The 21 Strategies for Habit Formation

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In my book about how we can change our habits, Better Than Before, I identify the twenty-one strategies we can use to make and break habits.

You may think, “Twenty-one strategies! That’s overwhelming.” It may seem like a lot, but it’s actually helpful, because you can choose the ones that work for you.

Many experts suggest one-size-fits-all solutions for habit change—and boy, it would be great if there were one magical answer that helped everyone. But we’re all different, so different strategies work for different people.

In fact, that’s why the first two Strategies relate to Self-Knowledge…

1. The Four Tendencies

To change your habits, you have to know yourself, and in particular, your Tendency—that is, whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel

All of us face both outer expectations (meet a work deadline) and inner expectations (keep a New Year’s resolution). Your Tendency describes how you respond to those expectations. 

  • Upholders respond readily to both outer and inner expectations. They work hard to meet others’ expectations—and their expectations for themselves.
  • Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified by reason, logic, and fairness; they follow only inner expectations.
  • Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. They keep their promises to others, but have difficulty keeping their promises to themselves. They respond to external accountability.
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They choose to act from a sense of choice, identity, or freedom. They resist control—even self-control. 

When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves, so understanding our Tendency allows us to choose the strategies that will work for us. For instance, accountability is a crucial strategy for Obligers, but for Rebels, it can be counter-productive.

2. Distinctions

In addition to knowing how you respond to inner and outer expectations, it’s important to recognize other aspects of your nature related to habit formation, to avoid wasting energy, time, or money. For example, are you a morning person or night person? An over-buyer or under-buyer? Do you prefer familiarity or novelty; competition or collaboration? Considering such distinctions will help you establish habits in the ways that best suit you

3. Monitoring

We manage what we monitor. Keeping close track of our actions means we do better in categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV and Internet use, spending—and just about anything else. A key step for the Strategy of Monitoring is to identify precisely what action is monitored.

4. Foundation

First things first. Certain habits serve as the foundation for other habits, because they keep us from getting too physically taxed or mentally frazzled, and then, because we have more energy and self-control, we follow other healthy habits more easily. We can strengthen our foundation by getting enough sleep; eating and drinking right; exercising; and un-cluttering.

5. Scheduling

For many people, if it’s on the calendar, it happens. Habits grow strongest and fastest when they’re repeated in predictable ways, and for most of us, putting an activity on the schedule tends to lock us into doing it. Scheduling an activity also protects that time from interference.

6. Accountability

Many people do better when they know someone’s watching. For Obligers, most of all, external accountability is absolutely essential.

7. First Steps

It’s enough to begin; if you’re ready, begin now. And while starting is hard, starting over is often harder; once started, try not to stop. Don’t break the chain!

8. Clean Slate

When we go through a big transition, old habits get wiped away, and with that clean slate, new habits form more easily. For this reason, a great time to tackle a new habit is when starting a new job, a new relationship, or a new home. Many people also use the New Year, a birthday, or an important milestone as a clean slate. When facing a clean slate, remember that temporary becomes permanent, so start the way you want to continue.

9. Lightning Bolt

Once in a while, we encounter some new idea, new information, or a new role—and suddenly, effortlessly, a new habit replaces a well-established habit. This strategy is enormously powerful, but hard to invoke on command. Examples might include: a documentary or book, a diagnosis, an accident, a conversation with a stranger, parenthood.

10. Abstaining

When facing a strong temptation, “Abstainers” do better when they abstain altogether, while “Moderators” do better when they indulge in temptation sometimes, or a little. For Abstainers, it’s much more difficult to indulge in moderation than to give something up; for Moderators, it’s harder to abstain.

11. Convenience

To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not. The amount of effort, time, or decision-making required by an action has a huge influence on our habits. Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong. Likewise…

12. Inconvenience

We’re less likely to take an action if it’s inconvenient. The harder it is to indulge in a bad habit, the harder it is to do it impulsively. To weaken a bad habit, make it as inconvenient as possible.

13. Safeguards

Plan to fail. Try to anticipate and minimize temptation, both in your environment and in your own mind. Use “if-then” planning to prepare for challenges that might arise: “If it’s raining, then I will exercise by following an online cardio video.”

14. Loophole-Spotting

We often seek justifications to excuse ourselves from a good habit…just this once. By identifying the loopholes we most often invoke, we can guard against them. 

False choice loophole: “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that.”

Moral licensing loophole: “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this.” 

Tomorrow loophole: “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow.”

Lack of control loophole: “I can’t help myself.” 

Planning to fail loophole: “I’m doing this for no particular reason, but now that I’m here, I can’t resist.”

“This doesn’t count” loophole: “It’s a holiday!” 

Questionable assumption loophole: “I’m so far behind, there’s no point in starting.”

Concern for others loophole: “If I don’t do this, someone will be hurt or inconvenienced”

Fake self-actualization loophole: “You only live once!” 

One-coin loophole: “What difference will this one action make?”

15. Distraction

When we’re tempted to break a good habit, we deliberately shift our attention away from unwelcome thoughts by finding healthy distractions.

16. Reward

External rewards can actually undermine habit formation. The best reward for a good habit is the good habit itself. 

17. Treats

Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a “treat” is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. It’s easier to ask more of ourselves when we’re giving more to ourselves, so identify plenty of healthy treats.

18. Pairing

Only do X when you’re doing Y. Pair two activities: one that you need to or want to do, and one that you don’t particularly want to do, and always do them together. 

19. Clarity

The more clearly you identify the habit you intend to follow, the more likely you are to stick to it. Frame a habit to be concrete, manageable, and measurable.

20. Identity

Your habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity. Every identity—athlete, artist, environmentalist, reliable parent, strong leader—carries certain habits with it.

21. Other People

Your habits rub off on other people, and their habits rub off on you. Associate with people who follow the habits you want to adopt.

Habit-formation is an endlessly fascinating subject. Have I forgotten any strategies? Which ones appeal most to you? I’m an Upholder, so I like just about all the Strategies.



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