The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)


My niche is workouts at home. I am not a psychologist, but can relay personal experiences with the psychological aspects of fitness. See my recent post, CONSISTENCY IN TRAINING.

Habit formation is the process by which new behaviors become automatic.

My purpose in this post is to delve deeper into how habits are formed and how they may be dismantled, if they are not good ones. This will relate to workouts very specifically, but also to other endeavors.

I have always been fascinated by habit formation:

  • I activate my turn signal even when turning into my garage, with no moving vehicle within miles
  • My habit of eating is stronger than my hunger
  • Sports skills have always been initially difficult for me and must be habituated
  • But some skills are transferable from one sport to another
  • Learning to walk was acquiring a habit. I remember the process
  • Lacing up shoes is an acquired habit
  • I have had experience with both good and bad habits
  • I smoked cigarettes briefly but abandoned the habit 55 years ago
  • I have no classical addictions, but I am careful about eating salts, sugar or fats in foods
  • It seems to me that habit formation relates directly to our quality of life

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)


This will include paraphrasing from Two basic types include:

  1. Physiological habits – This is when our nerve energy is shifted from sensory to motor
  2. Psychological habits – This pertains to learning behaviors which are strengthened by repetition

Types of activities also are used to show differences in habits:

  • Motor habits – This is how we run, our posture, our golf swing and the like
  • Intellectual habits – How we learn, our perceptions, how we reason
  • Habits of character – Do we help others in need? Are we honest? Do we work hard?

American psychologist William James makes these suggestions for developing habits:

  • Start out with determination and with no excuses
  • Practice regularly without postponements or interruptions
  • Choose a favorable environment, among those who will encourage you
  • Do not stop until your goal is achieved

Psychology Today describes a habit loop as showing the 3 elements that produce habits:

  1. Reminder, or trigger
  2. Routine, or behavior
  3. Reward, or benefit

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)

Habits can be very difficult to break, since they are built to be automatic responses, done without conscious thinking. It is not easy to intervene in such a process.

I can relay my experience with stopping cigarette smoking. I was serving in the army, stationed in S. Korea. It became very apparent that smoking was unhealthy, especially since I had a history of bronchial ailments. Here was my process:

  • I announced to everyone in my detachment that I intended to stop smoking, thus committing to that end
  • Mints and chewing gum were available to me as oral replacements
  • I was willing to gain weight and would deal with that later

This worked for me and I have not smoked a cigarette since, though I later experimented briefly with pipes and cigars. The pipes and cigars did not involve inhaling smoke, but were not good for me either. I have done none of those in at least 30 years.


Workouts and general attention to physical fitness represent good habits, while smoking, drinking and recreational drug use may represent bad habits. It seems to me that the creation of positive automatic responses (or habits) can create a more meaningful lifestyle for anyone.

We do many things as if we are on “automatic pilot”. Playing tennis does not lend itself to much critical thinking, though it is crucial to concentrate as we are playing. It works better if we concentrate on one aspect of the game at a time:

  • Bend your knees
  • Move your feet
  • Racquet back early
  • Watch the ball
  • Forget the score, concentrate on the next point

Tennis happens so quickly that we don’t have time for much thinking and we definitely don’t want a cluttered mind. I have heard the expression “the ball is in your court”, but never from a tennis player. Tennis players know that the game moves too quickly for that to make any sense at all.

Workouts require even less thinking than tennis. Lifting or extending a weighted piece of resistance is not an intellectual exercise, nor is grinding out a few miles by running, walking or indoor cardio. Yet, many of us know that we can easily benefit from this, but find reasons not to. Excuses, really. Why is this? It seems to me that the answer lies in the realm of our habits and our motivation. We may be lazy. Or, with respect, we may simply have other priorities.

My target audience is those who want to get back into a fitness lifestyle or those who may want to start one. It isn’t difficult. It only requires good habit formation.


Here is a selection of relevant reading material:

  • The Power of Habit
  • Mini Habits
  • Better Than Before
  • Solving the Procrastination Puzzle
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

If affiliate marketing interests you, as it did me, click on my upper menu, “BECOME AN AFFILIATE MARKETER“. Or you may also click on this link.

This post has not been about specific workout programs or equipment that might be used, but I generally cite my favorite sporting goods and fitness supply source in all of these articles. This is Dick’s Sporting Goods, the largest such merchant in the United States. DSG is a dependable source for all items relating to individual sports, team sports and accessories thereof.

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)

Click on the link below for this week’s specials:


Please don’t ever underestimate the importance of habits! They impact everything that we do, whether positively or negatively. I have always felt that our subconscious actions are more meaningful than what we do consciously, at least as would regard most of our activities. This is not to disregard deliberate and thoughtful planning, but even that is largely a product of our habits.

My workout habits are deeply entrenched and I couldn’t be happier about that.

You can hack your brain to form good habits — like going to the gym and eating healthily — simply by repeating actions until they stick, according to new psychological research involving the University of Warwick.

Dr Elliot Ludvig from Warwick’s Department of Psychology, with colleagues at Princeton and Brown Universities, have created a model which shows that forming good (and bad) habits depends more on how often you perform an action than on how much satisfaction you get from it.

The new study is published in Psychological Review.

The researchers developed a computer simulation, in which digital rodents were given a choice of two levers, one of which was associated with the chance of getting a reward. The lever with the reward was the ‘correct’ one, and the lever without was the ‘wrong’ one.

The chance of getting a reward was swapped between the two levers, and the simulated rodents were trained to choose the ‘correct’ one.

When the digital rodents were trained for a short time, they managed to choose the new, ‘correct’ lever when the chance of reward was swapped. However, when they were trained extensively on one lever, the digital rats stuck to the ‘wrong’ lever stubbornly, even when it no longer had the chance for reward.

The rodents preferred to stick to the repeated action that they were used to, rather than have the chance for a reward.

Dr Elliot Ludvig, Associate Professor in the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology and one of the paper’s authors, commented:

“Much of what we do is driven by habits, yet how habits are learned and formed is still somewhat mysterious. Our work sheds new light on this question by building a mathematical model of how simple repetition can lead to the types of habits we see in people and other creatures. “

Dr Amitai Shenhav, Assistant Professor in Brown University’s Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences and one of the paper’s authors, commented:

“Psychologists have been trying to understand what drives our habits for over a century, and one of the recurring questions is how much habits are a product of what we want versus what we do. Our model helps to answer that by suggesting that habits themselves are a product of our previous actions, but in certain situations those habits can be supplanted by our desire to get the best outcome.”

This research opens up a better understanding of conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Tic Disorder — both of which are characterised by repeated behaviours.

The next stage will be to conduct similar experiments in a real-world scenario, observing human behaviour in action-based versus reward-based tests.

Waiting for motivation to strike is likely to be time spent in vain.


  • What Is Motivation?
  • Find a therapist near me

Key points

  • People often wait for motivation when trying to learn a new skill or take up a healthy behaviour, but find that motivation is elusive.
  • Instead of waiting for motivation, it is helpful to focus on building consistent habits.
  • Some simple steps toward habit formation include repetition, chaining habits, and starting small.

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)

“But I just can’t find the motivation” is probably one of the most common complaints I hear in my private clinical psychology practice. I have heard this from clients who come in with a severe depressive disorder (where amotivation is a symptom), but also from clients who are struggling with a general lack of impetus. I have worked with people who want to work harder, study more, exercise more, develop a new hobby or commit to a new business idea, but struggle with building the momentum they need. They might think about doing things, but find themselves procrastinating, or never actually commencing an activity, despite their best intentions. I have certainly been in this space as well—most of us probably have, at various points across various arenas. Motivation is not something I struggle with much anymore, and there is one simple reason for this: I don’t wait for motivation.

When I want to do something, I try and think about whether it is something that has value for me and whether it is something I have the time and resources to commit to at present, and if yes, I plan for it, and make it a habit. I treat anything I want to do much like I treat brushing my teeth. Regardless of the circumstances of life, I brush my teeth twice daily and I try and treat other activities (such as work and exercise) in a similar way. I do these things as scheduled, regularly, typically at the same time each day, and I do them regardless of whether I want to or not. Sometimes energy and inspiration are missing, and I might amend what I do (a gentle stroll vs. a bike ride, editing a blog post vs. writing a book chapter) to account for this, but I adopt the ‘bum on seat’ philosophy (i.e., just get your bum on the seat and see what happens). This philosophy carried me through a 60,000-word doctoral thesis, and it works very well for a slew of other commitments now. I often suggest that my clients try and build habits instead of waiting for motivation to strike, and those who are able to adopt this philosophy generally have much better success with forming and adhering to commitments than those who continue to wait for that elusive motivation.

Habit formation

When forming habits, I follow a range of simple rules, these include:

Decide whether you can commit to forming a new habit. It is helpful to remember the opportunity costs that everything brings. Each hour you spend working, as an example, is an hour taken away from sleep, learning, exercise, friends, and recreation. Everything we commit to has a cost and we all have finite resources. Remember that new habit formation will necessarily come at a cost, and consider whether the benefits of a new habit outweigh the costs. The world is drowning in productivity information and exhortations to do more, but the wisest thing you can do sometimes is to simply decide that you don’t really want to swim.

Keep it simple, start small, and be regular. The best new habits are those that are achievable. We are unlikely to be able to commit to a new exercise routine that takes an hour a day, but will probably find more success if we commit to walking for 15 minutes, three times a week. It may not seem like much, but it is a lot more than nothing. Habits can build over time, and you can always increase the amount of time/energy you commit to something once an initial baseline has been established. It is better to only try and form one new habit at a time, to avoid overwhelming yourself.

Chain habits. It is much easier to commit to a new habit if you link it to something you already do. I have clients who walk their dogs daily and have recently started jogging every second day with their dogs, instead of strolling. This is far easier to commit to than a whole new form of exercise, as they leave the house to walk anyway. Some other examples might include; practicing Duolingo while waiting for your coffee to brew or meditating for five minutes straight after breakfast.

Evaluate. It is OK to start a new habit/routine and realise that it is not actually serving you in the way you hoped. Set aside time to re-evaluate habits and routines regularly (monthly is a good interval) and give yourself permission to change things that are not bringing the results or satisfaction you are seeking. Over time, as we achieve greater success with forming new habits and build interest in life and a sense of self-efficacy, we are likely to notice increased motivation as a by-product of commitment to habit formation.

University College London, London, UK

Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK.Search for more papers by this author

University College London, London, UK

University College London, London, UK

University College London, London, UK

University College London, London, UK

Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT, UK.Search for more papers by this author

University College London, London, UK

University College London, London, UK

University College London, London, UK

This research was conducted by Phillippa Lally when she held a Medical Research Council PhD studentship and has been written up during an Economic and Social Research Council postdoctoral fellowship.



Many of the most pressing societal issues—e.g., health, illness, and associated costs; climate change—are rooted in behavior. Even small changes to everyday behaviors can bring considerable benefits. Many people successfully adopt new behaviors but fail to maintain them over time. This problem has inspired interest in habit. Within psychology, habitual behaviors are defined as actions triggered automatically when people encounter situations in which they have consistently done them in the past. Repeating behavior in the same context reinforces mental associations between the context and behavior. Habit is said to have formed when exposure to the context non-consciously activates the association, which in turn elicits an urge to act, influencing behavior with minimal conscious forethought. As an initially goal-directed behavior becomes habitual, control over behavior is transferred from a reasoned, reflective processing system, which elicits behavior relatively slowly based on conscious motivation, to an impulsive system, which elicits behavior rapidly and efficiently, based on learned context-behavior associations. Habitual behaviors thus become detached from conscious motivational processes. Spurred by development of self-report habit measures, studies have modeled the relationship between behavioral repetition and the strengthening of habit, showing that habit is characterized by initially rapid growth, which decelerates until a plateau is reached. Theories propose that habit has two effects on behavior in the associated context: habit will prompt frequent performance, and will override motivational tendencies in doing so, unless self-control is particularly strong in that moment. People may therefore continue to perform a habitual action even when they lack motivation. These characteristics have generated interest in the potential for habit to support long-term adoption of new behaviors. People often fail to maintain behavior changes because they lose motivation, but if people were to form habits for new behaviors, they should in theory continue to perform them despite losing motivation. This has prompted calls for interventions to move beyond merely promoting new behaviors, toward advocating context-dependent habitual performances. Some have also argued that habit formation may be fruitful for stopping unwanted behaviors, because new, “good” habits can be directly substituted for existing “bad” habits. Realistically, habit formation is not a viable standalone behavior change technique, as it requires that people first adopt a new behavior, which through repetition will become habitual. The promotion of context-dependent repetition should complement techniques that reinforce the motivation and action control required for behavioral initiation and maintenance prior to habit forming. Real-world behavior change interventions based on these principles have been found to be acceptable and appealing, and show promise for changing behavior, though few have used long-term follow-up periods. This entry highlights leading work in the application of habit formation to behavior change interventions, drawing on the most methodologically and conceptually rigorous empirical research available. Most of the development and application of habit theory to real-world social contexts has been undertaken in health and pro-environmental domains. This entry thus focuses most heavily on these domains, but the principles outlined are thought to be applicable across behaviors and settings.

General Overviews

While no source provides a comprehensive overview of habit as it applies to behavior change, several texts offer useful introductions to the main issues. Remarkably, the textbook chapter James 1890, which seeks to understand repetitive and persistent everyday actions, retains its relevance and accessibility today. Verplanken and Aarts 1999 summarizes the key characteristics of habit from a social psychological perspective. Habit is however studied across various sub-disciplines of psychology, and Wood and Rünger 2016 brings together research from social and applied psychology with insights from neurobiology and computational modeling. Wood and Neal 2016 sets out evidence-based guidance for applying habit principles to behavior change policy and practice in the health domain.

James, W. 1890. Habit. In The principles of psychology (chap. 4) By William James. London: Macmillan.

A classic chapter that is not only of historical significance as the first treatise on the psychology of habit, but also touches on issues that remain topical in the field today. James views habitual action as inflexible responses to everyday settings and, despite predating most empirical research into habit processes, touches on key characteristics of habit, such as repetition, associative learning, cue-dependence, and potential dissociation between habit and motivated tendencies.

Verplanken, B., and H. Aarts. 1999. Habit, attitude, and planned behavior: Is habit an empty construct or an interesting case of goal-directed automaticity? European Review of Social Psychology 10.1: 101–134.

This review provides broad and still-relevant coverage of many key topics, and provides an excellent introduction for a newcomer to the theoretical concepts in the field, though the measurement section should be read alongside more recent sources.

Wood, W., and D. T. Neal. 2016. Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change. Behavioral Science & Policy 2.1: 71–83.

Written for a policymaker audience, this review presents the rationale for using habit formation and disruption as mechanisms for behavior change for public health. Drawing on evidence from previous real-world habit-related interventions, it summarizes possible policy strategies for making and breaking habits.

Wood, W., and D. Rünger. 2016. Psychology of habit. Annual Review of Psychology 67:289–314.

This paper offers a state-of-the-art review of habit formation, habitual performance, and interventions designed to make or break habits. It effectively synthesizes material across social psychology, neurobiology and computational modeling approaches, so providing an accessible and broad introduction to the field from multiple perspectives.

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Habit Formation: Basis, Types and Measures for Effective Habit Formation!

Habit is a simple form of learning—a change of behaviour with experience. It is defined as ‘an automatic response to a specific situation, acquired normally as a result of repetition and learning’. When behaviour is developed to the extent that it is highly automatic, it is called habit. Generally habit does not require our conscious attention.

The term habit is strictly applicable only to motor responses, but often applied more widely to habits of thought, perhaps more correctly termed attitudes.

Habits play important role in our daily life. All of us acquire different habits. They are the part of our life.

Habits may be good or bad. Hard working, writing, reading, regular exercise, meditation, etc. are examples of good habits. Alcoholism, drug addiction, lethargy, procrastination, telling lies, dishonesty, stealing, deceiving others, escapism, etc. are examples of bad habits.

Basis of Habit Formation:

Habit formation may be explained in two terms—Physiological and Psychological.

The physiological basis is related to our nervous system. According to this, when an act is repeated more number of times, a clear nervous connection is formed, leading to a path way. This makes smooth shifting of nerve energy, may be from sensory to motor.

According to Hull, when a stimulus is repeated and response is elicited, the connection becomes strengthened. Eventually it brings about an organization in the nervous system known as habit, otherwise called learning.

The psychological theories explain that habits are acquired dispositions. According to these theories, any learning process or experience gained by an individual is retained. When this learning experience is repeated it is firmly retained. This ability to retain helps us to get it strengthened and becomes a habit.

Types of Habits:

Habits are divided into three types depending upon the nature of activities.

1. Motor habits:

These habits refer to muscular activities of an individual. These are the habits related to our physical actions such as, standing, sitting, running, walking, doing exercise, maintaining particular postures of body, etc.

2. Intellectual habits:

These are the habits related to psychological process requiring our intellectual abilities such as good observation, accurate perception, logical thinking, using of reasoning ability before taking decisions and testing conclusions, etc.

3. Habits of character:

We express some of our characters in the form of habits. For example, helping others who are in need, trusting people, being honest, talking in a friendly way, time management, hard working, keeping our dress clean and tidy, etc. These habits will have essence of feelings and emotions; hence these are also called as emotional habits.

Measures for Effective Habit Formation:

William James, the famous American psychologist has suggested the following measures for habit formation.

a. Make a good start:

‘Good beginning is half done’ is a premise. Accordingly to learn a habit we must make a good start. We should have strong motivation and determination of mind. We should not have oscillation of mind. For example, a nursing student decides to start to study at a fixed time for a fixed length of period. He or she should start as decided and should not hesitate on the first day itself.

b. Keep regular practice:

It is essential to practice the new habit regularly until it becomes a routine in our life. Postponement or interruption should be avoided, because it weakens our habit formation. Example, giving some lame excuse like headache, lack of interest or mood and postpone the work- should be avoided.

c. Choose favourable environment:

Good habit formation depends upon the encouraging atmosphere also. Example, for a student who wants to work hard, there must be a company of hard working students and not lazy fellows who have no interest in studies.

d. Do not stop till the goal is achieved:

Once a habit is formed it is to be strengthened. Hence it should be continued until it is firmly rooted.

Meanwhile we should enjoy the new habit, so that we find more interest to continue practice. For this purpose, we may keep thinking of positive effects of that new habit. Example, understanding the subject matter, scoring good marks, getting good results, achieving good job, etc.

Every action you take is casting a vote for the type of person you want to be…

Starting new habits is tough. Sticking to them is even tougher. But not if you understand the psychology behind habits and how they work. In this episode, Vishen sits with the master of habit formation, James Clear, to share with you how to make habits that stick.

Listen out for:

  • The 5 Steps In Forming Every Single Habit
  • The 4 Laws Of Behavioural Change To Hack Each Step
  • How To Reverse Engineer The Process To Break Bad Habits
  • The 2 Minute Rule To Enable You To Stick To Your New Habits

Like this episode?

Leave us a review on iTunes. Tag us @Mindvalley on Instagram or Twitter

About James Clear

James Clear has become known as one of the world’s foremost experts on habit formation as the author of the New York Times bestseller, ‘Atomic Habits’, which has been translated in to more than 40 languages and sold more than 1 million copies worldwide.

He’s also known for his popular and exceptional blog which has over 10 million annual visitors and over half a million email subscribers. The central question James asks is; “How can we live better?”

His writing focuses on topics such as: How to start (and stick) to good habits; How to design an environment where success is natural; How to make good decisions and avoid bad ones; and most importantly, how to put these ideas into practice in daily life.

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)


The Mindvalley Podcast aims to bring to you the greatest teachers and thought leaders on the planet to discuss the world’s most powerful ideas in personal growth for mind, body, spirit, and work.

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)

How much are habits a product of what we want versus what we habitually do?

Simple repetition is the key to hacking your brain to form solid habits, research concludes.

Just find a way to keep repeating the same action until it sticks.

It doesn’t matter whether the action provides you satisfaction or not — repetition is all.

At least, that is the message from a mathematical model of habit formation developed by psychologists at Warwick, Princeton and Brown Universities.

Dr Elliot Ludvig, study co-author, said:

“Much of what we do is driven by habits, yet how habits are learned and formed is still somewhat mysterious.

Our work sheds new light on this question by building a mathematical model of how simple repetition can lead to the types of habits we see in people and other creatures. “

The researchers created a computational model that involved digital mice pressing levers to get a reward.

The simulation showed that after training, mice will continue to press a lever even after it stops rewarding them.

In other words, the digital mice kept doing something they had done before, despite receiving no reward.

The habit continues, despite having lost all value.

While mice are clearly different to human beings, repetition has surprising power over us all.

The next step for the researchers is to test their model on humans.

Dr Amitai Shenhav, study co-author, said:

“Psychologists have been trying to understand what drives our habits for over a century, and one of the recurring questions is how much habits are a product of what we want versus what we do.

Our model helps to answer that by suggesting that habits themselves are a product of our previous actions, but in certain situations those habits can be supplanted by our desire to get the best outcome.”

The study was published in the journal Psychological Review (Miller et al., 2018).

The psychology of habit formation (and how to hack it)

Nir’s Note: This article on goal setting was originally published in early 2016 but got such a great reader response that I decided to expand and update it along with adding the video below.

Over the past four years, I’ve discovered many incredible ways to hack my habits, set better goals, and improve my life. I have taught myself to love running, dramatically improved my diet and found the focus to write a bestselling book. Understanding how the mind works and using it to affect my daily behaviors has yielded tremendous dividends.

However, there is one goal that’s nagged at me for years that despite my best efforts, I’ve never been able to achieve — going to the gym consistently. I hate lifting weights. Hate it. I disdain the strain, the sweat, the smells — all of it. The only thing I like about working out are the results. Unfortunately, there’s no way to enjoy the benefits of going to the gym without, you know, actually going to the gym.

That’s not to say building muscle is all that important. Diet has a much greater impact on body weight and health than exercise. But given that I’ve already hacked my diet and no longer struggle with eating right, I wanted to finally get to the bottom of this stubborn challenge.

Why was this one goal so hard to set? If I could figure out a way to overcome this challenge, perhaps it would provide insights into how to tackle other difficult to achieve goals.

Habits vs. Routines – There is a Difference

Recently, it seems habits are everywhere. A slew of new books, not to mention countless blog posts and apps, guarantee a whole new you by harnessing the power of habits. However, almost all of these well intentioned authors promise too much. Many over-prescribe habits as a solution to problems they just can’t fix.

So what are habits, really? According to Dr. Benjamin Gardner, a psychologist focusing on habit research at King’s College London, “habit works by generating an impulse to do a behavior with little or no conscious thought.” Habits are simply how the brain learns to do things without deliberation. These impulses can be put to good use, but only certain behaviors can become habits.

Building a habit is relatively simple — just harness the impulse. For new habits to take hold, provide a clear trigger, make the behavior easy to do, and ensure it occurs frequently. For example, by completely removing unhealthy food from my home and eating the same thing every morning, my diet became a healthy habit. I extracted the decision making process out of what I eat at home.

However, if the behavior requires a high degree of intentionality, effort, or deliberation, it is not a habit. Although proponents of habits tout them as miracle cures for doing things we’d rather not do, I’m sorry to say that’s snake oil. All sorts of tasks aren’t habits and never will be. By definition, doing things that are effortful aren’t habits.

Unfortunately, this means behaviors that require hard work and deliberate practice aren’t good candidates for habit-formation. For example, although I make time for it every day, writing is not a habit. Writing is hard work. If I waited for an “impulse” to write, I’d never do it. To get better at writing requires concentration and directed effort to make sense of the words as they go from the research to my head and then to the screen. Similarly, lifting weights isn’t a habit because getting stronger requires working harder.

So if these type of behaviors aren’t habits, what are they? They’re routines. A routine is a series of behaviors regularly practiced. Routines don’t care if you feel an urge or not, they just need to get done. When I finally realized I would never succeed at making going to the gym a habit, I began looking for how to establish a routine instead.

Now let’s get back to the meat of this technique, goal setting.

Burn or Burn – The Ultimate Goal Setting Hack

A word of warning. Before I share one technique I used to finally get myself to go to the gym regularly, I need to share a few disclaimers.

First, this technique, as effective as it is, can be dangerous. It is a very good way to get you to do a routine but provides no safeguards against doing the wrong thing again and again. Goal setting will hurt you if you set the wrong goals. If you’re doing something counterproductive, this technique will only get you to do more of it. For example, doing tons of sit-ups won’t help you (and may actually hurt you) if you’re also drinking sugary sodas every day.

Second, this method is not good for getting other people to do things. This is for personal use only so don’t try and force it on people who have to do what you tell them, like employees or your kids.

Finally, this isn’t the only method you can use and admittedly this is a rather brute force strain of behavior change. If learning to love a behavior is an option, I recommend trying a different technique. For example, I’ve written about finding your MEA – your Minimum Enjoyable Action . The MEA method is great for simple behaviors you enjoy doing. I learned to love running because I always enjoyed going on walks. Finding my MEA proved very effective at slowly improving my stamina until running replaced walking as an enjoyable pastime.

However, there are certain things we just don’t like doing, but we must do anyway. These behaviors require diligence, grit, hard work and consistency. This is where what I call the “burn or burn” technique comes in.

How it Works

  1. Pick your routine. For me, my routine was hitting the gym.
  2. Book your time. Make time in your schedule for the routine. If you don’t reserve the time as you would booking an appointment or important meeting, the routine won’t happen.
  3. Find a crisp $100 bill. Other denominations will work too but it has to be an amount you’d hate to lose.
  4. Find a lighter.
  5. Buy a wall calendar and place it somewhere you’ll see every day. My calendar is in my closet and it’s the first thing I see when I get dressed in the morning.
  6. Tape the $100 bill to today’s date in the calendar and place the lighter somewhere visible near the wall calendar.

Now you have a choice to make. Everyday, when the time comes to do your routine, you can chose either option A and do the routine, which in my case was to feel the “burn” in the gym, or option B and literally burn your money. You can’t give the money to someone or buy something with it, you have to set it aflame.

Yes, I know it’s technically illegal to destroy government tender but the reason this technique works is that you should never have to actually burn the money. Instead, the threat of watching your money go up in smoke makes this technique work. I’ve been on “burn or burn” for six months now and I haven’t burned a bill yet. (UPDATE: I’m going on 17 months now and still haven’t burned the bill.)