take seconds to achieve. It could be an introductory step to a positive habit that you want to adopt, like putting a water bottle on your desk if you want to drink more, or putting on your workout clothing if you want to exercise more. Or it could represent a small portion of the habit that you want to incorporate into your life, like drinking a sip of water or doing two pushups.

Fogg’s research has shown that people are more likely to adopt small, healthy habits when they anchor the new habits to existing daily behaviors. You may not always remember to floss or lift weights. But without fail, you wake up every single day. You brush your teeth. You eat meals. You use the bathroom. You get into bed. When you tack a new micro habit onto established behaviors like these, you’ll be more likely to make it a part of your everyday routine.

Once the new micro habit becomes an established part of your routine, you can expand the behavior to help you achieve bigger goals. For example, once it’s second-nature for you to do two pushups after you get out of bed in the morning, you can increase the number of pushups as you see fit.

How to choose three micro habits

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to adopting micro habits, because everyone’s goals are different. If you want to improve your nutrition, for example, you might decide to eat more vegetables or take smaller portions. Your fitness-related goals may include walking more or adding strength training. If you’re hoping to bolster your mental health, you might want to look at your phone less often or find ways to be more grateful. Or you might have different goals in mind. 

Before you decide what small habits to adopt, think about what you hope to accomplish. “Research shows that habit change is more successful when it is motivated by internal reasons, such as wanting to feel healthy and energetic, than by external reasons, such as looking good at your high school reunion,” Wallin says.

If you can’t decide on what micro habits to focus on, that’s okay because you don’t have to choose. It’s possible to adopt three different small habits simultaneously. Select three tiny habits that you’re motivated to adopt, tie each one to an existing daily behavior, and congratulate yourself every time that you follow through until it becomes established.

“Design it into your life, and those habits can wire in quickly and easily,” says Fogg. “The mindset that ‘I have to have one nailed before I go on,’ that’s the old-fashioned way of thinking about habits, when it was ‘Do one habit at a time.’”

If you’re motivated to adopt micro habits but you aren’t sure how to create your own, use Fogg’s new Tiny Habits tool. There are “recipes” for small habits—including nutrition, fitness, and mental health ideas—that are research-proven to work. The tool allows you to choose a desirable habit, then pair it with an established behavior in your life. A great example includes: “I will . . . stretch my body briefly (a new habit you want) after I . . . shut down my computer for the day (a behavior you already do).” Another would be, “I will . . . think of something I’m grateful for after I . . . feel discouraged.” 

“Everything in the recipe maker is habits that have value,” Fogg says. “We’re giving people the habits, and then where to fit it [into their lives], and then telling them how good a match it’s going to be, based on our research and experience.”

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