How to Start Building Better Habits in 3 Easy Steps

3 min read
Curious how to build lasting habits? Here are 3 science-backed techniques worth trying.
Curious how to build lasting habits? Here are 3 science-backed techniques worth trying.

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If it’s tricky to pin down an exact formula for motivation, it’s probably because we are all incredibly unique—what drives one person to meet their goals might be totally different from what inspires another. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few science-backed tricks to help stack the odds in your favor. And from our POV, one of the most universal life-hacks around is to start small.

Which sounds easier: Hitting the gym five days a week or committing to move your body for 20 minutes after work in whatever way that feels good to you? How about vowing to “get healthy” this year versus simply remembering to take your vitamins this morning? When we take baby steps, our goals seem that much more manageable—and there’s research to back that up. (1)

Take your goal, break it down… and then break it down again.

Your objective is to start small, remember? We know that habit formation can be broken down into three parts: the cue for your behavior, the behavior itself, and the reward. The trick is to minimize this process even more than you realize.

That might mean transferring $5 into your savings each week until you realize you don’t miss it one bit. Then (and only then), you scale up to $10… then $20. Or, you start with a 10-minute stretching routine before working your way up to a 60-minute yoga class. Maybe you commit to cooking a healthy dinner at home just once a week before realizing you actually really enjoy testing out new recipes, and want to do it more often. The possibilities are endless—the point is just to start somewhere tiny.

It’s a concept that’s been a huge point of focus for BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist out of Stanford who is widely regarded as one of the leading experts on habit formation. One of his signature directives: If you’re trying to get in the habit of flossing your teeth, start with just one tooth each morning—and when you’re done, celebrate like it’s a major accomplishment. (More on that in a minute).* (2)

One step at a time.

We live in a world that glorifies multitasking—we’re toggling from our inbox to Instagram as we walk the dog in the morning, coffee in hand. This isn’t doing us any favors in the realm of habit formation or motivation. In fact, research suggests that when we ask our brains to jump from task to task, it actually makes us less productive. Consider this your permission to focus on just one thing—which is kind of freeing when you think about it, right?* (3)


One essential way to hack the habit loop in your favor is to ensure that your brain has a really good reason to return to that behavior. Scientists suspect that a positive emotional tie makes for a compelling reward, so it’s important to acknowledge your victories, no matter how small. (4)

The flip side of this? When you start small, those milestones are easier to accomplish—which means that it’s easier to feel confident about your progress, which spurs you to keep going. Talk about a win-win.*


  1. Forget big change, start with a tiny habit: BJ Fogg at TEDxFremont. (n.d.). Retrieved from YouTube
  2. MacLellan, L. (2020, January 15). A Stanford University behavior scientist's elegant three-step method for creating new habits. Retrieved from Quartz
  3. Gorlick, A., & Gorlick, A. (2009, August 24). Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows. Retrieved from Stanford News
  4. Neuroscience News. (2016, September 13). Intrinsic Reward Helps Make Exercise a Habit. Retrieved from Neuroscience News


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