Learning better strategies for forming and maintaining habits can significantly improve your effectiveness, both in your work and personal life. We reviewed 14 key interventions across 26 meta-analyses and systematic reviews, finding that implementation intentions and prompts/ cues were particularly effective strategies for maximising the effectiveness of behaviour change.
For anyone with particularly limited time, we recommend skipping straight to the section ‘Forming better habits: a quickfire guide’. You can also download a one-page guide to our key recommendations here.
This report was produced by Effective Self-Help (ESH), an EA organisation researching the most effective interventions for improving wellbeing and productivity. The recommendations discussed below should help you become more successful in forming new habits, making it easier for you to produce positive changes in your life.
Effective Self-Help has previously conducted research into sleep and stress interventions; these reports can be found on our website. For a more in-depth explanation of ESH’s aims and strategy, we suggest reading this article.
Top recommendation: We’ve translated our top five findings based on effect size into this 5-step guide to more effective behaviour change. For more detailed information, see the summary table below and the ‘Primary Recommendations’ section which discusses these top five recommendations in greater depth.
Summary of our findings
The summary table below offers a concise overview of our top five findings, ranked in order of effect size. For a more comprehensive background to these results, including links to each study we reviewed, please see this evidence spreadsheet.
Forming better habits: a quickfire guide
The following 5-step guide to better habits is also available as a downloadable poster (pdf). We expect that while each of these recommendations provides significant value on its own, combining these interventions will offer the greatest benefit.
1. Form a clear goal intention - what exactly are you hoping to achieve?
- Choose something quantifiable
- e.g. ‘I want to meditate for at least 5 minutes each day’ rather than ‘I want to start meditating’
2. Plan how you intend to implement the behaviour - what you will do to overcome likely obstacles?
- Think of this as ‘if-then’ planning
- e.g. ‘I will meditate using the Waking Up app’; ‘If I feel too rushed to meditate for 5 minutes, then I will set the timer to 1 minute so I can’t say that I have too little time’
3. Tie your new habit to specific cues - what can you use as a prompt for the behaviour?
- Use well-established habits as triggers for the new behaviour
- e.g. ‘I will meditate each morning straight after I’ve finished brushing my teeth’
4. Decide on an incentive - what reward would make you more likely to follow through on your intention?
- Think of this as an investment with successful habit formation delivering higher returns
- e.g. ‘I will buy myself dinner each Sunday if I hit my meditation target for 5 days or more this week’
5. Monitor your progress - what’s the simplest way you can track your habit success?
- Choose a process you’re likely to stick to, whether that’s an app, calendar, diary, or something else
- e.g. ‘I will mark a tick on my calendar for each day I successfully implement my new habit’
Habits: a general discussion
What counts as a habit?
Habits are behaviours that follow largely or completely automatically and consistently from a cue. In other words, habits are the things we do generally without much need for thought or motivation. This makes these behaviours both easy to maintain and hard to stop.
Strong habits are relatively context-independent, meaning that you are able to perform the behaviour at different times and locations, and with reduced dependence on specific cues.
How long does it take to form a strong habit?
The time it takes to form a strong habit appears highly variable. There is a significant lack of research into this question with a single study underpinning the majority of estimates. This study found that the average time to form a strong habit was 66 days, but this mark ranged between 18 and 254 days between participants.
With such a wide range of time taken to form a strong habit, it’s hard to make any firm conclusions on how long you should expect this process to take. Instead, it is perhaps more useful to emphasise that the commonly-cited figure of 21 days to form a habit is misleading. As part of this, there is likely significant scope for getting better or worse at forming habits.
The importance of behaviour change techniques
We expect that this large range in the time taken to form strong habits is determined to a significant extent by the techniques and approaches that you adopt to change a behaviour. Therefore, selecting behaviour change techniques that have significant evidence supporting their effectiveness should be an easy and impactful way to improve your ability to form new habits.
In the simplest terms, a failure to carry out the desired behaviour is likely to be rooted in an issue with either the cue (does not trigger the behaviour) or with the action itself (the behaviour feels off-putting, overly challenging, or insufficiently important). The behaviour change techniques discussed in this report all attempt to fix one side of this divide.
Common (sense) recommendations
Before diving into our main recommendations based on the literature we reviewed, there are several more general recommendations worth highlighting.
Minimise the need for willpower
While you might feel highly motivated to implement a new behaviour, motivation and willpower cannot be consistently relied upon. In other words, trying harder is not enough: successful habit implementation tends to require more concrete strategies than just summoning more effort.
Start stacking habits
Use behaviours that are already strong habits as cues for new practices you want to implement. Obvious examples include: brushing your teeth; eating main meals; starting/ finishing your workday; waking up/ going to sleep.
Don’t worry about missing a day
There appears good evidence to suggest that isolated failures to implement a behaviour have a minimal long-term impact on habit formation, as long as you get back to executing the target behaviour at the next opportunity. Given this, efforts to ‘catch up’ for missed days are unlikely to be worth the added stress and willpower they are likely to entail.
Focus on meta-habits first
Given the value of a more systematic approach to implementing new behaviours, it’s likely worth treating some of the recommendations in this report as habits to form in themselves. In particular, creating a strong habit of using a framework that allows you to specify goals, make detailed plans, and monitor success for new behaviours is likely to be particularly useful.
Build on any existing systems that you have, whether that’s using a diary, a calendar, or a commitment tracker. By strengthening meta-habits, you’ll increase your speed and success at implementing any other new behaviour you want to start.
Smaller but more often
Two of the best-selling books on habit formation advocate for making new habits smaller and easier to achieve than may seem necessary to increase the likelihood you’ll perform them consistently.
Habits as friction
It may be useful to consider building new habits and breaking old ones as a matter of friction. Most behaviour change techniques aim to make the behaviour either easier or harder to implement.
On this basis, look to increase friction for bad habits and common patterns of failure, such as by installing a website blocker to increase the difficulty of accessing distracting sites, and decrease friction for positive behaviours (e.g. setting up an automatic healthy food delivery).
Evidence on combining interventions isn’t conclusive but appears to demonstrate that using multiple techniques at once produces greater levels of success. In particular, one review found the greatest size of effect for interventions that combined ‘prompt intention formation’ with the provision of information about the behaviour’.
Trigger Action Plans (TAPs)
TAPs are a behaviour change strategy recommended by the Centre for Applied Rationality (CFAR) and discussed in multiple articles on LessWrong. Trigger Action Plans provide a useful and practical combined framing of some of our top recommendations, including using implementation intentions and prompts/ cues.
Roughly speaking, a TAP involves choosing a goal, deciding on an action that will bring progress towards that goal, and identifying a trigger to prompt that action (e.g. ‘I want to improve my physical fitness so I will do 5 push-ups every time I turn on the shower before I get in’).
Given the strong evidence for implementation intentions and prompts/ cues, we recommend trigger-action plans for anyone familiar with this framing or to whom the structure appeals.
Brief notes on methods
How we produced these results
We reviewed 26 meta-analyses and systematic review papers on the effectiveness of different behaviour change techniques. For each intervention we studied, we compiled information on the size of effect (cohen’s d), the number of participants, population group, and outcome measured by each paper.
Our evidence table includes links to every study that we reviewed as well as a summary of key information about the paper.
Effective Self-Help strives for a very high degree of reasoning transparency and rigour in producing our findings as these are characteristics that are too often lacking from self-help literature. Given this, we encourage you to review our evidence and how we compiled it for yourself.
For further information on how we conduct our research, what methods we use, and why we use them, please see our website.
Discussion of Primary Recommendations
The top 5 most effective interventions we reviewed, discussed in order of effect size.
Size of effect: 0.62
Intervention: forming ‘if-then’ plans of how you will implement the change in behaviour (and specifically how you will overcome foreseeable obstacles)
Implementation intentions involve ‘specifying the behaviour one will perform in the service of the goal and the situational context in which one will enact it’. We found strong evidence to suggest that implementation intentions are a particularly effective method of increasing the likelihood of success in changing behaviours.
Specifying where, when and how you will do something makes your intention more concrete. Anticipating obstacles and planning how you will overcome them helps to minimise derailment. This article on ‘Murphyjitsu’ emphasises the value of spending time anticipating as many foreseeable ways in which you will fail to follow through on your intention. To borrow its framing, we encourage you to:
On a final note, there is some evidence to suggest that negative implementation intentions (‘if I’m bored, I will not watch TV’) are counter-productive and better framed in terms of a replacement behaviour (‘if I’m bored, I will listen to a podcast instead of watching TV’).
Size of effect: 0.48
Intervention: choosing an existing behaviour to use as a trigger for the new habit.
Defining a prompt for a new behaviour is a great way to make it more automatic. Using well-established behaviours appears particularly effective. Avoid choosing prompts/ cues that require some level of motivation to do in themselves or that you are not highly consistent in doing.
Basic daily actions like eating meals, showering, brushing your teeth, and leaving/ returning to your home are strong examples of good prompts. Reminder notifications on your phone offer a useful alternative. As one note of caution, avoid tying multiple behaviours to the same trigger as this is likely to ‘reduce the chances that any one response will become habitual’ by diluting the association between the cue and any specific response.
Size of effect: 0.45
Intervention: setting a clear target for what you want to achieve
Specifying a clear goal appears well-supported by the literature we reviewed as an effective intervention and makes intuitive sense as a means of improving habit acquisition. Without a clear goal, it is harder to define whether you are making progress and what actions will best produce progress.
However, it is important to emphasise that setting a goal on its own is insufficient. There appears consistent agreement in the reviews we found that ‘there is often a gap between people’s intentions and their actual behavior’. Complementing goal formation with a clear plan of how you will implement it (such as through a trigger-action plan) is likely to increase your odds of success.
Size of effect: 0.41
Intervention: creating a reward structure for progress towards your goal (or costs for failure)
While more costly than the other interventions discussed here, incentives appear a valuable tool for improving success at forming new habits. Considered as an investment, incentives are worthwhile up to the point at which they exceed the expected value of the new behaviour. Be clear about the value of your time and be prepared to trade money for time aggressively when this will produce significant returns.
Incentives appear to be valuable even when they are redeemed inconsistently, with larger effects generally present with incentives of higher value that are triggered closer to the performance of the target behaviour. Meanwhile, rewards of an uncertain value may be particularly worthwhile but there is little research into their effectiveness.
Size of effect: 0.4
Intervention: tracking your success/ failure in implementing the target behaviour
Monitoring your progress is an obvious way of maintaining focus on a goal and incentivising consistency. We recommend using any kind of existing structure you may already have for staying on top of goals, tasks, and deadlines. A diary or calendar (whether physical or digital) are obvious examples of simple and effective ways to track progress that you may already use.
Alternatively, there are a host of habit-tracking apps that you can use. Apps like Loop and Way of Life that provide reminders and build streaks of habit success appear effective tools. While there are concerns in the studies we reviewed that apps like these create a dependency, this doesn’t seem a particularly important concern if using the app becomes a consistent and useful part of your daily routine.
Discussion of other interventions
Having other people to check in on your goals and progress towards them seems intuitively like a valuable intervention. While we didn’t find strong evidence in support of a significant effect, this may be due to other factors.
In particular, it’s likely there’s significant variation in how much people are motivated by the opinions of others, meaning this is probably especially useful for some people. As well as this, there may well be limited value to social accountability without a clear goal to use for judging progress or strategies for overcoming likely obstacles.
Anecdotally, we have heard people find co-working solutions, whether in person or virtually (e.g. Focusmate), particularly beneficial for making progress towards their goals.
Similarly, receiving feedback from others on progress made in implementing a behaviour appears of some value while likely being less impactful than our top recommendations.
Research into the use of social media support groups and discussion boards is sadly fairly limited but suggests that online social support offers a similar level of effectiveness to in-person interventions.
Planning (action and coping planning)
‘Action planning is the process of linking goal-directed behaviours to certain environmental cues by specifying when, where, and how to act.’ As is likely clear from this definition, there is a large amount of overlap between some of the interventions we’ve reviewed here, with the terms for different interventions suggesting a difference in emphasis rather than a wholesale difference in approach.
Action planning appears to emphasise producing a detailed plan but lacks the focus on obstacles and how you will overcome them that may explain the higher effect sizes found for implementation intentions.
This intervention places a greater emphasis on identifying things that may get in the way of carrying out the target behaviour. Coping planning forms part of making an implementation intention (or trigger-action plan) and so we recommend focusing on these strategies given the larger effect size.
Attitude, barriers, consequences, and environment
There is moderate evidence to suggest that increasing your belief in your ability to successfully form new habits increases your success.
One obvious way of achieving this is to arm yourself with evidence-based techniques like those recommended in this report that you can be confident will improve your ability to change your behaviour.
This intervention involves identifying specific potential obstacles to successful behaviour change. As a more limited version of making an implementation intention with a smaller effect size, we do not recommend this framing and instead direct you to the section on implementation intentions.
Learning more about the consequences of a negative habit and the benefits of switching to a better action appears to be of limited value. While a greater understanding of the consequences of a behaviour is likely to increase your motivation to change, this appears of limited benefit without concrete strategies for implementing behaviour change, such as our primary recommendations.
We failed to find any meta-analyses or systematic reviews presenting an effect size for changing your environment as a means of changing behaviours.
However, we expect that this is a worthwhile strategy, if possibly also a costly one, particularly for breaking bad habits. Given the significant effect of prompts/ cues on behaviour change, altering your environment to disrupt these cues should be of significant value.
Actions like changing workspace to reduce procrastination or shopping at a different store to encourage healthier food purchases seem worth experimenting with.
For anyone wanting to explore this topic in greater depth, we recommend the following resources:
- 5 steps to better habits - ESH’s one-page guide to more effective behaviour change
- Ten Conditions for Change - an interactive framework made by SparkWave for understanding behaviour change, including summaries of many key theories
- Daily Ritual: A Habit Creation System - a 15-minute programme walking you through the process of setting up a new habit
- Huberman Lab: The Science of Making and Breaking Habits - a great podcast episode from Dr. Andrew Huberman on leveraging the neuroscience behind behaviour change for more effective habit formation
- Atomic Habits - this book by James Clear is consistently recommended as a guide to habit formation and presents several key ideas in an engaging and accessible way. Popular alternative guides to behaviour change are Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Keep in touch with our work
We are also looking for more people to review our research prior to publication and test our recommendations. If you would be interested in supporting our work, please get in touch here.
Thank you to the EA Infrastructure Fund for its ongoing support of Effective Self-Help. An additional note of thanks to Manon Gouiran, Stian Grønlund, Samantha Kagel, Michael Noetel, Raphael Pesah, and Joseph Young for offering feedback and advice on previous drafts of this research.
NB: We are currently running a 5-minute survey evaluating our work which we'd greatly appreciate you filling out!
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