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The Science of Forming Habits — A Proven Formula

Updated: Oct 26

A proven formula that leads to long-lasting behavioral change, sustainable outcomes, and a healthier and happier you? Yeah, it exists.

Whether its January 1st or not, most people are looking to either add some positive behaviors or remove some negative ones — but how do we make these really last? It begins with daily habits; as the great philosopher Will Durant said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” And in order to talk about habits we have to first talk about behavior. Behavior is everything; we are who we are because of our thoughts, that lead to our decisions, that lead to our behaviors, which create our values and our identity.

The renowned behavioral researcher BJ Fogg out of Stanford University states (and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything) states that behavior happens when three things come together at the same moment: motivation, ability, and a prompt. If you find yourself struggling to stick with a desirable behavior, there's a good chance that one of these three areas is lacking.

Using principles from the Fogg Behavior Model, Health Belief Model, and Motivational Interviewing, let’s explore how we can optimize these areas to lead to long-term healthy habits.

How To Improve Motivation

  • Knowledge of consequences: this happens all the time where someone has a health scare that inspires change; or let's say you were told that you were pre-diabetic and unless you change your food choices and eating behavior you might be diagnosed with diabetes, a life-changing condition. Now consequences could also be weight gain or fatigue, but simply being aware of what may come can certainly change levels of motivation.

  • Develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset: if you truly believe that change is possible; if you view adversity as an opportunity as opposed to an obstacle, then your self-efficacy will naturally improve. This is arguably the biggest factor that leads to changes in behavior and motivation.

  • Social support: if you have a strong support system around you (friends, family, mentors or other professionals) who are positive influences in your life or perhaps even keep you accountable; then there's a good chance your motivation will improve.

  • Find intrinsic reasoning: this means you do something because you genuinely enjoy the activity rather than for a specific outcome. Dr. Fogg says that people change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad. So with food, for example, find ways to make healthy fresh food taste delicious; or learn to love the process of cooking.

How To Make Behaviors Easier

Let's say you are highly motivated to make a certain change. Now the next thing you need to address is ability. Ask yourself: how do I make this behavior just easier to do? It it sounds simple, but most people miss this key element.

  • Develop skills and knowledge: let's use the example of wanting to eat more vegetables. By improving your culinary skills or learning to cook vegetables using different methods to make them taste better would make this behavior easier.

  • Identify and remove barriers: let's say one barrier for you to eat healthier is that snacks like chips and oreo's are always in your pantry; making them easy to reach for when you have a craving. Consider modifying your environment; if you make fresh fruits, vegetables, or nuts easily accessible (like on your countertop), making a healthier choice will become easier. Let's use time as another barrier. Maybe you consider getting an air fryer to prepare a medley of veggies in less than 10 minutes.

  • Shrink the behavior: according to Dr. Fogg, this strategy is hands down the most effective way to make a desirable behavior or habit easier to achieve. Whatever new habit you want to achieve, shrink it! Make it so small that on your most challenging of days you'll be able to accomplish it. Then over time you'll build on it and gain momentum and eventually develop healthy habits that become automatic. For example, rather than aiming for five servings of vegetables a day, or one green smoothie every morning, simply try to have at least one single vegetable each day. Make it so small to the point where you are motivated to continue doing the behavior.

How To Design A Successful Prompt

The last step to really cement that behavior into a habit is to design a successful prompt or “call to action” which triggers you to perform that behavior. According to Dr. Fogg, there are really three types of prompts:

  • External prompts: these could be alarms or phone notifications; cues to tell you that it’s time to make a choice.

  • Internal prompts: like our thoughts or emotions that remind you to act now.

  • Action prompts: now internal and external prompts are easy to ignore; we hit “snooze”on the alarm, or we find a new distraction when we think about the discomfort of doing something that takes time and energy. Action prompts, on the other hand, are probably what we should focus on more often. Dr. Fogg describes these as: the completion of one behavior which reminds us to start the new behavior. The goal then is to find an existing habit or behavior that you already do on a regular basis (something every day that is ‘automatic’), and use that is your cue to action. For example, you use the end of brushing your teeth as the prompt to do 10 push-ups. You can leverage the momentum you already have to ignite the action for your new behavior.

Dr. Fogg recommends using the following formula or “recipe” to create your new habits:

  • After I…_____________________(Anchor Moment: an existing routine in your life)

  • I Will…______________________(Tiny Behavior: the new super small habit you want to adopt)

  • To wire the habit immediately into my brain, I will…_____________________________ (Celebration: something you do to create a positive feeling inside of yourself)

For example: after I walk into the grocery store, I will go directly to the produce section and select five vegetables for the week, and I will immediately celebrate by saying out loud: “I am succeeding with making healthier choices”, or simply give a head nod and smile to myself.

Now that last piece; celebrating your successful action (no matter how small) — is vital! Fogg says, when you feel successful at something, even if it's tiny, your confidence grows fast and your motivation to do that action again increases.

A few more examples from Dr. Fogg:

  • After I pour my morning coffee, I will open my journal.

  • After I sit down on the train, I will take three deep breaths.

  • After I put my head on the pillow, I will think of one good thing from my day.

  • After I walk in the door from work, I will switch my phone to airplane mode.

  • After my feet touch the floor in the morning, I will say “it's going to be an awesome day”.

In conclusion, here is the proven formula to create habits:

  • Decide on a specific behavior to adopt which is related to achieving your ultimate goal.

  • Shrink your desired habit to make it easy to achieve.

  • Use an action prompt to trigger your tiny habit.

  • Celebrate the completion of the tiny habit.

Yes, behavior is deeply rooted, but just remember that small changes can change everything.


Jack O’Connor, MS, RD

Lead Performance Dietitian, Inc Nutrition


  1. Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random house.

  2. Fogg, B. J. (2019). Tiny habits: The small changes that change everything. Eamon Dolan Books.

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