TL;DR: Reading through 100 habit change listicles yielded 21 useful concepts grouped by 7 categories into an initial ‘Habit Blueprint’. Subscribe to learn more as I add supporting data and provide more resources for each of these concepts.
We all strive to make positive changes in our lives. Whether it’s diet, exercise, mindfulness, productivity, relationships, or something else entirely, there is an intrinsic human desire to learn and grow. Nearly half of Americans usually make New Year’s Resolutions, and the U.S. Self-Improvement market is worth $10B annually. But despite our best efforts and billions of dollars, we fail at making these positive changes. Only 8% of Americans are successful in achieving their New Year’s Resolution.
In the age of the listicle, our collective failure means that every year, a new crop of pseudo-scientific recommendations to help “make New Year’s resolutions stick” is unleashed on us. Hundreds of thousands of people read these listicles (and presumably act on them). When a motivated person fails to make a positive change because they acted on bad information, that is a tragedy. So I waded through these habit change listicles to see: 1) Is there any scientific rigor to what is recommended? and 2) Are there any common concepts? Diving in head first, I made it through a sample of 100 of these habit change listicles (at 100, you can start to feel like you just headbutted the concrete floor of the pool). Here is what I discovered on the journey.
I was cautiously optimistic that the recommendations provided would be backed by evidence or data; something besides conjuring advice out of thin air. I was wrong. 95% of the listicles demonstrated little or no scientific rigor with their recommendations. The 5% with high scientific rigor actually provided evidence for each of their recommendations. 35% with low scientific rigor either sparsely cited evidence, or interviewed an expert without ever asking (or writing) the ‘why?’ behind their recommendations. 60% had no scientific rigor; zero; zilch; they plucked their recommendations from the magical realms, relying on our blind trust of their expertise without providing any supporting evidence. Some of the listicles with no scientific rigor have been read over a hundred thousand times, a fact that is both completely expected and sad.
The five positive examples of high scientific rigor actually came from only three authors, who deserve praise for their outlier performances. Hat tip to Mandy Oaklander (writing in Time, Time); Gregory Ciotti (writing in Sparring Minds, 99u); and Carly Stec (writing in Hubspot).
The number of recommendations in any individual listicle ranges from 2 to 49 (hat tip to Luke Jones for creating a lengthy yet enjoyable read). This creates two problems for the average reader: 1) That is way too many distinct recommendations to sort through. 2) It’s unclear which recommendations are ‘best’ to use first.
It turns out, many of the recommendations overlap – there are a handful of common concepts that unite the vast majority of the distinct recommendations. Classifying all of the individual recommendations results in 21 common concepts, which can be grouped into 7 categories. This mitigates much of the volume problem. Note: Hat tip to Gretchen Rubin for sketching out a number of these concepts in her wonderful book Better Than Before.
Furthermore, if we assume popularity is an indicator of efficacy (a stretch, but let’s roll with it for now), these 21 concepts can be ranked by the percentage of listicles that mention the concept. This mitigates the ‘what is best?’ problem.
After we do all of that sorting and ranking, these are the resulting categories, concepts, and relative popularity, along with a summary of each concept:
Tier 1 Concepts
Clearly define the new habits (More here)
Write down exactly what you will do.
Make it easy (More here)
Rig the game so you will win.
Create a reward system (More here)
Associate your habits with positive feelings and experiences.
Tier 2 Concepts
Script safeguards (More here)
Accept that you will mess up sometimes and prepare precisely for tough situations.
Establish support (More here)
Sharing your struggles and successes with a supportive social structure makes your journey easier.
Map the current path (More here)
If you don’t understand why you do what you already do, you won’t be able to change your habits permanently.
Know your “Why?” (More here)
Knowing the “Why?” behind your goals and new habits motivates you to conquer inevitable challenges.
Translate goals into habits (More here)
Your goals are the finish line, your habits are the path to get there.
Shape your environment (More here)
Alter your surroundings to make it easier to do the right thing (and not give yourself a chance to fail).
Create accountability (More here)
Tie your reputation and ego to your desired habits.
Set a time boundary (More here)
Give yourself sufficient time to transform your desired behaviors into habits.
Install foundational mindsets (More here)
Enabling mindsets make the mental challenges of habit change easier.
Schedule the habits (More here)
Create room for your desired habits in your life.
Prepare to be wrong (More here)
Learn from the imperfections in your initial plan to get better.
Track & monitor (More here)
“What gets measured gets managed.”
Tier 3 Concepts
Make it fun (More here)
Fill your life with activities that you relish so you enjoy the journey.
Learn how habits work (More here)
Understand the nature of habits before you try to create habits.
Install foundational habits (More here)
Ensure you have the energy, willpower, and awareness to realize your goals.
Visualize success (More here)
Understand the work it will take to realize your goals.
Let go of the past (More here)
Release any identities or roles that will prevent you from creating your new habits.
Shape your inner circle (More here)
“We are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.” Your inner circle will impact your behavior.
In total, these 21 concepts represent an initial ‘Habit Blueprint’.
These 100 listicles served as an intriguing starting point for understanding the conventional wisdom in habit change. There is still lots of work to be done to integrate evidence and resources into this initial ‘Habit Blueprint’. There are hundreds of research papers, hundreds of companies enabling healthier habits, and myriad other information like books, videos, and other reading. Subscribe to learn more as I add supporting data and provide more resources for each of these concepts.
Thoughts on Tiering
Based on my anecdotal experiences, ‘Learn how habits work’ and ‘Install foundational habits’ ought to be given higher priority. You need to know what you are getting into before you start, and you need the energy, willpower, and awareness to successfully follow through on your intentions. I don’t care how simple, clear, and rewarding your new habit is, if you don’t have a clear idea of what a habit is and the internal resources to do it, you will probably fail.
The listicles relayed a few additional, often contradictory recommendations.
Exceptions: Avoid Cold Turkey Solutions vs. Never Allow An Exception To Your New Habit
This feels like a matter of personal context. Depending on the person and the specific habit, abstinence or moderation may work better. Either way, you need to ‘Script safeguards’ in case of failure.
Timing: Start now vs. Don’t start right away
I believe in giving yourself some time to plan. That said, definitely ‘Set a time boundary’, including a start date, and only delay long enough to go through the setup process. I’d also recommend you take advantage of any near-term temporal landmarks like moving or changing jobs.
Timing: Do It Early / Late
Once again, this feels like a matter of personal context. For people with a nine-to-five job, the middle of the day is spent at work, where much of what happens is outside of your control. And regardless of when we work, our default is often to leave ourselves space at the beginning and end of the day for ourselves. In general, you ought to find the time for your habits that works best for you.
Monitor your glucose levels
A 2007 study linked self-control to glucose levels. This helps explain the hangry concept. If this is true, I think this is linked to proper diet more broadly, so go ahead and ‘Install foundational habits’.
UPDATE (7/15/2016): The glucose / willpower link might suffer from publication bias.
Do not have a Plan B
A 2016 study found that “the mere act of thinking through a backup plan can reduce performance on your primary goal by decreasing your desire for goal achievement”. Until further notice, save yourself the time and stick with Plan A. I do not interpret this study to mean that you should not plan for challenging circumstances and ‘Script safeguards’.
Avoid previous resolutions
Prior failure may be indicative of difficulty making that type of change. That said, my initial instinct is to face your demons, learn from your prior failure, and do better this time around. The circumstances are likely different now, and you are armed with an arsenal of habit change techniques to succeed this time. Besides, we ought to ‘Prepare to be wrong’ for all of our habit change attempts.
The sample of 100 listicles was surfaced via Google searches for phrases like “habit change” and “make New Year’s resolutions stick”. I ended up with 71 distinct sources, from Mayo Clinic and the American Heart Association to Men’s Fitness and Yogi Times. My sample contains multiple pieces from 17 of these sources. The single source with the most pieces in the sample, with 8, is Lifehacker. For a complete list of what is in my sample, see here.