Can We Force Good Habits to Stick?

Habits are hard to form and difficult to break. Most people want to form good habits, such as exercising regularly, studying a language for 30 minutes a day, or making progress every week on a personal project. 

Wouldn’t life be easier if we knew how to stimulate or control habit formation for all the positive and productive things we want to do?

Wanna Create a Good Habit?

Gary Charness and Uri Gneezy of the University of California at Santa Barbara and University of California at San Diego, respectively, ran experiments to better understand habit formation (2009). They found university students who had no history of working out in a gym and paid them to go to the campus fitness center several times over the course of about two months.

In the end, they got a bunch of students who never worked out before to make a habit of going to the gym.

There were three groups in the study: a control group, a group who were paid $25 to go to the gym once in a given week, and a group who had the same $25 initial payment but were then paid an additional $100 to go to the gym eight more times in the next two months. The researchers tracked whether they students went when they were supposed to go and continued to track their gym attendance after the study ended to see whether any of the groups started to go out of habit after the money stopped rolling in. So what happened?

The results are fascinating. The group most incentivized to go to the gym on a regular basis increased their average weekly gym attendance from 0.60 to 1.24, which is more than double, or 107 percent! The group that only earned $25 once increased their attendance on average from 0.70 to 0.76, and the control group’s gym attendance dipped after the study ended, but not by much (from 0.59 to 0.56). That’s a pretty good control.

When you think about it, though, going to the gym on average less than once a week to a little more than once a week isn’t necessarily the best data. Well, the researchers also run median numbers in a footnote, and the results are just as spectacular. For the control group, the median was 0 before and 0 after. For the group who had to go to the gym eight times in two months, the median was 0 before and 1.214 after. Clearly, people were going to the gym who hadn’t before.

Habit Coercion

What this research might tell us about productivity is that it’s possible to stimulate positive habits, and that it could take around eight weeks for it to work. 

Maybe we can replicate the habit-forming effects on other habits by also using monetary rewards, or maybe we can do it through “temptation bundling,” a term coined by Katherine Milkman and her co-authors (Milkman, 2013). I wrote about temptation bundling here, but the gist of it is: If you pair something you want to do with something you should do, you might be able to trick yourself into doing the should because the want is so appealing. 

In her research, Milkman used pop fiction audio books and gym workouts. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely famously described his temptation bundling in one of his books. He had to take a painful and wretched medication several times a week that made him sick, and he loves watching movies. So whenever he took the medication, he allowed himself to watch all the films he wanted to see.

So the next time you need to call your mother back, maybe a pedicure is in order while you do it. Or if you feel like you should be making progress on that novel but are having a hard time getting yourself to do it everyday, perhaps you can take your laptop to the beach or whatever indulgent places brings you happiness, keeping in mind that if you can do it eight or nine times, it might just become a habit.


Charness, G. & Gneezy, U. (2009). Incentives to exercise. Econometrica 77(3):909–931.

Milkman, K. L., Minson, J.A., & Volpp, K. G. M. (2013). Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, Articles in Advance, INFORMS, 1-17.

Photo by Runar Eilertsen, CC.


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