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3 ways to turn that failing New Year’s resolution into a habit

I have a bad relationship with New Year’s resolutions. I start strong and then peter out by mid-January as work deadlines, home chores and the latest Netflix binge takes precedence over my good intentions. I even thought this year would be different due to being homebound. (Laughable!)

Long have I wanted to train myself to drink more water. But I’m a bit like W.C. Fields: I hate the stuff. It’s got to be ice cold — which is why suggestions to have a glass of water by my bedside to drink before my toes have touched the ground in the morning haven’t worked.

No longer. Today, I started my first “tiny habit,” a term coined by behavioral science expert B.J. Fogg, who founded and directs research and innovation at Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab.

Applause, please: I downed a 20-ounce glass of water before I even had my first cup of coffee. Easy peasy, and I’m convinced I’m going to do it again tomorrow and for most ‘morrows to come.

As Fogg explains in his best-selling book “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything,” the key to building a better habit is tying each action to something you already do — while also matching location, frequency and theme.

I make coffee every morning. The ice maker/water dispenser is two steps to the left of the coffee maker. So while my coffee was brewing, I filled up a huge glass with ice and water. Before I could even pour my first cuppa and finish feeding the cats, the water was gone and I had started on my second glass.

I repeated my actions when I went back for a second (and yes, even a third) cup of joe.

I nearly broke my hand patting myself on the back! It was instant emotional gratification — another key to building a successful habit, according to Fogg.

Fogg’s tips are based, he said, on mountains of research on human behavior modification and the many people he has coached over some 40 years.

Want to learn more? Here’s a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

CNN: What’s the secret sauce to making a new behavior a habit?

B.J. Fogg: Emotion is what forms the habit. It’s not repetition. It’s not willpower. It’s not discipline. It’s the emotions you feel when you do a behavior. If you have a feeling of success when doing that behavior, it will start wiring as a habit. If it’s an intense feeling of success, it will substantially wire.

What doesn’t work is trying to get somebody to do something they don’t want to do. You can nag them into compliance, maybe — but that’s not a habit.

What also doesn’t work is picking a habit that’s painful, or causes you to feel awkward or causes you to feel negative. You want to do the opposite — you want the habit to help you feel successful or give you joy or pleasure or satisfaction in some way.

CNN: A lot of the habits we want to do for our health are not necessarily enjoyable, at least at first.

Fogg: If someone wants to exercise or feels they should, the key is to find an exercise that makes them feel successful or they find enjoyable — one or the other.

The third approach is to redesign your environment so the only way you can get to work is walking or biking, so you must do it. That’s an environmental change — sell your car. Then the only way you can do something is by walking or biking so you’ll get exercise. That’s not really practical for most people.

In reality, the only habits that wire in readily are behaviors you already want to do, and you feel successful doing them.

CNN: What are your three criteria for a successful habit?

Fogg: My method is a system. As you’re picking a new habit, it’s got to match three criteria.

Number one: It needs to be effective. Take meditation as stress reduction. For a lot of people meditation is not effective for reducing stress because all they do is become aware of how scattered their mind is, so that’s a bad idea for those people.

For me, what’s effective is going out into nature. Even a short little walk to the ocean or a short walk into the garden is very effective.

Number two: It needs to be behavior people want to do. If you don’t want to do that behavior, maybe you can manipulate yourself into it a few times but it won’t become a habit.

Number three: It needs to be a behavior you can do. So I talked about walking out and looking at the ocean or looking at tadpoles. Well, I live in a place I can do that.

If someone can’t do that, they’ve got to pick something else, like hanging out with their dog.

CNN: You say the new behavior has to fit into your routine to become a habit. I want to start drinking more water, so how should I do that?

Fogg: That’s one of the keys in my work. It’s not just about picking the habit, you have to design it into your routine. And that means, what will that action come after naturally? Starting the coffee maker happens in the kitchen, it happens in the morning, and it happens once a day.

After I start the coffee maker, after I feed the dog, then I will drink a glass of water. if you can design it into your routine, if you know what this habit comes after, then your chances of succeeding go way up.

I call that an anchor. You want the anchor and the new habit to happen in the same location. If the new habit can be associated with the kitchen, then find a kitchen anchor for it. What doesn’t work is like, “Oh, I start the coffee maker then I have to go out to the garage to do the new habit.” That does not work. Location matters.

Next is frequency. If you want the habit to happen once a day, then you want an anchor routine that happens once a day. Like, in my life I want to do push-ups throughout the day. So I attached that behavior to when I have to pee. So after I go to the bathroom, I do two push-ups because then I get to do push-ups throughout the day.

The next thing that matters is the theme. Now this matters the least — the first two matter more — but if I see feeding the dog as a nurturing ritual, a good habit to follow would be a way that I nurture myself.

You’re looking for same location, same frequency, and if you can, the same theme. And if you get those lined up, then the habit can just click into place.

CNN: Why doesn’t your approach include such typical recommendations as repeating the behavior for 66 days so it becomes automatic?

Fogg: There are a bunch of things that aren’t required to create habits that people think they must do like, “Oh, you have to write, set a goal.” You don’t have to set a goal. That’s not true.

The whole thing about repetition is misguided. It’s the emotion that wires the habit in — if you repeat it and you hate it, it does not wire in as a habit. It will never become a habit.

Or people say only work on one habit at a time. No, that’s not true at all. You have to have an accountability partner is another recommendation. You don’t have to.

There are all these myths out there around habits and change. My work is saying, “No, people. Here’s how to do it quickly and easily, and all those other old things are either wrong or optional.”

CNN: How did you come to choose these criteria for habit building?

Fogg: In 2007, I discovered what I called the behavior model — all human behavior comes down to only three things: Is there motivation to do that behavior? Is there an ability to do the behavior? Is there a prompt for that behavior?

A prompt is something that reminds you, and you use an existing routine to prompt you. Feeding the dog is going to be my prompt. It’s not going to be a Post-It note; it’s not going to be an alarm; it’s not going to be just trying to remember.

You’re hacking the prompt by using an existing routine to remind yourself.

When you see how the pieces work, it’s like, “Oh my gosh, is it really that simple?” And the answer is yes.

CNN: You’ve launched a tool that people can use on their smartphones to help them form healthy habits. How does it work?

Fogg: The tool provides “recipes” for successful tiny habits. It can be found at It just launched and is still being tweaked but It’s free, open to all. It’s designed for mobile phones so people can use it anywhere.

Along the top are various categories you might want to choose from, such as nutrition, fitness, brain health, productivity. Those aren’t random, those are informed by my research at Stanford that finds these are the things that people want most. There is a lot of data and research behind it, but we keep the tool itself really simple.

Under each category, you can swipe through the top cards to look at the new habits you might choose. I’m only including habits that I think are effective. And once you settle on one that you like, you go to the cards below and say, “When am I going to do this? When is it going to fit into my routine?’

You can choose the card “think of something I’m grateful for” and pair that with the card representing an existing habit like “put my head on my pillow.” And that’s your recipe for a new habit you’re going to practice. You’re not going to be perfect, but you’re going to practice and see if it works for you.

The tool can be used without signing up for emails, but if you want to hear more from me about that habit, you can enter your email.

The ultimate goal is anybody in the world can benefit from this without installing anything, without giving up your email. It’s a tool to help me with my life’s mission to help people to be happier and healthier.

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