top of page

Create Good Habits and Untangle Bad Habits

Purpose: Creating good habits and untangling bad habits may help someone achieve their desired outcomes.

Background

Stanford behavioral scientist, BJ Fogg, PhD has created a systematic approach to behavioral change. Behavioral change includes the creation of good habits and the untangling of bad habits. Three keys to the creation of good habits and the untangling of bad habits are: simplicity, doing what is wanted, and feeling good. An effective approach for achieving a desired outcome is to create tiny habits that focus on the end result. Before a habit can form, a person needs to have motivation, a prompt, and the ability to do the habit. The Practice section below explains how to use motivation, ability, and prompts to create habits.

 

BJ Fogg, PhD categorizes bad habits into three categories: Uphill Habits that require regular maintenance but are easy to stop, Downhill Habits that are easy to maintain but difficult to stop, and Freefall Habits that are extremely difficult to stop unless given professional help. A key to untangling a bad habit is to approach it step by step instead of attempting to untangle it all at once. The Practice section below provides steps for untangling Uphill Habits and Downhill Habits.

Practice: This practice may help someone to create good habits.

Create Good Habits

Step 1: Clarify the Aspiration

  • An aspiration is a desired outcome. Be specific. For example, is the aspiration to eat more vegetables or is the aspiration really to improve digestion?

 

Step 2: Explore Behavior Options

  • Create a list of behaviors that can help to achieve the aspiration. For example, eating more vegetables is a behavior that can help to achieve the aspiration of improving digestion.

  • Make each behavior on the list specific. For example, instead of writing “eat more vegetables,” write “buy broccoli.”

 

Step 3: Match with Specific Behaviors

  • Select the best behaviors from the list of behaviors. To do this:

    • Put a star next to the behaviors that are a highly effective way to achieve the aspiration.

    • Circle the behaviors that can actually be done because the ability to do them already exists.

    • Circle the behaviors that are actually wanted.

  • The behaviors that have both a star and circle are the ones that will be chosen and focused on.

 

Step 4: Start Tiny

  • Find what is weakening the ability to do each specific behavior that was chosen. The five Ability Factors that can weaken or strengthen the ability to do a behavior are:

    • Time. For example, shopping for broccoli.

    • Money. For example, paying for broccoli.

    • Physical capability. For example, cooking broccoli.

    • Mental energy. For example, deciding how to cook broccoli.

    • Current routines. For example, routinely ordering delivery instead of cooking.

  • After identifying the Ability Factors that are weakening the ability to do a specific behavior, find ways to strengthen those Ability Factors. The weakest Ability Factors can be strengthened by:

    • Increasing skills. For example, learning how to cook can strengthen physical capability, mental energy, and routine.

    • Getting tools and resources. For example, buying cookware can strengthen time, physical capability, mental energy, and routine. 

    • Breaking the behavior into tiny habits. For example, walking into the vegetable aisle at the store can be a tiny habit and a Starter Step. A Starter Step is the first action that is needed to do a specific behavior.

  • If motivation to do the behavior is high then start with increasing skills or getting tools and resources. If motivation to do the behavior is low then start with breaking the behavior into tiny habits.

  • If it is necessary to make the behavior tiny, then start with a Starter Step. For example, a Starter Step for the behavior of buying broccoli could be walking into the vegetable aisle at the store. If motivation to buy broccoli is low, then feeling successful by achieving the Starter Step can lead to doing more tiny habits.

 

Step 5: Find a Good Prompt

  • A prompt is something that causes someone to take action. For example, if an app notification pops up on a smartphone, this will prompt the action of clicking on it. A well-designed prompt will take advantage of motivation and ability. To design a prompt, consider using these three elements:

    • Create an Anchor Moment. An Anchor Moment is a behavior that is already done reliably and can prompt a new behavior or tiny habit to be done. The Anchor Moment should:

      • Be a behavior that is already done reliably. For example, walking into the vegetable aisle at the grocery store.

      • Be specific and have the format “After I…, I will...” such as, “After I walk into the vegetable aisle, I will put broccoli into my shopping cart.”

      • Take place in the same location as the new behavior. For example, at the grocery store.

      • Occur at about the same frequency as the new behavior. For example, going to the grocery store once a week and buying broccoli once a week.

      • Have the same theme as the new behavior. For example, groceries.

    • Use something in the environment to prompt the new behavior. For example, a reminder popup alert on a smartphone can be used as a reminder to buy broccoli. This type of prompt is not as effective as using an Anchor Moment and can be ineffective if a person becomes desensitized to notifications popping up on their phone.

    • Remember to do the new behavior. Relying on memory to do the behavior or tiny habit is the least effective type of prompt.

 

Step 6: Celebrate Success

  • A celebration needs to occur milliseconds after doing the behavior or tiny habit, while the behavior or tiny habit is occuring, or when remembering to do the behavior or tiny habit. An incentive, such as eating chocolate hours after doing the behavior, is not effective at rewiring the brain to want to do the behavior or tiny habit again, since the incentive occurs too long afterwards.

  • The celebration should be something that creates a positive feeling and feels authentic. Examples include smiling big, saying “yes!,” doing a fist pump, etc.

  • Rehearse the new behavior or tiny habit seven times (with a celebration each time) to create muscle memory and rewire the brain.

Step 7: Troubleshoot, Iterate, and Expand

  • If a feeling of success does not occur after doing the behavior, then motivation to do the behavior may decrease. If this occurs, consider selecting a different behavior to focus on or simplifying the behavior into tiny habits.

  • When a feeling of success occurs after doing the behavior, then try expanding the behavior. For example, buying asparagus can be a way to expand on the behavior of buying broccoli. If a feeling of success does not occur after expanding the behavior, then try improving ability, prompt, or motivation and then try again.

  • When ready, more behaviors can be chosen to focus on.


Practice: This practice may help someone to untangle bad habits.

Untangle Bad Habits

Phase 1: Focus on Creating New Habits

Step 1: Create new habits

  • Do not start the process of untangling a bad habit by trying to stop it. Instead, start by learning how to create new positive habits that are unrelated to the bad habit. This will help create the skill of creating habits. As each new habit is achieved, there will be a feeling of success which can help to build a new identity and crowd out the bad habit. Use the seven steps that are described in the Practice section above to learn how to design positive habits.

 

Phase 2: Focus on Stopping the Bad Habit

Step 1: Write down the general bad habit

  • Write down the bad habit. For example, “eating too much junk food.”

 

Step 2: List Contributing Habits

  • Create a list of habits that contribute to the bad habit. For example, “eating popcorn while I watch TV at night,” “keeping a jar of cookies on the kitchen counter,” etc.

 

Step 3: Match with Specific Habits 

  • After creating a list of specific habits that contribute to the bad habit, choose the habits that are easiest to change. To do this:

    • Put a star next to the habits that can actually be done because the ability to do them already exists.

    • Circle the behaviors that are actually wanted.

  • The habits that have both a star and circle are the ones that will be chosen and focused on.

 

Step 4: Focus on the Prompt

  • A prompt is something that causes someone to take action. For example, if an app notification pops up on a smartphone, this will prompt the action of clicking on it. A well-designed prompt will take advantage of motivation and ability. When it comes to untangling a bad habit, try the following:

    • Remove the prompt: A one-time behavior of removing the prompt can be done, such as turning off notifications from an app. Use the tiny habit format of “After I…, I will…” For example, “After I sit down at my desk, I will turn off the app notifications.”

    • Avoid the prompt: If the prompt cannot be removed, then try to avoid it. For example, if walking past an ice cream shop prompts the action of buying ice cream, then avoid the ice cream shop by walking on a different street.

    • Ignore the prompt: This requires willpower and is the least reliable option. If walking past an ice cream shop prompts the action of buying ice cream, but willpower to keep walking past the ice cream shop prevails, then celebrate and this will rewire the brain to want to repeat the successful habit again.

 

Step 5: Make the Habit Harder to Do

  • Identify the factors that strengthen the ability to do the bad habit, then find ways to weaken them. The five Ability Factors that can weaken or strengthen the ability to do a bad habit are:

    • Time: Make the bad habit require more time to do.

    • Money: Make the bad habit more expensive.

    • Physical capability: Make the bad habit require more physical effort.

    • Mental energy: Make the bad habit require more mental effort.

    • Current routines: Make the bad habit conflict with a habit that is currently valued.

 

Step 6: Reduce Motivation to do the Bad Habit

  • If changing the prompt and making the habit harder to do did not work, then adjust motivation. 

    • Reduce motivation: Reduce motivation for doing the bad habit. For example, if eating ice cream relieves stress and if going for a walk also relieves stress, then going for a walk may reduce motivation to eat ice cream.

    • Add a demotivator: This is not recommended, but it is an option that might work. A demotivator can be giving $100 to a friend each time that the bad habit is done. A demotivator is not recommended because people change best from feeling good and a demotivator can make a person feel worse.

 

Step 7: Scale Back the Change 

  • If steps 1-6 in Phase 2 did not lead to success, but there is a desire to keep working on changing the same bad habit, then try scaling back the bad habit:

    • Set a shorter time period for stopping the bad habit. For example, stop eating ice cream for two days instead of one month.

    • Do the bad habit for a shorter duration. For example, eat ice cream for ten minutes instead of twenty minutes.

    • Do the bad habit less often. For example, eat ice cream once a day instead of twice.

    • Do the bad habit with less intensity. For example, fill up a small bowl of ice cream instead of a big bowl.

 

Phase 3: Focus on Swapping the Bad Habit for a New Positive Habit

Step 1: Explore Habit Options

  • Create a list of habits that can be done instead of the bad habit.

  • Make each habit on the list specific.

 

Step 2: Match with Specific Habits

  • After creating a list of specific habits that can be done instead of the bad habit, choose the best habits. To do this:

    • Put a star next to the habits that are a highly effective way to achieve the aspiration.

    • Put a star next to the habits that can actually be done because the ability to do them already exists.

    • Circle the behaviors that are actually wanted.

    • The habit options that have both the star and circle are the ones that will be chosen and focused on.

 

Step 3: Prompt the New Habit

  • When prompted to do the bad habit, do the new habit instead. For example, if the bad habit of eating ice cream is prompted by the feeling of stress, then do the new habit of going for a walk instead. When the new habit is done instead of the bad habit, celebrate this achievement and this will rewire the brain to want to repeat the successful habit again.

 

Step 4: Troubleshoot

  • If the new habit is continuously forgotten to be done, then practice doing it either physically or mentally. Celebrate each time after practicing the new habit to build muscle memory and rewire the brain to remember.

  • If the new habit is still unable to be done instead of the bad habit, then choose a different new habit from the list and make sure it is easier and more motivating to do than the bad habit.

  • If necessary, improve ability or increase motivation to do the new habit to make it easier and more motivating to do than the bad habit.

Donate: Donate to WavyFields and help us achieve our mission to restore, sustain, and enhance human health through an evidence-based integrative health program. WavyFields is a 501(c)(3) public charity. All donations are tax deductible. 

Newsletter: Sign up for the WavyFields Newsletter. The Newsletter contains a short Purpose, Background, and Practice section for an evidence-based health topic about the mind, digestion, movement, breathing, or sleep. The Newsletter will be emailed to you once a month.

bottom of page