Three ways to create a habit (aka three ways to eat a salad a day)

We are more than a week into the new year. Have you been able to stick with your resolutions? One way to be successful is to create a habit.

Here are three ways to make that new habit stick:

1. Make it automatic

Work by Peter Gollwitzer highlights the benefit of removing the need to make a choice. He has convincingly demonstrated how helpful it is to set up a “when then” connection in your mind (e.g., When X arises, I will then perform behavior Y.). For example: When I get home from work, I will then go for a walk.

2. Tell the world

If you want to create a new habit, you can make your intentions public. The accountability to others will help you stick to your goal. For example, unless you have been stuck under a rock, you know about The Salad Challenge. See how I told the world about it here (and a bunch of other places).

Amendment: I received a comment from Justin that suggests that this may not be an ideal strategy. Evidently, announcing your goal to others may lead to premature satisfaction and undermine the effort that people put into a goal. I am not sure yet about habit creation, nor have I read the original research. In any case, I don’t want you to worry. I am still going strong and eating a salad a day.

3. Put your money where your mouth is.

Make failure a more unappealing option by imposing a cost (financial or otherwise). There are now several websites that will help you do this. Take stickK for example. You create a “commitment contract” and if you fail to keep your goal, you pay. See what The New Yorker had to say about them.

I saw the evolution of stickK when I became friends with one of the founders, Dean Karlan. He tells about how it got started (from the stickK website):

After three years of the Ph.D. program in Economics at M.I.T., I noticed that my weight was higher than it ever had been. My close friend experienced the same problem. We were equally dismayed with ourselves – how we had let our studies get the better of our bodies. Our financial circumstances were considerably leaner; we each had savings about equal to a few years of annual income (which wasn’t very high, given that we were in graduate school). So we entered into a contract to lose 38 pounds each. I had to drop from 208 to 170 and my friend from 218 to 180. The targets were based on the high end of the optimal BMI (Body Mass Index) range. We set our target date based on a reasonable weight loss of 1.5 pounds per week. The stakes were steep: half of our annual income.

Here’s the funny thing: at first, neither of us lost weight. Why? Because we hung around together and kept noting that neither of us was doing anything. So we renegotiated and extended the deadline! That‘s when we realized the obvious; that if you have the ability to renegotiate, it inevitably kills the deal. So we added a clause: any attempt to renegotiate the terms of the contract would result in an immediate forfeiture of the bet. It worked. Both of us lost the weight, weighing in at 180 and 170 in January of 2002.

We then drew up a maintenance arrangement to ensure we each kept the weight off. But we didn’t follow through and each of us gained back about 20 pounds. So we put a new contract in place which required us to lose weight and keep it off. By now we had “real” jobs so our salaries had increased, but we kept the stakes the same: half of our annual income. It worked. We both lost the weight and then maintained it. At one point, my friend bounced up a bit, so he had to pay me $15,000. This payment was an investment in his ongoing health. Had I refused to accept it, no future contracts would ever work. Eventually, the contract ended by mutual agreement, and I moved on to a contract with Ian Ayres since we were founding stickK together.


Good luck!

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