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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

What is a proven way to achieve your goals? Create habits.

Updated: Dec 2, 2022

A clip board with the words resolutions crossed out and create habits remaining

What goals have you set for yourself this year? Did you make a list of resolutions back in January? What have you achieved?

A proven way to achieve your goals is by creating habits. Want to write a book? Create a writing habit. Want to run a marathon? Create a running habit.

Why create habits to achieve goals?

Why is forming habits so important? A definition of habits is useful when answering this question. A habit is defined as an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.

When a behavior becomes a habit, we do it without hardly thinking about it. That makes it SO easy to continue doing. Until something becomes habitual, it is easy to NOT do. Behaviors that are initially difficult and hard to maintain can become second nature and easy to stick with when they become habits.

Habits can be helpful, such as washing your hands after using the bathroom. Habits can also be harmful, such as smoking a cigarette during breaks at work. When we form healthy, helpful habits, they lead to goals of better health. What do we do about harmful habits? “Break” them by replacing them with healthier habits.

How long does it take to create a habit?

You may have heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Is this true? It depends. One study found that habit formation takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days. Various factors can make habit formation easier or more challenging. Let’s explore the factors involved in forming or changing habits.

How do we create or change a habit?

To assist us in understanding habit formation, we will utilize two models – one from Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, and the second from Dr. B. J. Fogg, founder of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University.

Duhigg’s habit loop

Charles Duhigg explains habit formation using the illustration of a “habit loop.” The loop has three components: the cue, the routine, and the reward. Other words for cue include trigger, prompt, or call to action. Routine is another word for habitual behaviors.

Cues or triggers, and examples of each, include:

  • temporal factors – day of the week or time of day,

  • locations or situations – at work or in our kitchen at home,

  • environmental proximity – a box of donuts in the break room,

  • preceding event – a notification on our phone, finishing a meal,

  • emotional state – feeling elated or depressed,

  • other people – coworkers, friends, or family.

  • What else can you think of?

An example of a habit loop is finishing cleaning up the kitchen after dinner (cue or trigger) and going for a walk (routine or habit). If the resulting feeling is one of satisfaction and enjoyment, the positive reward will promote habit formation.

Fogg’s behavior model

Another helpful tool is the Fogg Behavior Model. It illustrates three elements that must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur: Motivation, Ability, and a Prompt. When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

The behavior model seeks to organize concepts from the habit formation literature into a framework. It describes three core motivators:

  • Sensation - pleasure vs. pain,

  • Anticipation – hope vs. fear, and

  • Belonging - social acceptance vs. rejection.

The component of ability encompasses various “simplicity” factors including time, money, effort, and routine. The basic premise is that simplicity leads to behavior change. The easier something is the more likely we will do it. Fogg describes three ways to increase ability:

  • Train people to increase their skill

  • Provide a tool or resource that makes the behavior easier

  • Scale the behavior so it is easier to accomplish

Lastly, the model describes three types of prompts:

  • A facilitator prompt is used when motivation is high but ability is low, so the prompt facilitates the action.

  • A spark prompt is used when motivation is low but ability is high, so the prompt sparks action by providing motivation.

  • A signal prompt is used when both ability and motivation are high and all that is needed is a signal to take action.

Prompts lead to a chain of behaviors. The simpler the behavior the more likely it is to occur. Prompts succeed, or result in a desired behavior, when motivation is highest and the behavior is easiest. Prompts fail when motivation is low and the behavior is hard. When motivation is high, ability can be lower and the behavior can still be successful, and vice versa.

Begin with “tiny habits”

Dr. Fogg recommends creating “tiny habits.” His research shows that if you start with something small and simple like “put on walking shoes after supper” you will naturally progress to adopting the larger behavior it represents, which is taking a walk every evening. This is an example of scaling the behavior so it is easier to do.

He recommends changing behaviors in three steps:

  1. Simplify the behavior by reframing it as a “tiny” behavior that is easy to do quickly.

  2. Put the habit into your existing routine where it easily and logically fits after something that is already a solid part of your daily routine, and

  3. Remind yourself to do the new behavior until it becomes a habit.

Fogg’s behavior grid

The Fogg Behavior Grid describes 15 ways behavior can occur. The vertical columns are labeled green, blue, purple, gray, and black to designate behaviors as new or unfamiliar, familiar, increasing, decreasing, and stopping. The horizontal rows are labeled dot, span, and path to designate behaviors as occurring one time or rarely, over a duration, or as permanent.

Let’s consider a couple of health behaviors as examples:

  • Let’s say we want to promote washing hands before cooking. A person’s current behavior is washing hands before cooking only once in a while. It is a familiar behavior but not done consistently. It is a blue dot right now, but it is not a behavior that if done rarely promotes health. The goal is to do it consistently, to make it a purple path behavior.

  • Another example might be cutting back on drinking sugar-sweetened soft drinks. This puts the behavior change in the gray or black category, to decrease the behavior intensity or stop it entirely.

Each of these different types of behaviors has different psychological approaches to both understanding the behavior and changing it.

When it comes to healthy habits, we are striving to get on the green, blue, or purple paths to initiate and maintain behaviors. When it comes to unhealthy habits, we are getting on the gray or black paths to decrease or eliminate behaviors.

Is it ever too late to create or change a habit?

No. We can quit smoking, start exercising, eat more healthfully, establish a sleep routine, practice gratitude, and much more when we identify our motivators, increase our abilities or simplify our strategies, and utilize our prompts effectively.

Determine what you want to do or change. Set yourself up for success following the “tiny steps” method. Garner support and eliminate barriers. Reward success.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” ~ Will Durant

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