Updated: Sep 21
If you could have any daily habit, what would it be?
Perhaps you’d want to read more, do daily stretches, practice a skill, exercise, or drink more water. Whatever habit it is you want to develop, there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there for how to go about it. It’s hard to know which methods work and how they compare to each other.
That’s why we tested 22 habit-forming techniques to find out which one is the best.
As we often do, we'll present below some details about our methodology and results, but feel free to skip straight to the section called ‘What this means for you’ if you want to jump to finding out how our findings can help you to form a new daily habit.
Summary of Study and Results
We ran a preliminary study to find out which habits people actually wanted to form. The most popular habits were:
Reading books or the news every day
Doing daily stretches
Practicing a skill you want to improve upon daily
Drinking more water every day
Learning about a topic that matters to you every day
Cooking and eating healthy food daily
We then began our study by recruiting 477 people to attempt to develop one of the habits above over the course of four weeks.
All potential participants were screened to make sure they were interested in forming one of the habits and that they were willing to remain in the study, even if the habit formation attempt failed.
Participants who passed the screening went through a process of picking a habit, clarifying what specifically that habit involves, and describing what success would look like. They were then randomly assigned to one of five groups:
Control With Reminders (186 data points): These people weren’t trained in any technique to boost the chances of their habit sticking. They just went for it! However, this group did receive daily email reminders over the course of the first week to help them remember to do the habit.
Control Without Reminders (131 data points): Members of this group didn’t use any habit-boosting techniques either. They also didn’t receive any reminders.
WOOP (168 data points): This group was trained in a technique pioneered by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. “WOOP” is an acronym for “Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan”. This technique has been studied quite a bit and found to improve goal achievement. It also is known in the literature by the less exciting name of “mental contrasting with implementation intentions,” since it combines two often studied interventions. If you'd like to see the exact WOOP intervention we created for this study, you can try it here.
Choose Five (143 data points) Participants sorted into this group were asked to choose 5 out of 22 possible habit-boosting techniques to try out over the course of the study, based on one-sentence descriptions of each technique. They also were given practice in applying each technique they chose, and some guidance for how to use them. This group enabled us to look at whether people do better using techniques they have chosen, rather than techniques that were assigned to them at random.
Random Five (628 data points): People who were placed in this group were randomly assigned 5 out of the 22 possible habit-boosting techniques we chose for the study, and also received guidance and practice just like the group that was able to choose their own techniques. You'll note that, by design, this group was much larger than the other groups.
The participants then received three follow-up surveys: one after their first week of practicing their chosen habit, one after their second week, and one after their fourth week.
Ultimately, we analyzed 1,256 data points from 477 people. There are more data points than people because most participants completed more than one survey, and we considered each survey as a data point.
We asked several questions in each survey to help us understand the experience of study participants, but we focused on two main outcomes in order to measure success:
Outcome 1: The number of days per week the participant successfully practiced their habit
Outcome 2: Whether the participants felt they were meeting their habit formation goal by asking: “Did you practice your habit as often as you had planned to?” The possible answers were “yes” and “no.”
We then used linear regression techniques to explore which habit-boosting techniques worked best, treating the habit-boosting techniques each participant used as the main independent variables.
So, what's the best technique for creating a daily habit?
The evidence suggested that these five techniques might have all worked to some degree:
Habit Reflection: Look back on a previous successful habit change identify what factors and techniques led to your success, and then devise a way to implement those same factors and techniques for the current habit you want to form.
Mini-Habit: Come up with a very brief version of the habit you want to establish and perform it when you don’t have time for the full version. For instance, if you don't have time to go to the gym, just do five pushups instead as a backup plan (a fallback that is so short that you should not have any excuse to skip it).
Home Reminders: Write a physical note to yourself and place it in your home or workplace to remind you of the habit you want to form.
Drawing on Friends and Family: Ask friends or family to support you in your habit change efforts.
Listing Habit Benefits: Make a list of benefits the chosen habit could provide, and ponder which benefit is most important.
However, there was one clear winner out of the bunch: the Habit Reflection technique.
Our study did not look into exactly why this is the best technique. We suspect that it may have something to do with the processes of planning your own habit improvement intervention and identifying a tried-and-true technique that worked for your past habit. It is essentially a self-customizing intervention that ends up producing a different procedure for each user. But there could be other reasons, and the question remains open.
What this means for you
Fortunately, you can use Habit Reflection without knowing exactly why it works. So why not give it a try? Our study results provide evidence that it’s a comparatively effective way to cultivate a daily habit.
Here is how to do it:
Step 1: look back on a previous successful habit change.
Step 2: identify what factors and techniques led to your success on that occasion
Step 3: devise a way to implement those same factors and techniques for the current habit you want to form.
You may find it useful to keep track each day of whether you completed the habit. If the habit doesn’t seem to be sticking, don't be hard on yourself. Take some time to figure out why or switch it up: It’s possible that the habit-boosting technique you chose is simply not a good fit for you.
You may also want to try the other techniques, either on their own or in conjunction with Habit Reflection. After all, they’re all fast, free, and easy to implement, so it’s worth a shot!
Want to increase your odds of success? Try using our Habit Creation System - Daily Ritual. It was designed to help you in the process of choosing, applying, and scheduling tasks in order to create and stick to your new habit.
Recently, we ran a study to test its efficacy and found out that people who used this tool performed their habit more days each week and felt more successful at habit forming than the control group.
Lastly, the study on habit-forming techniques we mentioned was massive, with a lot of variables and caveats. You can read a full and detailed report of the study by clicking here.
There is no doubt that daily habits can have a big impact on our lives over time. We hope that these insights can help you improve your life through easier habit formation. After all, as the author of one of the most popular books on habit formation said.
"Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. In the same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous."
James Clear - Author of Atomic Habits