A How To: Behavior Changes and Breaking Habits





Stanford University and their Persuasive Tech Lab have released a list of the top 10 mistakes in changing behavior. Great, now I know what I’m doing wrong. What I want to know next is more about what I can do instead of continuing to make the same mistakes.

So let’s take a look at the mistakes and some alternative solutions.

Mistakes in Behavior Change

1. Relying on willpower for long-term change (Imagine willpower doesn’t exist. That’s step 1 to a better future.)
2. Attempting big leaps instead of baby steps (Seek tiny success– one after another.)
3. Ignoring how environment shapes behaviors (Change your context & you change your life.)
4. Trying to stop old behaviors instead of creating new ones (Focus on action, not avoidance.)
5. Blaming failures on lack of motivation (Solution: Make the behavior easier to do.)
6. Underestimating the power of triggers (No behavior happens without a trigger. )
7. Believing that information leads to action (We humans aren’t so rational.)
8. Focusing on abstract goals more than concrete behaviors (Abstract: Get in shape. Concrete: Walk 15 min. today)
9. Seeking to change a behavior forever, not for a short time. (A fixed period works better than “forever”)
10. Assuming that behavior change is difficult. (Behavior change is not so hard when you have the right process.)

In my research for this I found some really interesting behavioral theories and behavior research. So, here’s the list of what I have found most effective and links to original sources so you can continue the investigation and find what works best for you.

Ways to Change Your Behavior

Take Baby Steps

Stanford University’s BJ Fogg works on behavior theory and founded the Persuasive Technology Lab to help him further his research into technology that can change behaviors for the better. Fogg has a program that he personally directs to help change behaviors. It’s free, and he runs a session every week. If you’re interested in joining a session head over to tiny habits. Fogg’s model for behavior change has three factors that affect behavior: motivation, ability, and triggers. The idea of the theory is basically to make target behaviors with high motivation easier to do. Set triggers to encourage positive behaviors and start with small habits.

You can train people, giving them more skills, more ability to do the target behavior. That’s the hard path. Don’t take this route unless you really must. Training people is hard work, and most people resist learning new things. That’s just how we are as humans: lazy.The better path is to make the target behavior easier to do.

So why are tiny habits and baby steps important? Big change is difficult, but small change is doable. Incremental changes have a history of working for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and addiction recovery programs. Stanford’s Mobile Health recognizes that big changes often fail and organized an event in 2012 entirely dedicated to the idea of baby steps. Remember, if you want to change a habit, any change in that direction is better than no change at all. If you want to be a runner, no matter how slow you are when you start, you’re still running laps around the person on the couch. So start small, and as you continue, change will become easier and you can add to your goals. Self-regulation is a limited resource. If you regulate too much you quickly run out of endurance and become passive.

Don’t Multi-task

Research from the University of Utah proves that most of us are not very good at multi-tasking. We try so hard, but it doesn’t ever seem to work out in our favor. In the Harvard Business Review’s article Multitasking’s Real Victim, they note:

For the modern professional, multitasking is an immutable part of daily life. Yet 97% of us are hopeless at it.”

The article focuses on how the real victim of multitasking isn’t the individual doing it, but the others around them who suffer from that individual’s lack of productivity. They detail a list of activities that others can do to help multitasking obsessed individuals with their bad habit. Since multitasking isn’t effective, the most logical thing to do is focus your tasking on one activity. In The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time, Tony Schwartz states that focusing on one activity at a time and then taking a real break increases productivity. That is backed up by the compilation of research linked from another article in the New York Times. Do one thing at a time. It will increase your efficiency and make change easier to achieve.

Replace Bad Habits with Good Habits



Change the situation so that positive decisions are easier to make, or better yet, your only choice. If you’re removing certain foods from your diet, remove them from the house. Set yourself up for success. Fill your fridge with healthy foods you enjoy eating. If you’re quitting smoking, take up a new hobby during the times when you would have taken a smoke break; drink a cup of tea or challenge yourself with a crossword. Remember that making the new behavior as easy as possible is important to your success. Goals that are difficult to reach often fail.

Make a Plan

So now we know what types of goals can help us change our behaviors, but we need to make a realistic plan to get us to the finish line. Taking into account what we’ve learned so far: our plan should be focused; it should replace old behaviors with new positive behaviors; and it should be composed of small changes. Now at least we know what the plan should look like; it needs to go from the abstract to the concrete.

Your goals should be realistically achievable and manageable. They should include specific times and specific activities. If you want to quit a bad habit like biting your nails, replace it with a good habit. Your goal can look something like this: when I get the urge to bite my nails I will chew gum as a replacement activity. When I catch myself biting my nails I will do five push-ups. Making definitive goals allows you to see your progress take shape.

Activate Social Networks

Let others around you know what your new habits are so they can help remind and encourage you when you forget or when you feel the motivation is not strong enough. Having people to watch you and hold you accountable for the new behaviors is an important benefit of having a social network that you can take advantage of. Ten Ways to Get People to Change points out that:

Peers can set expectations, shame us or provide role models.

We can use our peers to help us achieve our goals. Let others around you know what your goals are and they will be inspired to see you succeed. They can help create a supportive environment to ensure that your desired habits flourish.


So basically what I’m saying is:

Decide what you want to change, and make a small, realistic, focused plan to get there. Replace your bad habits with good habits. Tell your friends and family about your plan and enlist their help. Most importantly, don’t give up. 

Remember, the key is to start small.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. ~Lao-tzu




Sources and Resources for Further Reading:

Stanford University: Top 10 Mistakes of Behavior Change

Stanford University’s Persuasive Tech Lab

BJ Fogg Tiny Habits

BJ Fogg

A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design

Mobile Health’s Baby Steps for Big Results

Senior News 50 and Better: Baby Steps to Lasting Change

Harvard Business Review: Multitasking’s Real Victims

Harvard Business Review: Ten Ways to Get People to Change

New York Times: Only a Few Can Multi-task

University of Utah: Supertaskers: Profiles in Extraordinary Multitasking Ability

Pub Med: Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?

Psych Central How To Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide To Alcohol

Pinnacle Counseling: Addiction Recovery: Baby Steps

Harvard Business Review: The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

New York Times: Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, and Don’t Read This in Traffic

Forbes: The Secret to Breaking Bad Habits in the New Year

Wondergressive: Green Tea Powers

One thought on “A How To: Behavior Changes and Breaking Habits

  1. Pingback: Biggest Wastes of Money That We All Continue to Pay For (Part 1): Cigarettes and Fashion - Wondergressive

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