September 28, 2021


Minute read

A Behavioral Scientist Shares 4 Tips for Shaping Up Our Personal Habits

For the past six years, it’s been my job to study public displays of behavior and work with those that need behavioral interventions. I find it fascinating and love everything about behavioral science. But apparently, that’s not enough.

When I went to the ophthalmologist the other day, he was disappointed to find out I still had not been wearing my prescription glasses.

“What do you do for work?” he asked.

“I do behavior therapy!” I answered excitedly. “Basically, I work to change environments that can improve behaviors to help my clients live their best lives!” 

He laughed before remarking, “And the behavior therapist can’t get herself to wear her own glasses, huh?”

My ophthalmologist highlighted a great point — habits are hard to keep if you don’t work to maintain them.

Much like my dusty glasses, it’s easy to neglect healthy habits if you don’t give them attention.

While it’s a challenge for all of us, four simple tips can help you create and maintain healthy habits.

Healthy Habits Tip #1: Select a Clear Goal 

You must know your goal thoroughly. Ensuring that your goals are specific, clear, and attainable will help hold you accountable and help you track progress.  

An unhelpful goal might be “I want to run a marathon one day,” which is much too vague. A better goal might be “I will run two miles a day before work on Mondays and Wednesdays.”

Healthy Habits Tip #2: Set Yourself Up for Success 

Think about how to best arrange your environment to make it more likely you’ll make the behavioral change you want —– what we call antecedent intervention in behavioral analysis.

Sticking with the hypothetical running goal, an antecedent strategy could be to buy a comfortable running outfit that you feel amazing in and to lay it out the night before a run. It could also be admiring a photo of a person crossing the finish line on your vision board.

Anything that increases the likelihood of your target behavior will help.

View of New York through a pair of glasses

Healthy Habits Tip #3: Choose a Powerful Reward 

In my profession, when coworkers complain that a client refuses to complete a task, we ask, “Do you work for free?” The answer is almost always no.

When you break it down, almost anything you do results in some kind of reinforcement. You will be much more motivated to stick to a plan and build a habit if you choose an impactful reward.

To work, however, you need to stick to your reward plan. If you happen to not run your target mileage this week, don’t let yourself have access to that reward in any way, or you run the risk of inadvertently reinforcing the behavior of not running — something called bootleg reinforcement.

However, this does not mean you have to feel bad or punish yourself. It should simply raise your motivation to try harder next week to claim your reward.

Healthy Habits Tip #4: Shape Your Goals 

Once you consistently meet your goal, for instance, running two miles every Monday and Wednesday, it might be time to alter it. For example, you might increase either the frequency or duration of your runs, or a combination of both. 

But proceed with caution and increase your goals slowly! Moving from this step right into a full marathon would likely result in fatigue, injuries, and discouragement. Instead, you might next try running three miles a day every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

You’re probably familiar with the common phrase, “take baby steps.” In the world of behavioral science, we call this process achieving successful approximations, or shaping.  

That’s what you’re trying to do here — shape your goals by embracing small wins and contacting reinforcement each step along the way. Doing so will make it much more likely that you’ll continue on your path to your main goal.

Keep Going Even When It’s Hard 

The tricky part of this process is actually sticking to these behavioral principles. Holding fast is more effort in the moment, but much more rewarding in the long run.

These four tips may be simple, but they are powerful. If you can set clear goals, set yourself up for success, reward good behavior, and add realistic next steps, you will be crushing your goals in no time.

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