A brand-new school year, a brand-new you. Sound familiar? Many of us started the school year with high achievements in mind (make straight A’s, quit the sugar habit, finally run that half marathon) only to end up making little to no progress. Science has shown us that noble goals and willpower aren’t necessarily enough to help us make all the changes we’re hoping for.
The science of healthy habits
Fortunately, science is also telling us how to develop healthier, more productive habits. “We actually know a great deal about strategies for helping people change behavior,” says Dr. Timothy Edgar, a professor and health communication researcher at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts. Once we know what barriers people have to making a change, “the key is to find ways to make it as easy as possible for [them] to engage in the desired behaviors,” says Dr. Edgar.
The technology of healthy habits
That’s becoming easier all the time. Technology is harnessing behavioral change strategies and delivering them to us in increasingly useful forms. “With the tools we have now, people are able to get a lot more information about not just their own health currently but also a better sense of their motivations. And that’s because if you measure something, it’s something you can manage,” says Khinlei Myint-U, product director of patient engagement at Iora Health.
The habits students want most
In a recent Student Health 101 survey, respondents ranked sleep, fitness, and study habits among the top behaviors they’d like to address. “I wish I knew how to have control over my time so I won’t have to do all-nighters, which just ruin my body,” says YeJi, a student in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Telling YeJi to go to bed earlier isn’t the answer. Like most of us, she could use a realistic system that lowers the barriers. Here’s how to have your best school year—with new habits that last through June (at least).
1 Translate your goal into a system or action
Goals represent the person we’d like to be: fit, healthy, productive, and respected, with cash to spare. But those goals are both too big and too vague to be helpful. To make progress, we need systems or actions. Here’s the difference:
Goal Get more sleep
Action Use a sleep schedule to increase my average sleep by 15 minutes a night each week until I reach my target of [—] hours per night and [—] hours per week
Goal Reduce my junk food intake to one snack or meal every other day
Action Pack alternative snacks (e.g., fruit, wholegrain crackers, cheese, veggies, and granola)
Goal Ace my test
Action Create a study plan for reviewing the material daily
2 Incorporate these features into your system or action
The features listed in the What works column have been proven to help change our behaviors. Incorporate as many as possible.
“Holding each other accountable works very well. Having someone else encourage you is a big part of routine making. If you have someone who reminds you/asks you about it, or even if you just announce it to others, you are more likely to work at implementing that change.”
—Carissa, senior, Winnetka, Illinois
3 Consider using a behavior change tool
We’re seeing an explosion of new digital and online tools designed to help us manage our behavior. How to choose one? Check out Wellocracy, a site for choosing and using personal health and wellness technologies, from the Center for Connected Health. Helpful tools provide:
- Immediate feedback
- Motivation (e.g., smiley faces)
- Easy access (e.g., via your phone)
- Updates through the day
“You want to know, ‘I’ve done 6,000 steps! If I just walk home or take the stairs, I might make it to my goal of 10,000 steps today,’” says Khinlei Myint-U.
Check out these online behavior change tools that work
These free and low-cost online tools and resources are based in decades of research on health-related behavior and motivation.
- Make a Commitment Contract to achieve your weekly target (e.g., “go to the gym twice”). Free to join. For accountability, you can commit to making an automatic financial donation to a charity you despise any week that you don’t meet your target. Appoint a friend to monitor your progress and others to cheer you on.
- Designed by Yale economists and based on evidence that we do better when stakes are on the table. (That’s stakes, not steaks.) We tend to be motivated by money and reputation.
- Evidence base: Behavioral economists back up what we kind of knew anyway—we don’t always do what we claim we want to do, but incentives help us do it. Ian Ayres, a co-creator of the site, is the author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done (Bantam, 2010).
- Cost: Depends on what you pledge and how closely you stick to your plan.
- This program empowers behavior change by targeting your environment and promoting baby steps. It targets three new habits over five days. You’ll interact by email with B.J. Fogg, the social scientist who created this tool and directs the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. New sessions start each Monday.
- Evidence base: Many years of research lie behind the creator’s behavior model—which emphasizes motivation, ability, and environmental tweaks—and also the use of mobile phones as a prime platform for behavior change systems.
- Cost: Free.
Popular behavior change mobile apps
Most behavior change mobile apps have not been well researched, but these are well reviewed:
- This app is designed to optimize your sleep quality, with a focus on falling and staying asleep. It tracks behaviors that influence sleep hygiene (your bedtime routine), including exercise, diet, and caffeine, alcohol, and medication use.
- Includes ambient sounds and a vibration waker. The website has additional resources, including a sleep diary and info about sleep.
- Evidence base: Daniel Gartenberg, a PhD psychology student at George Mason University and founder of Proactive Life, has contributed to the sleep research behind Proactive Sleep.
- This app helps you set goals, reminds you of them, prompts you to record your progress, and visually presents your new habit streak as it forms, inspiring you not to break it.
- Evidence base: Habit Streak appears to have been inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to productivity: Cross off days on a paper calendar so the crosses form a chain that steadily lengthens, inspiring you to not break it.
- This time-management system helps you prioritize, automatically generates to-do lists, and alerts you to pending tasks.
- Evidence base: Unclear (the company did not respond to our request for info), though the website provides links to favorable reviews.
- This incremental running program takes place over nine weeks. It is also available in a 5K-to-10K version.
- Evidence base: We found qualitative data only—which is to say, our friends and favorite bloggers insist it works.
Also try these low-tech behavior change tools
Grab paper and a pen (remember those?). Snag some templates to get you started, and don’t underestimate their value. Terry, a student in Minot, North Dakota, says, “I keep a thorough calendar of all of my assignment due dates. It’s an actual calendar, small enough to fit in my purse. There is something gratifying about crossing things off as the semester progresses.”
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Ayres, I. (2010). Carrots and sticks: Unlock the power of incentives to get things done (Bantam: New York, New York).
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Kang, J., Ciecierski, C. G., Malin, E. L., & Carroll, A. J. (2014). A latent class analysis of cancer risk behaviors among US college students. Preventive Medicine, 64, 121–125.
Proactive Sleep.(n.d.). Publications. Retrieved from https://www.proactivesleep.com/PressReleases.php
Radogna, M. (2014, February). Stop hitting snooze: How to make the most of your morning. Student Health 101, 9(6). Retrieved from