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Why is it so hard to establish new habits, and how can you make it easier?

If you’ve ever decided on a great New Year’s resolution just to give up by February, you know that establishing new habits is hard. A lot of the time, it doesn’t even matter how small this new habit is. As you can probably imagine, this means that changing someone else’s behavior is even more challenging. According to BJ Fogg, a behavior change researcher at Stanford, one reason that behavioral change efforts often fail is that they are too focused on information. In a podcast episode, he explains that even though information might seem helpful, it isn’t actually that effective in promoting behavioral change.  

To illustrate this point, let’s say that you want someone to start eating more vegetables, which is an example that Fogg uses in the podcast. The person you’re trying to convince probably already knows about the health benefits of vegetables, so giving them more information about why they should eat vegetables won’t be all that helpful.  

Instead, consider Fogg’s behavioral change model. He proposes that in order to enact behavioral change, three things need to come together at the same time: motivation, ability, and prompt. Without all of these components in place, it’s difficult for change to occur. It might seem like ability level is the most set in stone of the three, but this is actually not the case. Fogg provides three examples of steps you can take to increase ability for a new habit:

  • First, you can train someone so that they become more able to do this new behavior. If we go back to the vegetable example, this could mean showing them where to get vegetables and how to cook them best. 
  • Second, you can redesign the environment or context that someone is in to make the behavior easier. In the vegetable example, this could mean making sure someone has the proper tools for chopping vegetables and that these tools are readily available. 
  • The third approach is to scale back the behavior in order to make the task less daunting. Maybe instead of hoping to eat several servings of vegetables per day, you decide that you only have to eat one vegetable, or even just take a bite out of one vegetable each day. Even these small changes go a long way because they help you realize that you are, in fact, capable of change. 

Changing behavior is difficult, so it’s important to make the habit itself as easy to accomplish as possible. If ability is low, of course it will be hard to change a habit. So, if you’re not sure where to start, plan out some concrete steps you can take to make the habit itself as easy as possible.