Ten Proven Ways to Change Your Habits
Reading time: 7 minutes 48 seconds
It was July 20th, 1969. In one of the most incredible images that mankind has ever seen, Buzz Aldrin stood on the moon. The photographer Neil Armstrong had uttered the immortal words:
Neil had just become the first man to set foot on the lunar surface. Minutes later, he captured Buzz in this iconic moment in history.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be to accomplish what they accomplished. Indeed, they returned to Earth to a hero’s welcome. They celebrated as they should. Proud of making history.
The celebrations, however, didn’t last too long. Over the next few months and indeed years, Buzz Aldrin struggled with his mental health. He spiraled into bouts of depression and alcoholism.
Once you set foot on the moon, what’s your next goal? When you’ve been shooting for the stars all your life and you finally reach them, it’s easy to feel empty and uncertain.
This is what happens all too often when we set goals for ourselves. We target what we want to achieve and we make a plan to get there. The problem is often that we don’t consider what should be next once we arrive.
Goals versus Habits
Therein lies the difference between setting what I call ‘achievement’ goals and ‘lifestyle’ goals.
An Achievement goal is something you reach. You aim for it and there is a way of measuring when you get there. But once you get there it is over.
A Lifestyle goal is a habit. It is a practice that you do consistently. It becomes part of your life. You never arrive because you are always ‘arriving’. The regularity is what matters.
James Clear in his bestseller ‘Atomic Habits’ has a quote where he says:
It is these systems made up of the habits that you pursue that will determine how happy or successful you will be. Put simply, your habits are what makes the difference.
There’s tons of research out there about what works for habit change.
Here, I want to walk you through ten specific techniques that will help you to make these changes long-term.
Many of these I cover in my course Habit School which you can find on the Changing Minds Store.
Here, I’ll start by explaining some of the useful mindset shifts you need to make with regard to habits. Then, I’ll explain the techniques so that you can use them immediately to change your own habits.
Before changing your habits, it’s important to understand that perhaps the worst way to try and change is through brute force. When you resist with all of your might the temptation of your old habits and try and make yourself create lots of changes, it rarely works.
Instead, the key is to consider carefully how you can create the conditions for long-term change.
Being Ready for Change
Creating the conditions for long-term change starts with being ready. This approach was cited by Allan Carr in his classic book ‘The Easy Way to Stop Smoking’. It is about getting mentally ready to make a change.
You would select a time and a date and get yourself primed for that moment. You set things up in your world in a way that makes the old habit less desirable and the new habit more desirable.
Another element to consider is the importance of believing in the necessity of the change. There is a difference between simply being ‘motivated’ and being convinced that you absolutely need to make the change.
It’s important to reckon with what the change means and that it will be tough but that it will be worth it.
You must pay attention to all of the possible obstacles that you may face when changing habits. You need to consider the potential temptations you may face, or how people might get in the way. You have to think about how life might get in the way, or even how your own emotions may try and stop you.
Recognizing what the challenges are can ensure that you are as prepared as you need to be.
Most of all, you need to be clear about a number of things. You need to know:
i) What is the exact habit you want to change?
ii) What is the new habit you want instead?
iii) Why do you want to make the change?
iv) When are you going to do it?
Taking time to answer these questions provides you with a sense of clarity over what your plan needs to be. So often we try and stop engaging in habits without realizing that we need to replace them with something.
If you don’t get clear on what is required, then you’ll struggle. You also need to reinforce the reason why you want to change and when you plan on doing it. This is important to start with.
Once you’ve established the answer to these questions, most of the work will be around making it easier to make the change. Then, it’s a case of empowering yourself to do so.
To help you with this, here are ten proven techniques that will help you transform your habits.
Ten Techniques for Habit Change
1. An Implementation Intention is a strategy where you plan when and where to perform a new habit. This concept, pioneered by psychologist Peter Gollwitzer, involves creating an “if-then plan” for specific scenarios. For example, if your goal is to start meditating, you might plan: “If it’s Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will meditate at 7 AM.”
2. Habit stacking, also known as Behavioral Linkage, is the process of connecting two habits. This causes one habit that is already ingrained to be the trigger of the desired habit. For example, if you already drink coffee every morning, you could stack a new habit of taking vitamins by doing it immediately before or after your coffee. This links the new habit with an already automatic routine.
3. Habit shaping is the process of gradually building a new habit by starting with easy, manageable tasks. You then slowly increase the difficulty or duration. For example, if your goal is to exercise daily, you might start by exercising for just two minutes each day. Next, incrementally increase the time each week. This approach increases the likelihood of long-term habit formation.
4. Temptation bundling, a term coined by Kathy Milkman, involves combining a habit you need to do with an activity you enjoy doing. For example, every time I go for a run, I listen to my favorite podcasts. I only let myself listen to them when I am running which makes me crave the run even though I don’t enjoy running very often.
5. Socializing the Habit is about incorporating social elements into your habit formation. This could be joining a group with others who do it. This leverages the power of mimetic desire and social support to make habits easier to change. Mimetic desire is the phenomenon of wanting whatever you see others wanting. When you are around other people who engage in a behavior, you’re more likely to engage in that behavior too. For example, joining a book club can motivate you to read regularly.
6. Identity Formation in habit change involves adopting a new identity that aligns with your habits. Lasting change is more effective when you shift how you see yourself. For instance, rather than just trying to write every day, adopt the identity of “a writer”. You will find it far easier to be motivated to do it daily because it is who you are.
7. Language Shifting is where the words that you use make you feel differently about the habit. Instead of saying ‘I have to do this’, you can say ‘I get to do this.’ or ‘I am doing this’. This shifts you from a sense of obligation to empowerment. For example, instead of saying “I need to work on my project,” you say “I get to work on my project.” This subtle shift in language changes the activity from being a chore to being a privilege, making it more psychologically appealing.
8. Accountability Planning is the practice of holding yourself accountable to the new habits that you are building. You can do this by making others aware of your plans and goals and having them check in with you. For example, having a workout partner can increase your accountability and likelihood of sticking to an exercise routine.
9. Habit Tracking is the practice of recording your habits to monitor your progress. This can be done using apps, journals, or calendars. For example, marking an “X” on a calendar for each day you complete a habit like exercising can provide visual proof of your progress. It creates a sense of achievement, encouraging continued action.
10. Self-conditioning is a psychological technique where you train yourself to associate a certain behavior with a specific reward. Similar to Pavlov’s experiments with dogs, you create a conditioned response. For example, rewarding yourself with a small treat after completing a study session can condition your brain to be more inclined to engage in the studying habit.
These ten techniques provide you with exactly what you need to make the changes in your behavior last. By combining some of them, you can effectively build the kind of habits and routines that make your life better over the long run.
As a reminder, if you have an interest in going any deeper, Habit School is part of our Changing Minds Monthly Membership. It’s also available as a standalone product on the store on the website.
Back from the moon
Buzz Aldrin got through the adversity he faced in the ten years following the moon landing. He’s been sober for many years and lived a fulfilling life. He’s also a terrific advocate for mental health and has made a positive difference to many people. He did so because he began focusing on how he was living rather than what he was trying to achieve.
Goals are wonderful. They set us in a direction that makes us better. The person you become as a result of your accomplishments is what matters. By applying these techniques, you can build the everyday habits and routines that keep you going toward the life you want.
It is not the big moments of our lives that determine our happiness or fulfillment. It is the small, everyday moments. Even landing on the moon isn’t enough to make your life worthwhile. It’s how you live your life that counts. The greatest memories are those where you are doing what you love and with the people you love.
In the words of Aristotle:
Hope you found this helpful. Feel free to share with anyone you know who would be interested.