Shape Your Environment: 6 Science-Backed Strategies for Making Habits Stick

Last week, we shared five science-backed strategies for developing habits that last. Those five tips all focused on internal changes. But habit formation is not just about what goes on inside of you. If you transform yourself but your world stays the same, it’s going to be difficult to make your habits stick. People who are good at forming habits shape their environments and intentionally design the situations in which they find themselves. Here are six strategies for altering your surroundings in ways that support your new habits:

1. Decide in advance to keep temptations away. Research suggests that we’re more likely to make healthy decisions when we’re deciding for our future selves. It’s easier to not buy the cookies in the first place than it is to not eat them at the end of a long day. So, put your phone in another room. Use an app like SelfControl to block your own access to distracting websites.

2. Prime your environment with positive cues. Populate your spaces with visual and physical reminders of the habits you do want to cultivate. Learn about “choice architecture” (i.e., how the way that choices are presented influences the decisions we make) and use it to nudge yourself toward better habits by making good choices easier than the bad ones. For example, keep your yoga mat out in the open. Stick Post-it Notes with encouraging reminders on your bathroom mirror. Keep books you want to read on your desk. Keep healthy snacks at the front of your fridge.

3. Bundle your temptations. Researchers at Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative suggest a strategy that they call “temptation bundling,” or coupling behaviors that bring you pleasure with ones that you want to cultivate. To do this, James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, suggests creating two lists: one of the activities that you find enjoyable and another of the behaviors that you want to do more. Then, see if you can pair up activities (e.g., only allow yourself to listen to your favorite podcast while you’re working out). Learn more about it on NPR’s LifeKit podcast episode “How to Make Exercise a Habit That Sticks.”

4. Make it social. A large body of research supports the idea that emotions and behaviors are contagious. So, spend time with people who support you, hold you accountable and model the types of habits that you want to develop. Rather than embark on a new habit on your own, sign up for a class. Set an exercise date with a friend. Make a plan to report your progress to an accountability buddy daily.

5. Start really small. Behavior scientists B.J. Fogg developed a research-backed habit-formation program called Tiny Habits that encourages people to start with a “tiny habit” that will move them closer toward their goals. For example, if you think it would be wonderful to do yoga every day but it’s too overwhelming to think about doing it right now, just develop the habit of rolling out your yoga mat. Fogg calls this a “starter step” because it’s a habit that gets you closer to the behavior that you want to do. The other type of tiny habit is called a “tiny version.” Here, you do a very small part of the habit that you want to develop (e.g., read one sentence in a book, floss one tooth, etc.).

6. Find an anchor. B.J. Fogg also suggests finding an “anchor,” a part of your day that already always happens, and attach the new behavior to the anchor. So, for example, if you decided that you wanted to incorporate a gratitude practice into your day, you might create the new tiny habit: “After I put my head down on my pillow, I will think of one thing I’m grateful for.” The formula is: “After I do [anchor behavior], I will do [tiny habit].” Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls them “cues.”

Concluding Thoughts

If you’re trying to break an old habit or start a new one, here are the 11 science-backed tips on habit formation that we’ve presented — five tips from our last blog post and six from today.

Internal changes:

  • Get in touch with what matters to you.
  • Focus on what will stay the same.
  • Expect discomfort.
  • Look for what’s working and copy it.
  • Rewrite your story.

Environmental changes:

  • Decide in advance to keep temptations away.
  • Prime your environment with positive cues.
  • Bundle your temptations.
  • Make it social.
  • Start really small.
  • Find an anchor.

Try these tips out for yourself and comment below to let us know how they worked for you!

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