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The Most Desirable Habits (And How To Achieve Them)

I’m an avid student of behavioural psychology, and I really enjoy observing trends of large groups of people. A few days ago, I noticed something curious about one of my new favourite iPhone apps, Lift, which focuses on habit formation. There’s a section in the app which lists all of the most selected habits that users have added. What’s interesting is that due to the app’s intentions (sticking to good habits), you essentially get an inside look at what habits matter to the most people.

Image remixed from wavebreakmedia (Shutterstock), Stephen Coburn and devilroad.

Given the time of year this is, motivation and resolution making is at an all-time high. That’s why I thought it might be useful to break down the seven most popular good habits from this list and describe the science behind making them happen. Let’s begin!

Exercise More

Before I took a look at the top results, I tried to predict a top five and only got this one correct… because we all knew this was going to be here! Going to the gym/exercising more was far-and-away the most desired good habit, with nearly 9000 more people wanting to achieve it than the second place habit. It’s easy to understand why: regular exercise is like an elixir for your overall health. It plays a role in so many aspects of your well-being (both physical and mental) that we all hold it as a habit worth pursuing.

There’s only one problem… it’s one of the harder habits to form and it also takes a while for it to stick: research from the University College London found that regular exercise was significantly trickier to do regularly for participants, compared to easier habits like drinking a glass of water every morning. Their research suggests that it takes at least 66 days for a regular exercise habit to form. Worse yet, science has shown us that exercise is a “long game” if you’re looking to see results (but hey, deep down we all already knew this).

How to form the habit: Since the biggest challenge for exercising regularly is how long it takes to form the habit and to see lasting results, reducing friction and increasing motivation are of paramount importance. Honestly, I’ve yet to come across a better “tool” for establishing this often difficult habit than a method recommended to me long ago by a professional fitness trainer. Take an old-school flip calendar and tape it to your gym locker (or put it in your gym bag) and put a big “X” on the date every time you go to the gym. I have the luxury of leaving it up on my gym’s whiteboard, and I’ve noticed that not only will this encourage you to get down to the gym more often (since the calendar tells no lies), it also allows you to be more honest with yourself about how often you’ve gone.

Last tip: Focus on getting in and out, because the research says that people who spend too much time “measuring” results (through mirrors and scales) are more likely to de-motivate themselves.

Read

Reading is a hard habit shun: most of us would like to consider ourselves to be intelligent, and we “know” that reading is good for our brains… so why do some of us find it so hard to read consistently? First things first, the hype behind reading is true: not only has study after study shown that reading gives a noticeable to creativity & decision making, but research from Yale also points to reading as being a fantastic way to improve your memory. Last but not least, the valuable information obtained from good books is hard to put a price tag on. While reading isn’t a race (and their isn’t any conclusive research point to an ideal reading time), I’ve seen quite a few mentions of 30 minutes a day being a good place to start for those interesting in reading daily.

How to form the habit: The best thing about this habit is that is shouldn’t be too hard to form. The key here is to pick books around topics you enjoy. If you hate fiction, I’d recommend reading history books, books on social psychology, and books on philosophy or memorable living, such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. The next thing to do is make sure you only start off small, especially for reading. Sitting down and thinking, “Man, I have to read for an hour…” is a direct road to failure. Instead, try reading for 15-minutes a day on topics you like. Even those who claim they hate reading the most should be able to accomplish that.

Floss

I noted above that I removed some of the easier/more basic habits from the list, so you might be wondering why this one is making an appearance. Not only was it legitimately popular, but it’s also a habit that’s a lot more important to your health than you think. A number of recent studies have shown that there are some strong ties between gum health and heart health. It’s even been suggested that taking care of your gums can help reduce the risk of strokes!

“There are a lot of studies that suggest that oral health, and gum disease in particular, are related to serious conditions like heart disease.” — Sally Cram, DDS & spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.

Plus, the dangers of bad breath can not be understated…

How to form the habit: Flossing is a habit that we often make out to be way harder than it should be. First things first, if you hate using traditional floss, use things like Plackers instead (they’re disposable and incredibly cheap). Next, since I’m going to assume you brush your teeth everyday (you better!), you need to start associating flossing with hitting your bathroom sink for brushing time, and “if-then” situation if you will. Make it so that you must floss before you allow yourself to brush your teeth (it’s better to floss first anyway). This will set you up for long term success, because habits largely depend on “cues”, and you’ll be cued to floss when entering the bathroom to brush your teeth.

Sleep by Midnight

Since many of us will be (on average) sleeping away one-third of our lives, getting quality sleep is incredibly important to our well-being. I suspect that this habit was popular in particular because for many people, staying up past midnight means nothing but trouble: you were either out too late, up on the computer goofing around, or just tossing and turning in bed. The tough thing about this habit is that there is a lot of misinformation out there, such as the eight-hour rule. According to acclaimed researcher Daniel Kripke:

“We’ve all been told you ought to sleep 8 hr., but there was never any evidence…people who sleep between 6.5 hr. and 7.5 hr. a night, live the longest, are happier and most productive.”

Many other researchers counter his argument and say that sleep is more dependent on the person than the amount. Despite all this, I think many of us who have a regular work schedule can agree that it’s awesome to wake up in the morning and not feel like total crap. Since most jobs run on the same schedule, midnight is a pretty solid “limit” for hitting the hay, regardless of what the sleep scientists argue about.

How to form the habit: Fortunately for us, the science behind getting better sleep is far less hazy. Largely, it has nothing to do with counting sheep or hypnotising yourself, but more on what you spend your day…

Tactic #1: Expend plenty of energy. According to CNN, “the National Sleep Foundation reports that exercise in the afternoon can help deepen shut-eye and cut the time it takes for you to fall into dreamland.” Make sure to not exercise too late though, or it can have the reverse effect.

Tactic #2: Reduce screen time. Many studies have shown that backlit screens are pretty disastrous for sleep schedules. A large majority of us have to deal with a computer or phone at least some time during the day though, so the next best thing is to just try to reduce your overall “screen time” and definitely make sure to keep it to a minimum near bed time. At night, unwind with a book or some other form of entertainment that doesn’t involve lights and pixels.

Tactic #3: Watch out for caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes. According to a recent study on sleep, all three of these are pretty awful for sleep. Alcohol is pretty tricky, as it can help you get to sleep, but tends to ruin overall sleep quality (and will dehydrate you during a period where you are already pretty dehydrated). It’s best to keep all three to a minimum, especially near your typical bedtime.

Eat Breakfast

As someone who eats breakfast daily, I was surprised to see this habit so high on the list. I suppose I shouldn’t be though, because their is a variety of research (including a study from the World Health Organization) that shows how our morning meals can impact the rest of our days:

“Adequate nutrition can raise your productivity levels by 20 per cent.” — WHO

One thing to note is that you aren’t that much better off if you eat something too sugary in the morning to substitute nothing at all: too much glucose in the morning can cause a crash later in the day. According to researcher Leigh Gibson, “the brain works best with about 25 grams of glucose circulating in the blood stream — about the amount found in a banana.”

How to form the habit: There’s one secret to this habit that everybody seems to miss. You need to make your morning routine more like a “ritual,” and eat something as soon as you wake-up, before doing anything else. That doesn’t mean you need to cook up eggs and bacon before hitting the shower, but grab something to eat before you do anything else (you’ll see below that “eat more fruit” is another desired habit, so even an apple or banana will do). This is your fail safe for if you miss breakfast for the whole morning, and gets you used to eating first thing, which can plant the seeds for you eating full meals after you wake up.

Eat More Fruit/Vegetables

Some people’s taste buds just seem to make them “veggie haters“, but we all know that a healthy serving of fruits and plenty of vegetables makes for a healthy diet. In order to best approach this habit, you have to decide what is really stopping you from eating vegetables. Is it because…

You truly can’t stand most fruits/vegetables?
You forget to add fruits/vegetables to most meals?
Once you’ve have that answer, it’s time to take action.

How to form the habit: If you find yourself not having a problem with fruits and vegetables, the best way to form this habit is to focus on eating them first with your meals. Not only is this habit easier to form (you make it about order/timing rather then strictly about food), but you’ll also have the added benefit of eating less when you get to the “main” meal. This means making sure that your salad hits your place (and your face) before the steak, and that you down a fruit smoothie before you start showing on hash browns.

If you don’t have a preference for most vegetables, you need to try different methods of preparation (grilled vegetables are awesome), mixing vegetables in with meals you already eat (adding capsicums and tomatoes is easy), and being more aware to what turns you off about most vegetables (do you hate vegetables specifically when they’re raw? Try eating them in a soup).

The 4 Best Tips on Habit Formation

Below is some of the most concise advice on habit formation that researchers in the field have been able to show works effectively. The big takeaway here is avoid making grandiose “resolutions“, as they are the most likely to be abandoned (which then huts your self-esteem & motivation).

Tip #1: Improve one aspect of the habit. Instead of trying to “force” a tough habit into your life all at once, try tackling it in small chunks. Focusing on exercising more is great, but trying to force yourself to go to the gym every day to do heavy exercise might be too much if you’ve never been a big gym person before. Stanford professor Baba Shiv notes that “cognitive overload” can occur, and you’ll likely be back to your old ways in no time. Instead of re-structuring your whole diet, start out by making sure dinner is always healthy and full of vegetables, and work your way down the line.

Tip #2: Use “hacks” only to remove friction. While many of us can’t stand the gym, I truly hate going to the gym in the morning when it’s cold outside (you might be able to relate). As a result, I’ve found that preparing the clothes I need and placing the right next to my bed the night before is one of the few things that can get me to go that early in the morning. That’s because it removes the friction of getting my clothes out and getting ready (small, but remember we’re always looking for “an out” when it’s something we don’t want to do).

If you find there’s a small thing that you always rationalise as a way out (“I can’t floss because…”), try to use small tweaks to eliminate the friction that prevents you from getting things done.

Tip #3: Maintain accountability by writing it down. In my video/post on how to be more productive, I covered some interesting research on discipline that shocked a lot of people. The first set of studies came from the American Psychological Association, where drug addicts (a group notorious for their inconsistency) were tested on accountability, and researchers found that those who wrote down when and where they would complete an assigned five-paragraph essay were 90 per cent more likely to turn it in!

These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in “normal” people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet. The point: keep track to stay accountable!

Tip #4: Focus on positive reinforcement. It’s been discussed many times before (such as in this article), but you need to focus on “the carrot instead of the stick”, meaning self-punishment isn’t a very good way to reinforce goals. Many people don’t give enough credit to the changes they have made in their efforts. Jeremy Dean highlights a myriad of research on why small rewards and positive reinforcement is critical for long-term habit change in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits. You don’t want to have your brain “abandon ship” (via research from Janet Polivy) on habit just because you messed up once, so be sure to be mindful of the small progress you’ve made as you push forward.

The 7 Most Sought After Good Habits (and How to Achieve Them) [Sparring Mind]

Gregory Ciotti is the founder of Sparring Mind, the blog that takes psychology and persuasive marketing and makes them play nice together. Download his free e-book on ‘Conversion Psychology’ for more research or follow Greg on Twitter.