Remember that promise you made to yourself around the New Year? You know, the one where you were going to start waking up early, heading to the gym regularly and get in shape by summer?
Those six months of hitting the snooze button really flew by, didn’t they?
Don’t worry, it happens to the best of us. Habits are called such for a reason: The bad ones are hard to break, and implementing good ones takes time and effort.
Recently, research published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that a complete overhaul of habits helped test subjects form better ones. How big of a change are we talking? Test subjects were put through an hour each day of resistance training and stretching and balance exercises, including meditation, then another 90 minutes of exercise in the afternoon. Plus, two interval endurance workouts per week done on their own. Subjects also sat through lectures on sleep and healthy eating best practices.
The result? Subjects put through the overhaul were stronger, more fit and focused, and scored higher on cognitive tests—even six weeks after the trial had ended.
Of course, not all of us are ready to completely overhaul our lives right this second–or have a team of researchers who are dedicated to scheduling our workouts and teaching us how to eat healthier. For those of us who just want some quick tricks for forming some new habits, here’s some science-backed ways to make them stick.
Use the If/Then Method
When you decide to implement a new habit, your inner monologue probably goes something like, “I will eat healthier today” or “I will go to the gym after work.” But research conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences showed that when trying to form a habit, the brain reacts better to concrete stimuli, rather than the open-ended statements that we usually tell ourselves to try and make a habit stick.
Use contextual clues to pair with the habit you’re trying to form, and you’ve got a better shot at being successful. For example, instead of telling yourself that you’re going to eat healthier today, say, “If it is lunch time, then I will eat only grilled chicken and asparagus” (or whatever’s in your lunchbox that day). Or, “If it is 5 p.m., I’ll drive to the gym and work out for an hour.”
Visualize the Process with the Result
The urge to implement better habits usually comes with an end goal as a stimulus—whether it’s losing weight to look good at the beach or speaking enough French to get by on your trip to Paris. It’s a given that when you think about forming a new habit, you’re visualizing what the end result will look like: a hot bikini body and the ease of blending in with the Parisians, respectively. But research shows that you’re more likely to form a habit when you’re also visualizing the process that it’s going to take in order to get you there, instead of only your desired result.
One study conducted on college students studying for midterms found that the subjects who visualized only their high grade on the test performed more poorly than the ones who had thought about the process of studying along with the goal of getting an A. So while you’re shopping online for a smaller swimsuit, remember to visualize the workouts and eating habits that are going to help you fit into it.
Put Money On It
It’s no secret that money motivates people—it’s the reason people stay at jobs they can’t stand and start side hustles to supplement their 9 to 5s. And research suggests that throwing some green into the mix can help you form a new habit. A study published in Econometrica found that paying participants $100 to go to the gym boosted their attendance rate, and subjects lost more weight than the control group who tried to do it without the dough.
If you don’t have anyone paying you out a hundo to stick to your habit, research also shows that the threat of losing money you already have will motivate you in a similar way. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that subjects who were faced with losing an amount of money each day they didn’t workout were more likely to stick to the plan. To reenact this in your own home, put one hundred dollars in singles into a jar (perhaps for a new workout outfit or a dinner out at your favorite restaurant). Every day that you skip a workout, subtract a dollar (and watch your fund shrink). Seeing the dollars dwindle may just help you get your ass out of bed, and to the gym, in the morning.
To recap: Pair context with initiative, visualize the entire process of achieving your goal, and pay yourself every time you stick to your new habit. You’ll be richer, healthier and may just have a new habit under your belt.