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10 behavioural insights to create healthier habits

by Belinda Miller

“Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions.
Watch your actions, they become habit. Watch your habits, they become character.
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
Lao Tzu, philosopher of ancient China, author of the Tao Te Ching

Ancient wisdom on the power of habits to shape our lives and our futures is as relevant now as ever. Scientists have found that from 40% – 80%1 of our everyday behaviours are habits, not conscious decisions. We mindlessly do the same things, at the same time and place each day, repeatedly and automatically. We become what we repeatedly do, so we can choose to be the best version of ourselves with healthy habits that sustain people and planet. Or not.

Here are 10 behavioural insights to form habits that may help you on your journey:

1. Make it part of your personal identity

Start by shifting the belief behind the behaviour and focus on the intrinsic motivation of who you wish to become, not what you want to achieve. Ask yourself, “What would a healthy person do?”, then work back from there to identify habits to support that identity.

2. Make it easy, tiny, specific and achievable

Break down overarching habit goals into small steps to make it easy and painless, removing all points of friction in the process. For example, if you want to eat more healthily, you may choose to drink a smoothie every day, which is much easier with a self-cleaning machine.

James Clear advocates the Two-Minute Rule to start a new habit, making the first action mindless as a ‘gateway habit’ for a bigger ambition. For example, putting on running shoes and walking round the block is a precursor to running a marathon. “The point is to master the art of showing up – a habit must be established before it can be improved”. (James Clear, Atomic Habits)

3. Make habit building fun

It is impossible to sustain any behaviour that is not enjoyable or rewarding, so make the habit something you love. Gamification can help. The Habitica app enables users to “have fun while they get things done” using character avatars and quests to unlock bonuses and gamify habit building.

4. Use timely moments – big and small

Big moments of change such as changes to jobs, home, health, relationship, or family status bring disruption to habits, and are the best time to create new ones. Interruptions bring in new cues and new context and necessitate actively thinking to make new decisions.

Small moments for action are also important to fit new habits into your life. Identify the ideal time and place when you are not distracted and set specific clear implementation intentions to plan how to carry out the habit linked to time and place. For example, I will make a smoothie at 7am in my kitchen.

5. Create timely and visible cues to prime the environment

Change the spaces where you live and work to make your positive habit cues visible and create a habit-ready environment. Obvious visual or sonic cues to prompt action in the moment draw attention to the habit and act as timely reminders.

6. Use social and cultural norms to shape habits

Our tribes provide us with a social identity and sense of belonging that triggers the desire to adopt ‘in-group’ characteristic habits. Joining a group where the desired behaviour is the norm makes new habits seem achievable and sustains motivation, transforming a personal journey into a shared one.

7. Use commitment devices to lock in habits

A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that locks in your actions in the future. A well-structured commitment device requires you to put in more work to get out of the good habit than to get started on it. Apps such as stickK use ‘commitment contracts’ to leverage loss aversion and accountability by enabling users to put money on their success and invite friends and family to monitor their progress.

8. Reward or punish instantly and consistently to reinforce behaviour

What is rewarded gets repeated. What is punished is avoided. We build habits based on feelings – reward triggers pleasure, relief, satisfaction, enjoyment. It is particularly crucial to receive immediate rewards during the early stages of forming habits.

9. Track your progress visually

Visual reminders of progress drive motivation, especially on a bad day. Habit journals or trackers provide immediate visual proof of progress and effort while waiting for long-term rewards to kick in. It is important to ‘never miss twice’ and not to ‘break the chain’ to maintain the habit of recording progress.

10. Keep habits fresh to maintain interest over time

When habits become routine, add new challenges to avoid boredom and relapse. This may be mastering a new detail or scaling up the intensity of activity gradually. Follow the ‘Goldilocks Rule’ to keep habits motivating and exciting – not too hard, not too easy, but just right.

There are many views on how long it takes to establish a new habit – 21 days is seen as the minimum. However, habits are created based on repetition and frequency, not by the clock. In a month you can do something once or a hundred times. According to Wayne Dyer, “Healthy habits are learned in the same way as unhealthy ones – through practice”.

If you’d like to practice changing behaviours for good, I’d love to hear from you. To read more about our experience of using behaviourally-driven insight to engage colleagues, customers and citizens around healthier behaviours click here: 

Sources and further reading

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