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8 Quick and Simple Tips for Improving Your Habits

Subtle, intermediate-level tips for habit design.

Key points

  • Habits are made by pairing a cue with a response. The more tightly they are connected, the more automatic the habit becomes.
  • The convenience of carrying out a task can influence whether or not it becomes a habit.
  • Habits can stick better when they're designed around what someone is truly willing to do, instead of what they would ideally like to do.
Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash
Source: Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash

Even if you've read a lot about habit design, these subtle tips may help push you to the next level.

1. Habits don't have to be perfect.

The idea behind habits is that pairing a cue (e.g., the end of the workday) and a response (e.g., going to the gym) together makes the response more automatic.

The more consistently you pair the cue and response, the more automatic the response becomes. The more automatic it becomes, the less self-control it takes.

But, this doesn't have to be perfect. For example, I tend to clean out my fridge on Tuesdays, but not every Tuesday. I do it enough that the thought "I should clean out the fridge" occurs somewhat automatically on Tuesdays, even if I don't always do it. Sometimes it's not a high priority, but if I'm going to do it, it usually happens on Tuesdays.

2. Use natural deadlines.

Did you wonder why Tuesdays? My garbage and recycling are collected on Wednesdays. I don't love the thought of already old food fermenting in the heat outside in the garbage bin for days. Therefore, I'm most motivated to do it on Tuesdays when I know it'll be gone by the next day.

3. Use what you know about yourself.

Your habit design will be unique to you. I think I "should" wash my sheets on the weekends but, realistically, I can only get myself to do it early in the week. Work with what you know about yourself.

Think about other aspects of your nature. For example, are you better at starting or finishing things? If you're not good at finishing things, then don't stack too many habits together. If you're not good at starting, use strategies that address that. If you work on tasks with other people, consider their strengths and weaknesses too.

4. Identify what makes a wanted behavior more likely.

I suck at throwing old food out of my fridge, but I'm more likely to do it if I've written the date I opened the item on the container. For example, I write the date on a carton of soy milk when I open it so that I throw out whatever is left a week later.

For anything you want to do more of, or do more consistently, identify what would make that more likely. Make that behavior your habit.

5. Use the "arm's length" principle.

The more convenient a behavior is, the more likely it is we'll do it. However, "convenient" can feel too abstract. One way to think of (physical) convenience is whether an item you need is within arm's length. For me to write the date on my soy milk carton, it helps if a Sharpie is only arm's length from the fridge.

This isn't a hard and fast rule. You might prefer to think of this as "within a few steps" or "not beyond a doorway." For example, my paper recycling bin is about 3 steps from my front door. This means that when I collect my mail, I only need to walk a few steps to dump 80-90% of it in there. This helps make sure I sort the mail straight away rather than leaving the pile somewhere to look at later.

6. Reduce or add steps.

Sometimes you can increase convenience by reducing the number of steps in a task (e.g. reducing double-handling). Other times, increasing the number of steps improves convenience. For example, my spouse and I put our trash in a plastic bag hung behind a door. It's too high for my 6-year-old daughter to reach. So, she has a mini trash can with a foot pedal to put her trash in. This creates an extra step because I have to empty her trash can, but overall, it's more convenient.

7. Reverse engineer.

If I'm going to clean out the fridge, it's best if I don't do it when my spouse isn't home. Why? She growls at me about having purchased items and not finished them, like if I've eaten four sausages out of a package of six, and then left the last two in the fridge to go bad.

How did I figure this out? I noticed that I don't put off cleaning out the fridge when my spouse is out of town. Reverse engineer your habit design based on your observations. If she's not out of town now, then when will she be, and I can clean the fridge then?

8. Do what works best in practice, not in principle.

You'll never be able to perfectly predict whether a habit you're trying to develop will stick. Be willing to experiment. Design your habits based on what your real self (and family) are willing to do, not your ideal self/ideal family.

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