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We studied the best way to actually make a new habit stick

Participants in our study tried out 23 different techniques designed to support a behavior change. One method really outperformed the rest

We studied the best way to actually make a new habit stick
[Photo: curtoicurto/iStock; Toltemara/iStock]
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Whether you’re hoping to exercise more, eat healthier, or pick up a new skill, maintaining your New Year’s resolution is famously easier said than done. There’s no shortage of advice out there for picking up positive new habits, but high failure rates persist. It seems that just 8% of resolutions last for a whole year, and barely half survive the month of January. What’s the secret for making these well-intentioned habits stick? We embarked on a scientific mission to find out.

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During two years of research for ClearerThinking.org, we recruited almost 500 people who wanted to form daily habits, such as maintaining an exercise routine or drinking more water every day. We assigned each of them techniques intended to support behavior change, drawn from a roster of 23 possibilities. These included methods like planning a reward for yourself if you succeed at your habit, or making a plan to carry out your habit at a specific time every day. Then we tracked their progress over the course of a month, checking in three times to find out how well they’d maintained their chosen habits. Ultimately, we ran five separate studies and analyzed 1,256 follow-up surveys. When the dust settled, one technique outshone the other 22 at helping maintain habits.

We’ve packaged the insights from all our research into Daily Ritual: A Habit Formation System—a new, free tool designed to help you build new habits that last. Here are the most important findings we discovered:

What worked best: Habit Reflection

The technique that worked by far the best is what we call “Habit Reflection.” It’s powerful because it customizes itself to your personal history and experiences. Habit Reflection is all about using the lessons of your past in the present.

 Habit Reflection has three simple steps:

  1. Pick a past situation where you were able to successfully change your long-term behavior or create a new habit.
  2. Write down anything you learned from this past situation about how to successfully form new habits, or any tactics you used to help make this change that could apply to your new habit.
  3. Create a brief written plan for applying those lessons to your new habit.

This fast and simple method helped participants to practice their habits 0.7 more times per week on average than others—a 140% improvement over the second-most-effective technique. Plus, those who used the Habit Reflection technique reported more satisfaction with their progress toward their habit-forming goals than any other group in the study. 

Because our research tested so many different techniques and collected so much data from participants, it produced a number of other interesting findings:

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Letting people choose their own list of techniques didn’t help

Some study participants were assigned habit-supporting techniques at random; others chose their own. The participants who were randomly assigned their techniques performed just as well as those who chose their own—and study participants were better off using Habit Reflection than making their own choice.

Motivation really matters

We asked participants to rate how motivated they were to pursue their habit on a five-point scale at the beginning of the study. Later, we found that each additional point of self-reported motivation corresponded to performing the habit 0.26 additional times per week on average—even when controlling for which habit-forming techniques were used.

Keep in mind that there are two distinct types of motivation: an intuitive, gut-level desire to do something, and an analytical belief that something is worth pursuing based on careful consideration of its pros and cons. If you want to form a new habit, it’s best to pick one where you have both types of motivation, rather than forcing yourself to do something you don’t feel excited about or that you aren’t fully convinced is worth the effort.

A lot of popular techniques didn’t work

 The effectiveness of Habit Reflection is more remarkable when you consider how many of the techniques we tested were ineffective, or only worked a little. You might recognize some common New Year’s resolution tips in this list of tactics that didn’t work in our study. These techniques may be helpful to some, but if you want a quick and easy way to increase the chance of a habit sticking, we think Habit Reflection is a better bet than:

      rewarding yourself for practicing the habit
      coming up with a strategy for restarting the habit if you lapse
      visualizing yourself performing the habit
■      using a motivational phrase when your energy or motivation flags

Our free Daily Ritual tool makes it easy to try out Habit Reflection by walking you step-by-step through the process, and automatically recommending other helpful techniques along the way, to help you maximize your chance of making your habit stick.

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Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician and the founder of ClearerThinking.org and Spark WaveDoug Moore is a writer, researcher, developer, and musician based in Queens, New York.