How to Change Your Habits and Make Positive Change

What strategies can you use to learn how to change your habits? Can you make positive behavior change easier?

To change your habits, work on your beliefs about yourself, make flexible plans, and keep track of your progress. Learning these strategies can make a big difference in whether or not your new habits stick.

Discover how to make behavior changes that stick with a change in mindset.

Behavior Change From Within and Without

There is one mainstream model for how to change your habits popularized by Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) and later modified by James Clear (Atomic Habits). That model—cue leads to behavior leads to reward, thus reinforcing the habit—evokes in turn the research of B.F. Skinner. Skinner was a 20th-century psychologist who developed the concept of operant conditioning, a behavior change technique wherein a consequence (a reward or punishment) works to reinforce or dissuade the preceding behavior. He discovered this by training rats to navigate maze-like boxes, hit levers, and receive rewards or punishments.

Skinner focused purely on measurable, external dynamics because, along with many psychologists at the time, he felt that the mind was a black box unamenable to scientific study. He explicitly rejected the relevance of beliefs, emotions, or other mental processes to behavior. 

Some don’t quite follow Skinner’s lead, instead opting to approach behavior change through analysis of internal conditions—for instance, by explaining procrastination as a built-in feature of human nature—and devising responses to them. However, this also doesn’t address how beliefs or emotions might influence our habits and habit change efforts.

Clear, though, does: He recommends that you build lasting habits on the foundation of new, identity-based beliefs. In other words, you’d decide that you want to be a particular kind of person, and then you’d practice the habits that make it true until you deeply believe you are that kind of person. This way your habits will root more deeply in your psychology and you won’t have to convince yourself to keep up with them as you’ve already become a person for whom they’re second nature.

The takeaway: Behavior change is probably more complex than treating yourself like a rat hitting a lever for a reward. Rewards help reinforce behaviors, but it’s also likely important to reflect on your internal state—on the beliefs you hold about certain behaviors, the emotions that are tied in with them—so that when you recondition your habits, it doesn’t stop at the surface.

How to Reinforce New Habits

To help reinforce your new habits, you can use a few additional tactics:

  • Favor flexibility—research shows performing a behavior at a set time forms a more rigid, breakable habit than doing it regardless of timing. For instance, do your morning routine whenever you get up, and it’ll stick better than if you do it strictly at 7 a.m.
  • Chain together good behaviors—once you have one default habit in place, build another one off the end of it. For instance, you might extend your morning walk and coffee habit into a morning journaling session.
  • Track your streaks—people who watch their progress build day by day tend to stick to their habits better than those who don’t. As an example, imagine the motivation that would come from seeing you’ve gotten up early for nine weeks in a row.

(Shortform note: While habit-chaining and tracking your streak are commonly advised by habit experts, this perspective on forming flexible habits is new. Often, experts recommend linking habits to set times—such as meditating for 10 minutes every day at 7 p.m. But because life doesn’t always give you the perfect day, routines that depend on rigid timing can be easily thrown off. In contrast, flexible routines help you develop what Leo Babauta calls “habit resilience,” or the ability to get shaken up, adjust, care for yourself, and persevere. This, Babauta says, determines who can form habits that last and who slips backward.)

Some say that once you’ve set new default habits into place, you’ll no longer struggle with laziness—because the path of least resistance will be to keep doing what you’re already doing.

(Shortform note: Note that while some simpler behaviors can become habits—it’s possible to autopilot an evening routine of brushing your teeth, reading, and heading to bed—not all are so easy. If you do work that requires difficult, creative thinking, for instance, you won’t be able to autopilot getting your to-do list done. Instead, consider scaffolding your more complex behaviors with simpler ones you can turn into a habit: Couch your deep work between work-start and work-end rituals, or couch a difficult workout that demands presence between gym-going and gym-leaving rituals. With these touches of second-nature structure, you can make even the harder stuff a bit more automatic.) 

How to Change Your Habits and Make Positive Change

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Katy Milkman's "How to Change" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full How to Change summary:

  • An evidence-based approach to creating lasting change
  • How to overcome common human failings, such as procrastination
  • When the best time to enact changes in your life is

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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