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4 Research-Based Ways to Make New Habits Stick

When Physical Exercise Feels Just Like A Panic AttackEveryone knows change is hard. If you want to achieve your goals, you have to learn how to delay gratification, step out of your comfort zone and overcome resistance to change.

But what’s even harder is making change stick. Saying no to a cigarette. Keeping the pounds off. Ignoring that website. That’s the real challenge. Or is it?

You can make change stick by making it easier for yourself.

In one study, university students only got vaccinated after they had been given a map to the health center. That one little thing made a big difference in their behavior.

Four things can make a big difference when making new habits stick. These are how you prime yourself to act differently, the defaults you set up, the commitments you make, and the norms of those you surround yourself with (Dolan, 2014).

1. Priming. Our habits are often influenced by unconscious cues. If there’s a candy bar in plain sight in your refrigerator, you’re primed to eat it.

Companies are constantly nudging and priming us into buying their goods and services. In one study, supermarket customers had their selections influenced by stereotypical French and German music. When French music was played, French wine outsold German wine, and when German music was played, sales reversed. (North, Hargreaves, and McKendrick, 1999).

You can prime desirable behaviors by redesigning your environment. Make desirable behaviors accessible and undesirable behaviors inaccessible.

2. Defaults. In general, we’re pretty lazy and usually content to do whatever is the present option. Given a choice between ordering takeout and preparing a healthy meal, fast food trumps fresh salad because it’s easier. The easier the behavior, the easier it becomes our default.

Defaults are used for organ donations. When countries use “opt out” systems, organ donor rates increase (Rithalia, McDaid, Suekarran, Myers, & Snowden, 2009).

“Defaults are passive commitments,” writes Paul Dolan, author of Happiness by Design. “You rarely notice them.” That’s because seldom do we decide what our defaults are going to be (Dolan, 2014). To make new habits stick, you need to make small adjustments to your life so that going with the flow is consistent with your new behavior.

3. Commitments. Good follow-through depends on more than the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives. And nothing creates incentive more than public accountability. When observed, we work harder to achieve our goals.

You want to be consistent with your public promise, right? Then get accountable. Set a goal where you have some degree of control over the outcome, such as your physical health or running a half-marathon, and commit to one change. Don’t put yourself under too much pressure.

4. Social norms. We are strongly influenced by what others do. This is understandable; we learn from the experiences of other people and trust their judgements because they have information about experiences we don’t. However, what’s important is whom we choose to spend our time with. Going against the grain is hard, but it’s even harder when we’re going against it alone. So to make change stick, associate with people who support your goal and are rooting for you.

If you want to change effectively, you need to apply all of the above tips. Let’s look at how we can do that using a popular example: Exercise.

  • Priming: Pack your gym bag and leave it where you’ll see it every day.
  • Defaults: Have scheduled days for when you exercise so you don’t have to plan when to fit it in.
  • Commitments: Find an accountability partner and introduce stakes for if you miss a workout.
  • Social Norms: Go with a friend on the default days you agreed.

By using priming, defaults, commitments, and norms, you can design new habits and commit to them without actually having to think about them. You can then save your energy for where you really need to pay attention, such as overcoming obstacles and changing other behaviors.


Dolan, P. (2014). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. New York: Penguin.

North, A. C., Hargreaves, D. J., and McKendrick, J. (1999). ‘The influence of in-store music on wine selections.’ Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(2), pp. 271-276.

Rithalia, A., McDaid, C., Suekarran, S., Myers, L., & Snowden, A. Impact of presumed consent for organ donation on donation rates: a systematic review. British Medical Journal 2009; 338.

Dolan, P. (2014). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. New York: Penguin.

4 Research-Based Ways to Make New Habits Stick

Sam Thomas Davies

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APA Reference
Davies, S. (2018). 4 Research-Based Ways to Make New Habits Stick. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 9 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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