Psychological tricks such as forming a cue-behaviour link and choosing your moment make it easier to do, say, more exercise

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‘If you manage to link certain behaviours to your sense of identity, it might help to establish those habits.’ Photograph: Granger Wootz/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Identify a cue

Forming a habit is trying to form a cue-behaviour link in your memory, meaning “you perform the behaviour without intentionally having to make yourself do it”, says Phillippa Lally, research associate at University College London, who studies habits. Cues can be internal or external (for example, feeling hungry or making a cup of tea) and are most effective when encountered every day, including the weekend, to minimise daily planning and willpower. Good ones include getting up, and mealtimes.

Be specific

‘You need to have a more specific plan to work out exactly when and how you’re going to eat more fruit and veg.’
‘You need to have a more specific plan to work out exactly when and how you’re going to eat more fruit and veg.’ Photograph: pixelpot/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Narrow down what you want to do. “Don’t say something broad like, ‘I want to eat more fruit and vegetables’,” says Lally. “You need to have a specific plan to work out exactly when and how you’re going to do that” – for example, by having fruit and vegetables in the house. A behaviour is more likely to become habitual if it’s something you enjoy or find rewarding. Even if it’s something you think you’d rather not do, like exercise, “when you’ve done it you’re likely to be pleased with yourself”.

Think about who you are

There is some evidence to suggest we are more likely to create a habit when it connects to our sense of identity. “Some [habits] are representations of certain important goals or values,” says Bas Verplanken, professor of social psychology at the University of Bath. “Take a person who is very concerned about the environment – habits that relate to environmentally-friendly behaviour link to that identity. If you manage to link certain behaviours to your sense of identity, it might help to establish those habits.”

Choose your moment

‘Switching jobs or schools, or getting a pet, can become a catalyst for broader change.’
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‘Switching jobs or schools, or getting a pet, can become a catalyst for broader change.’ Photograph: Samantha French / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm