2 Proven Ways to Establish Good Habits

good habits

Vanquish your bad habits and become a superhero in 2020.

By Yvonne Milosevic

Why do many of us feel powerless to resist the things that tempt us? As we shared last week, good habits take time to develop. Not to mention, we tend to overrate the value of sheer willpower. Today, we offer two more ways to cement the habits we want to establish and banish the ones we don’t. In a recent episode of Charles Schwab’s Choicelogy podcast, host and Wharton professor Katy Milkman chats with researchers Dan Ariely and Dean Karlan about strategies that can boost our ability to stay on course.

Enter the “commitment device”

A commitment device, Ariely explains, is something that makes sure that our future self will behave the way our current self wants us to. Ariely is a best-selling author and professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

One easy example of a commitment device is to maximize saving through automatic deposits. You might have one account for a vacation fund. Another helps you save for a down payment on a home. Dedicate a third account for your retirement. You get the picture. When a part of your paycheck gets siphoned off immediately toward those goals, you adapt to living on what’s leftover.

good habits

Ariely is also a big fan of calendars. He thinks the act of writing down your commitments can help you better stick to your intentions. “It turns out that if you put something in your calendar, not doing it is very different,” he explains.

“If you have in your calendar, ‘go for a walk’ or ‘call your mother,’ not doing it is an active choice. I’m not doing it. It’s written in my calendar, 6:15, call my mother, I don’t do it, I feel very differently than ‘I’ll do it at some point.’”

Milkman and her colleague Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School also published a research article a while back on the value commitment devices. Such devices “have been shown to help people lose weight, improve their diets, exercise more, and quit smoking,” they found. “One randomized experiment, for example, found that access to a commitment device increased the rate at which smokers succeeded in quitting after six months by 40%.”

Other popular examples of commitment devices include:

  • Cutting up your credit cards to avoid spending beyond your means.
  • Installing software that prevents you from accessing the internet, forcing you to focus on a task.
  • Getting a gym membership to inspire you to exercise more.

Or, do as Ariely did. Sign up for a year of CSA produce deliveries to your door to force you to eat more vegetables.

Put a price on your vice

Now, ready to get hardcore? Sometimes, the way to make good habits or a resolution stick involves putting up cold hard cash. “One of the basic ideas in behavioral economics is that people are not always consistent over time in how they behave,” explains Dean Karlan, a behavioral economist and professor of economics and finance at the Kellogg School of Management.

“You might say you want to do something, and when the time comes, immediate temptations take over, and you don’t do the things you say you’re going to do.”

Years ago, Karlan and a coworker committed to a high-stakes weight-loss challenge that included a contract. It stated that the loser would have to pay $15,000 if he breached the terms of the agreement. Long story short, the friend didn’t keep his end of the bargain and had to pay up a hefty fine.

good habits

Both his personal and academic research convinced Karlan that people are more apt to achieve their goals if they sign a contract. That led Karlan to co-found the goal-setting tool StickK, which uses commitment contracts to oblige users to reach their goals. According to Stickk’s website, the process works by harnessing the “psychological power of loss aversion and accountability to drive behavior change.”

“Basically, you need to increase the price of your vice,” says Karlan.

Of course, you don’t want to become beholden to financial contracts forever to ensure good behavior. But Karlan believes they can help you get your act in gear and get the habit formed. Then, he says, you need to take it upon yourself to maintain that lifestyle.

If you’re looking for goal reaching inspiration in 2020, this fun episode of Choicelogy has tons of real-world examples of how commitment devices work. What are some good habits you’d like to cultivate this year? Leave us a note and let us know your best goal-keeping strategies.