Mindset Matters: 5 Science-Backed Strategies for Making Habits Stick

Lovers leap to quit smoking¹

None of my friends know how to play backgammon. It’s not exactly a common American millennial pastime. But my brother and I play. It’s an anachronistic quirk we picked up from our grandparents who started playing back in the 60s as a way to quit smoking. According to family legend, every time either of them felt the urge to smoke, they played backgammon instead. Something about shaking the dice cup and moving the pieces was enough to stave off their nicotine cravings. It gave their hands something to do.

By the time my brother and I were born, my grandparents’ smoking days were well behind them, and backgammon had become an indispensable part of our family culture. My grandparents aren’t alive anymore, but their backgammon habit still lives on in us.

Skill or luck?

Backgammon involves skill and study. “Play the odds,” my grandmother would say, “There are 18 ways to cover this point. Remember that, Elizabeth.” It also involves some luck. “You can’t beat the dice,” my grandfather would say, clicking his tongue and shaking his head in resignation whenever he lost.

So, the jury’s still out on backgammon. But what about habits?

When it comes to breaking bad habits or starting healthy ones, how much of our success do we owe to dumb luck? What (if anything) can those of us who weren’t lucky enough to be born with superhuman levels of willpower do to tilt the odds in our favor?

A lot, it turns out. Here are some of the most unexpected and insightful research-supported tips that we came across during our dive into the literature on developing habits that last. They are grouped into two broad categories. In this week’s post, we’ll share five changes that you can make within yourself to support new habits. Next week, we’ll share changes that you can make to your environment.

Five changes you can make within yourself

There are certain internal shifts you can make that will help you along your habit-formation journey. No one can make these for you. These are the ones you have to embrace for yourself.

1. Get in touch with what matters to you. Most of us pick habits from a “should” mindset, rather than really thinking about what resonates with our deepest desires. Psychologist and change researcher Kelly McGonigal says that these habits are doomed to fail. It’s hard to sustain the motivation to tackle a habit that doesn’t get you excited. So, one of the most important things you can do is pick the right habits in the first place. McGonigal suggests starting from a place of reflection and identifying what matters to you most. You can do this by projecting yourself a year into the future and asking your future self what changes you’re grateful that you made. For example, one year from today, you might look back and say, “I’m so glad that I spent so much more time with my friends,” or “I’m so glad that I moved to a new city.” Once you’ve identified those changes, come back to the present. Ask yourself what choices you can make each day that will move you closer to the place that you envisioned. Your answers will suggest some habits that are aligned with what really matters to you.

2. Focus on what will stay the same. When we gear up for a change, we usually pay attention to what will be different. But some research suggests that changes are most effective when we accompany our vision for the future with a reminder that “what makes us who we are” will stay the same. So, if you’re gearing up to make a big change and you’re feeling anxious or nervous about it, take a moment to write down the things in your life that you love that aren’t going anywhere.

3. Expect discomfort. In the book Weird Parenting Wins, a father tells his daughters that you learn how to ride a bike by falling down 50 times. He writes, “I remember being in the kitchen when my five-year-old daughter came running in for a drink of water, panting, and shouted, ‘Twelve!’ … then ran back out to keep going. Every time they fell, instead of viewing it as a failure, they were one step closer to riding. Neither reached thirty falls before they could ride.” Similarly, psychologist Beth Kurland encourages people who are making a change in their lives to expect discomfort, be willing to experience the discomfort and even lean into it. The next time you don’t want to go to the gym or find yourself craving the thing you’re trying to give up, be that five-year-old future-bike-rider. Shout, “Twelve!” And get back on the bike.

4. Look for what’s working. Most of us were raised in a culture that focuses on identifying and solving problems. We look for what’s going wrong and try to fix it. But in the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath suggest a different approach: looking for where success is already happening and replicating those methods. The Heath brothers’ “Find a Bright Spot and Clone It” technique comes from the field of positive psychology, which encourages us to adopt a strengths-based (rather than deficits-based) approach to life. It’s a subtle but powerful mindshift. So, keep an eye out for the days when your habit feels easier and try to identify what’s working. Or, look for other people who are doing what you want to be doing and try to emulate their strategies. To learn more, check out this excerpt from their book, Switch: Don’t Solve Problems — Copy Success. For a more academic perspective, see The Positive Arc of Systemic Strengths: How Appreciative Inquiry and Sustainable Designing Can Bring Out the Best in Human Systems.

5. Rewrite your story. Research indicates that the stories we tell ourselves are powerful predictors of success, and rewriting a story that isn’t serving you can act as a transformative intervention. So, try this exercise: Identify a goal that you’ve been struggling to achieve, and write down the story that you tell yourself about why you haven’t achieved it. After you finish, ask yourself whether there’s a more honest story that you could tell. Edit what you’ve written so that it accurately expresses the situation. By identifying the core issues underneath the superficial ones, you may be more motivated to shift your priorities and commit to your goal.

Check out our follow-up blog post for six ways you can change your environment that make it easier to develop habits that stick.

At interstory, we’re building a community of people who grab life by the horns. Will you join us?

interstory is a virtual, global community for people who are passionate about growing what matters to them. Whether that means growing their careers, their relationships or some other aspect of their lives, our job is to support the members of our community in pursuing their passions by providing them with coaching, powerful tools and a community of cheerleaders. We encourage each other to make the types of changes that lead to transformation.

For more on habit formation, check out: Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self-Control.

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¹ “Lovers leap” is a lucky opening roll in backgammon. When a player rolls a five and a six, s/he can easily move a piece out of the opponent’s inner board.

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