Struggling to stay motivated? Strengthen your internal locus of control

Reading Time: 6 minutes The events of this year are enough to crush anyone’s drive. So how can you stay motivated this school year? Read this article to learn some tips.

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How to set goals—and actually achieve them

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Reading Time: 3 minutes Want to start a new habit that will help you be happier, healthier, or more productive? Here’s how.

Trending diets: What they are, why they don’t always work, and what to try instead

Reading Time: 11 minutes Discover what the evidence says about trending diets, and get some real-life tips for making healthy eating less confusing and more convenient.

How to have an actively awesome summer: Turn your fitness dreams into reality

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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We tend to anticipate summer as if it’s a magical stress-free season in which we finally get to do all the things. In a recent CampusWell survey, nine out of ten students who responded said they plan or hope to be routinely physically active through the warmer months. But reality happens (even in this fantasy season), and unless you look out for your fitness, it may accidentally fall off your to-do list.

Behavioral research shows that when we make a plan, we’re more likely to meet our goals. What else helps? Doing what we enjoy. Involving friends or accountability partners. Anticipating obstacles and how we’ll get around them. Setting realistic goals. Here’s how to get into a summer fitness mindset that sticks:

Print the potent, powerful, practical plan for an actively awesome summer

  • Click the buttons below. Fill out your plan, thinking about the possibilities. As you do this, you’ll have ideas and gain clarity about what can work for you this summer.
  • Go back through your plan, highlight your best options, and figure out what needs to happen first (e.g., reservations, research, or getting gear).
  • If your summer divides into phases—e.g., six weeks interning, one week of vacation, four weeks working—fill out a plan for each phase.

Think about your summer surroundings and how you can use them to be physically active:

  • Will you be near the beach?
  • Is there a park with biking or walking trails nearby? Frisbee golf? Basketball hoop?
  • Climbing wall or adventure playground for grown-ups?
  • Will you have access to a pool? A public one? Or your nice neighbor’s pool (the neighbor who works all day so it won’t be weird)?
  • How about a river or lake? A horse ranch? Maybe a trampoline studio?
  • Or is there only farmland and vast nothingness?
  • Working in a cubicle with room (just) for bodyweight moves, like tricep pushups against a cabinet? Can you walk or bike to your job or internship?
  • Do you have any equipment—e.g., weights, an exercise ball, yoga blocks, a treadmill?
  • Do you have a summer gym or club membership? Can you go with a friend or family member as their guest?
  • What about weekends? Will your options expand? Will you be going on vacation this summer? What does that offer (e.g., fitness classes at a resort, or access to trails)?

Will you have lots of time, some time, or basically no time at all? Even if you have just a few minutes each day, you’ll still benefit from making a plan. Always put your fitness plans onto your calendar to protect that time.

My summer is…

  • Sporadic: I can likely manage 20 minutes in the morning and/or half an hour later in the day.
  • Inconsistent: My schedule will vary, so I need to look at my availability in those different circumstances.
  • Completely scheduled: GRE prep at 9 a.m., internship at 11 a.m., and then work from 3–8. (I live and die by my iCal.) I need ways to incorporate physical activity into my work day and the transitions between activities.
  • Hectic: I could heroically multitask while watching TV or making my English-muffin pizza, and I can make sure my time with friends and family involves physical activity.
  • Chill: I’m going to have time on my hands, and need to figure out how not to squander it.
  • Time out: I’ll have more time on the weekends or when I go on vacation, allowing for more ambitious plans.
  • Hazy: I don’t have firm plans yet, so I’ll keep my fitness options open and collect ideas.
  • Unconventional: I’m working night shifts; I’ll need to incorporate physical activity into that.

What do you actually like doing? Which physical activity has given you a smidgen of pleasure in the past?

  • Fitness class? Which one?
  • Swimming? Lake, ocean, or pool?
  • Weights? Jump rope? Tug of war? (fun fact: it used to be an Olympic sport)
  • High-intensity stuff, like Insanity® workouts?
  • Biking? Roads or trails?
  • Rollerblading?
  • Hitting your daily step goal?
  • Running? Roads, trails, or treadmill? With or without your neighbor’s dog?
  • Creative workouts at home (e.g., marching and lunging while watching TV)
  • Hiking? Backpacking? Climbing? Getting rugged?
  • Group sports (e.g., Ultimate Frisbee, basketball, softball, soccer)
  • Nothing. Help me.

Is there an activity that you’ve wanted to try? Can you give it a go this summer? (Yes, you probably can.)

For example:

  • A ropes course with zip lines and whatnot
  • Bouldering or rock climbing
  • A zombie run, Color Run, or obstacle race (maybe one that routes you through a sprinkler)
  • Outdoor yoga, hot yoga, or a yoga retreat
  • Boot camp or Frisbee golf in the park
  • Beach volleyball? Ultimate Frisbee? Flag football? Kickball?
  • A sprint triathlon, 10k, half marathon, or other event
  • A lifting or dance contest
  • Stand-up paddleboarding, water skiing, kayaking, surfing, whitewater rafting, sailing, or other cool watery thing
  • A hut-to-hut or tent-to-tent hike over several days
  • Aerial or pole fitness classes
  • Something that gets you out into the hills, like horseback riding, trail running, or geocaching
  • Throwing on 1980s ankle weights and rocking out to YouTube workout videos by Richard Simmons

Think about how much money you’ll realistically be able to spend on fitness this summer.

  • Can you afford a summer membership to a gym or club? (Don’t forget about student discounts.)
  • Could you purchase a wearable tracker? If not, you can probably manage a fitness app that tracks your activity and encourages you along the way.
  • What’s the cost of that yoga weekend or race entry fee?
  • Will you need gear? Would it make sense to acquire some free weights for those TV workouts, or can your cat serve as a 12 lb dumbbell?
  • Does your YMCA have classes at reduced prices for students?
  • What’s the rental fee for a paddleboard or kayak?

What has helped you be active in the past? What or who could help you this summer?

  • Can you recruit a friend or acquaintance to do this with you?
  • Will posting workouts on social media or blogging about your fitness adventures help keep you off the couch?
  • Are you into color-coded spreadsheets with daily or weekly goals?
  • Would it help if you had a reward system? What kind of rewards?
  • Do fitness trackers or apps work for you? Do you respond to a daily step goal, goofy award badges, and a leaderboard?
  • Have you embraced calendar reminders and alerts on your phone?
  • Do you follow physically active people on Instagram or Twitter?
  • Would committing to a race or other event help get you out there?
  • Do you need a group (e.g., a team or fitness class) with a set schedule?
  • What are the local options for making this social? Check out Meetup and the November Project. Ask your social media networks about informal teams and groups. Look at outdoor organizations for guided hikes and explorations.
  • Have you checked out online fitness videos ranging from Insanity® to yoga?

November Project

Appalachian Mountain Club

Meetup

What do you want to achieve this summer?

And what can you realistically achieve this summer?

Which moderate goals will help you get into a groove you can maintain in the fall?

For example:

  • Train for a specific race in late summer or fall (don’t wait to sign up for your spot)
  • Learn 5–10 new yoga poses
  • Be active every day (active can be a 10-minute walk)
  • Swim the width of the lake and back
  • Complete a set of 10 pushups without stopping
  • Get to 10,000 steps, five days a week
  • Skinny-dip in a high-altitude lake
  • Go for a bike ride every weekend
  • Try a new HIIT routine every week
  • Run four track laps without stopping
  • Make it up and down Mt. Washington in a day

What demands or inconveniences could get in the way of your summer fitness plan? How can you keep moving anyway?

  • Do you often stay up late? Could you go to bed earlier and wake up for a quick morning workout?
  • Has your bike been neglected in the garage for a year? Does it need a tune-up, lights, or a lock?
  • How can you safeguard your time for staying active?
  • Did you want to try backpacking but don’t have cooking equipment? Could you borrow or rent what you need? Or sell your old gear to fund new stuff?
  • Working all summer? How can you use the workspace (desk, floor, stairs)? Can you walk, bike, or run to work (even part way)?
  • You’ll be tired by the end of the day and may look for excuses. Can you arrange a squash game or hoops session with friends in the evening?
  • Are you caring for someone else this summer? Can you swing a half-hour to do yoga in the yard or run a few laps around the block?
  • Will your summer involve transitions? What fitness goals and activities can help you keep moving through those phases?
  • Do you live in a zombie-infested neighborhood? Could you whip up a stronghold around your house to keep them out?

Which activities? We know what you’ll do this summer

Activity + % of students who expect to do this frequently or regularly in summer

Hiking or walking 70%
Bodyweight moves (e.g., crunches, squats) 64%
Strength training 56%
Cardio machines  56%
Running 51%
Swimming 44%
Yoga/martial arts/gymnastics 44%
Team sport (e.g., soccer) 42%
Dance 37%
Biking or cycling 33%
Boating or water activity 33%
Solo/pair sport (e.g., tennis) 33%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, February 2016. 1,500 students answered this question. Not representative of students nationally.

Students’ stories: Students tell us what they’re up for

“Summers are great for hiking (to a camping spot, a fishing hole, or just for the view at the top), swimming (in a lake, in a pool, to get to an island to hang out on for the day), water sports (water skiing, wake-boarding, tubing), beach volleyball, surfing, body boarding, scuba diving.” —Olivia W., fourth-year undergraduate, Montana Tech of the University of Montana“I picked up archery a couple of summers back and have returned every summer since. This year, I already have plans to pick up paintball/airsoft, and the way I’ve been introduced to that was very physical. I’m excited!”
—Max S., fourth-year undergraduate, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota

“I had a summer internship near campus. I started rock climbing at the indoor gym, and I loved it! It was physically demanding but really fun, and that kept me going back. For the first time, I started to see my muscles grow, and I felt good about myself and about my physical wellbeing. I got to know a lot of people. That summer was so important to me because I finally found a physical activity that I loved and that helped me learn to love and take care of myself.”
—Nicole H., first-year graduate student, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

“I want to learn to surf, but I’ll also be stacking hay bales for work as well as going for a family run, playing some pickup sports with friends, working out with my old football team, or finding a trampoline park or gym to mess around in.”
—Bryson S., first-year undergraduate, Old Dominion University, Virginia

“I have tried hiking more, and I incorporated fishing. Instead of getting in a boat, I decided to hike to a stream or river into the woods, stopping to fish now and then. The breaks give me downtime that is positive. I really lose track of time and distance that I have gone.”
—Emily L., third-year undergraduate, University of New England, Maine

“Freeletics [individualized high-intensity training via an app] has been an awesome thing. It helps me work out in my lab. It just needs 2×2 meters of space and you’re good to go! It is quite literally a community and we help each other out.”
—Rishabh T., second-year graduate student, Creighton University, Nebraska

“Obstacle course races! I do quite a few of them over the summer now, after [getting] hooked two summers ago!”
—Rachel S., fourth-year undergraduate, Oregon Institute of Technology

“I’d like to get back into the routine of doing outdoor boot camp workouts. Being around other people really keeps you motivated. Running events are fun, whether a 5k or half marathon with friends and family.”
—Ben G., fourth-year undergraduate, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Pennsylvania

“I have joined a Bikram yoga studio. I began commuting [by bike] to work last summer (6-mile round trip). I even joined a CrossFit studio. I’m training for a half marathon, and this summer I would like to focus on building muscle.”
—Vikas B., third-year undergraduate, Johns Hopkins University, Maryland

The 15-min brain-boosting study strategy that works

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Studying much? You might be using the classic moves. You know—rewriting all your notes into a newer, bigger note; highlighting as the new underlining; and my personal favorite, cramming everything into your brain in any way possible. Sometimes those moves work just fine. But what if you’re looking for more than “just fine”? And what if you could get there with a little less stress and a little more purpose?

Researchers at Stanford University in California discovered that using some simple tricks made a big difference in how students performed. The research is based on a classic learning theory that seems pretty obvious when you break it down. It’s called metacognition, and it involves something we could all benefit from: thinking about how we think.

Intrigued? Let’s take a closer look at how metacognition can get you to a better spot with your study habits. Once you’ve got the basics down, we’ll show you how to use it with real-life tips that’ll help you reap the brain-boosting benefits. Bonus points if you drop the word “metacognition” with your friends when talking about your new secret to study success.

What to know about how to think

Metacognition is thinking about thinking, says Dr. Veronica Yan, an assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. OK, but what does that actually mean? It’s taking the time to consider how you think and why the process of reflecting on your thinking can give you some key insights into what you’re learning and what you’re missing. It means thinking through the methods, tools, and resources available to you and deciding which ones can best get you where you want to go.

Still with us? Think about it like this: Textbooks, tutors, academic advisors, past exam questions, and homework assignments are all resources that you can use to study—but what’s the purpose of each of them? How can they help you? And which ones will help the most? Now you’re thinking like someone who thinks about their thinking.

“We are constantly making decisions, but we aren’t always intentional about these decisions,” Dr. Yan says. So how exactly can doing this help?

Why thinking things through can get you better results

Girl studying at computer with book and post it notes

This is where it gets interesting. Researchers at Stanford University wondered if applying some of the principles of metacognition—setting goals, thinking about resources, and crafting a plan—would make a difference in students’ test results. They split students into two groups and reminded both about an upcoming exam.

One group just got a reminder. The other received a reminder and were also asked questions about how they wanted to do on the exam and how they were going to prep. The students received questions about their study resources—which ones they would choose, how they would use them, and why they felt these resources would be helpful—essentially having them create a study plan. The students who thought through their study plan, or used metacognition like pros, did better on their exams than those who did not map out a plan, according to the 2017 study in Psychological Science. They also reported feeling less stressed during the prep process.

“Learners should take the time to explicitly think through why they want to use each resource for learning,” says Dr. Patricia Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford and one of the authors of the study. Bottom line: It’s about thinking carefully about your resources—how to choose them and how you’ll use them.

How to put it into practice

The best part about the Stanford research, and about metacognition in general, is that it’s simple—you can do it yourself by making a plan and setting some goals. And who knows? You may even see the same boost in results. Here’s how to go about it:

Step 1: Think about (and list out) your options before you study

This means ditching your autopilot plan and taking some time to make one that works. Start by jotting down the resources you have access to: books, notes, PowerPoints or class presentations, audio recordings, essay prompts, past quizzes or exams, the syllabus, tutors, classmates, online forums, review sessions, immediate access to the entirety of your professor’s brain, etc. Then list out how those resources could help you craft your plan.

Resource
Exam or quiz questions from earlier in the semester

How it can help
Your prof probably has a particular way of creating test questions, so if you’re looking at an exam from earlier in the semester, it’s likely the upcoming one will follow a similar format or ask questions in a similar way. Use that to your advantage. Practice your responses to the question type and exam format. Just be sure your prof is OK with you using past assessments for study, and steer clear of using materials from past semesters or sections of the class.

Expert approved
“This allows students to identify in advance which topics they need to spend more time on and which they are already very familiar with,” Dr. Chen says.

Step 2: Make your plan

Now that you know which resources will work best, it’s time to make it work for you. And that involves making a specific plan. Participants in the Stanford study were asked to do just that—plan when, where, and how they would use the study resources they identified. We know that worked for them. It can work for you too.

Try it like this
Make a chart that lists out the resources you’re using along with all the dirty details—when, where, how, and why.

Resource

Exam questions from earlier in the semester

Why this can work

Familiarize myself with the potential exam format and way prof asks questions

How I’m going to use it

  • Identify patterns in types of questions
  • Identify stuff I know from past exams and stuff I still need to work on
  • Think like a prof: How would new material be put into similar exam format or question type? Make a sample exam and test myself, or grab a classmate and create some sample questions for each other; test them out, see how we do, keep working at it

When and where

  • Monday 4–6 p.m.: Campus café
  • Wednesday 10–11 a.m.: Remote corner of the library

Expert approved

“Planning is crucial because it helps learners translate their strategies into action,” Dr. Chen says.

Step 3: Set and get those goals

Cup of coffee with napkin saying "Create your future"

It comes back to goal setting. Knowing what you’re looking to get out of your studying can help you get there. Think beyond pure performance here; what’s the long-term goal of knowing the material? A foot in the door at your first post-grad job? Feeling confident in applying your newfound knowledge? Grad school goals? Keep those in mind too. Write them down, add them to your chart, Sharpie them on your forehead—whatever makes them stick.

Student tested
“I realized that when I had goals, I did better and got more done. Working at things aimlessly, without goals, has led to poor results, in my experience. The more I reached my goals and saw how they were benefiting me, the better I performed and the more motivated I was.”
—Blair C., fourth-year student, Indiana University Southeast

Expert approved
“Goal setting helps learners clarify exactly what they want to achieve and focuses them on their goal as they plan out their studying,” Dr. Chen says.

Step 4: Know that you can

Yup, we’re asking you to have a little faith in yourself, and not just because you’re awesome (you definitely are), but because it actually affects how well you do.

Research backed
Self-efficacy, or simply believing that you’re capable of planning and carrying out the tasks necessary for your performance, was the greatest predictor of college students’ achievement and performance, according to a large review of research (Perspectives on Medical Education, 2012).

Try it like this

Unicorn stickerAs you’re working through your study plan, keep track of what you’re getting done. Hit your study session goal for the day? That’s a win. Mastered material you didn’t quite get last time? That counts too. Come up with a system for tracking them. We like unicorn stickers, but checking things off your to-do list will do in a pinch.

Those small successes are part of your bigger goals, and the more you see yourself moving in the right direction, the more likely you are to believe that you can keep going. The wins you rack up in the process are still there cheering for you when you slip up. So remind yourself of them early and often.

Steps 5 through infinity

Identifying resources, making plans, setting goals, and knowing you can hit them is an awesome plan of attack, but don’t be too hard on yourself if some of the steps are a struggle. You might have to do some finagling to figure out what works best for you. “It is the responsibility of the learner to experiment and identify what is most effective for themselves and when,” says Dr. Chen. So keep trying, keep track, and let us know how you do.

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Article sources

Patricia Chen, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, California.

Veronica Yan, PhD, assistant professor, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Study smart. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2011/11/study-smart.aspx

Anderson, J. (2017, May 9). A Stanford researcher’s 15-minute study hack lifts B+ students into the As. Quartz. Retrieved from https://qz.com/978273/a-stanford-professors-15-minute-study-hack-improves-test-grades-by-a-third-of-a-grade/

Artino, A. R. (2012). Academic self-efficacy: From educational theory to instructional practice. Perspectives on Medical Education, 1(2), 76–85. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3540350/

Chen, P., Chavez, O., Ong, D. C., & Gunderson, B. (2017). Strategic resource use for learning: A self-administered intervention that guides self-reflection on effective resource use enhances academic performance. Psychological Science, 28(6), 774–785. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797617696456

Dartmouth College. (2001). Memory is learning that persists. Retrieved from https://students.dartmouth.edu/academic-skills/sites/students_academic_skills.prod/files/students_academic_skills/wysiwyg/retain_information.pdf.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3366894/

Apps + podcasts we love: Coach.me

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Photo of Jason K., Memorial University of Newfoundland

Jason K., Memorial University of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada

Coach.me
By Lift Worldwide

“Meant to motivate people to achieve their goals, Coach.me can help you do anything from achieving small daily goals (e.g., a few minutes of exercise) to crushing your long-term goals (doing apartment renovations/redecorating). It’s fairly simple—just search different goal categories (that have been created by others) or make your own and add them to your calendar for a certain time in the future for daily/weekly events. With so many people simultaneously trying to achieve their goals, the app uses a peer-pressure mentality to encourage people to achieve them—and it works!”

Useful?   
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
With Coach.me, you have the support of others anywhere you go! What’s great is that for every goal you add to your profile, other users can comment with tips, advice, and encouragement. For example, if I chose “cook dinner” as a goal, I can ask about a good way to use up leftover ground turkey, and they can help me find a good recipe.

Fun?  
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
It was fun to see the different ways to achieve each goal. For example, my daily yoga goal provided several different ways to accomplish yoga—a 30-minute mat session or a 2-minute office chair session, which worked well in accommodating my changing schedule.

Effective?
3 out of 5 stars
I completed my goals, so this app was very effective for me. The huge variety of reasonably manageable goals mixed with the feedback from other users helped me stay motivated. Bonus: If anyone wants to go further than the app user community, there’s an option to hire personal coaches from different areas to provide one-on-one inspiration!

Get it on Google Play
Download on the App Store

Systems that stick: The science of changing yourself

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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A brand-new year, a brand-new you. Sound familiar? Many of us start the year with high achievements in mind (make straight As, quit the sugar habit, finally run that marathon) only to end up making no progress. But being in college can cause a decline in healthy behaviors like physical activity and nutritious eating, research shows. Science has shown us that noble goals and willpower aren’t enough to change our behavior long-term.

The science of healthy habits

Fortunately, science is also telling us how to develop healthier, more productive habits. “We actually know a great deal about strategies for helping people change behavior,” says Dr. Timothy Edgar, a professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University, Massachusetts. “Unfortunately, those who design interventions still rely too heavily on telling people the reasons why they should make a change, instead of identifying the barriers, real and perceived. Once those barriers have been identified, the key is to find ways to make it as easy as possible for people to engage in the desired behaviors.”

The technology of healthy habits

That’s becoming easier all the time. Technology is harnessing behavioral change strategies and delivering them to us in increasingly useful forms. “With the tools we have now, people are able to get a lot more information about not just their own health currently, but also a better sense of their motivations. And that’s because if you measure something, it’s something you can manage,” says Khinlei Myint-U, product director for patient engagement at Iora Health, a consultancy based in Boston, Massachusetts.

The habits students want most

In a recent CampusWell survey, respondents ranked sleep, fitness, and study habits among the top behaviors they’d like to address. “My system is one of slow and gradual changes. I make little improvements each day to reach a goal. For studying, I like to spread it into several 30 minute or hour increments,” says Mia K., a first-year undergraduate at Georgia College and State University. Mia’s on the right track by setting up a realistic system that lowers the barriers. Here’s how you can get on board and have your best semester—with new habits that last through June (at least).

1. Translate your goal into a system or action

Goals represent the person we’d like to be: fit, healthy, productive, and respected, with an enviable credit report. But those goals are both too big and too vague to be helpful. To make progress, we need systems or actions. Here’s the difference:

Goal Get more sleep
Action Use a sleep schedule to increase my average sleep by 15 minutes a night per week until I reach my target of [—] hours per night and [—] hours per week

Example of a sleep schedule chart

Goal Reduce my junk food intake to one snack or dish every other day
Action Pack alternative snacks: e.g., fruit, whole-grain crackers, veggies, and granola

Goal Ace my midterm
Action Create a study plan for reviewing the material daily

Woman with exercise ball

2. Incorporate these features into your system or action

The features listed in the what works column have been proven to help change our behaviors. Incorporate as many as possible.

What works Example 1
Get more physically fit
Example 2
Get more organized
Target one goal at a time • Improve my physical fitness • Improve my organization
Take a realistic action or approach • I love running (or at least don’t hate it) • Calendar and planning tools on laptop synced to phone for easy access
Start small • Incremental training program with realistic goal, e.g., Couch 2 5K running plan • Make half my deadlines without requesting an extension
Join a team • Find or start a running group • Recruit friend with the same goal
Make a specific plan • Group runs on Sat & Tues at 8 a.m.; solo runs on Sun & Thurs at 6 p.m. • Meet Sunday afternoons to review and plan; check schedule three times a day
Incorporate cues and rewards • Group brunch on Sundays; fame and glory via student blog • Flag upcoming deadlines; for each success, see a movie
Tweak your environment • Keep sneakers and rain jacket by the door • Baskets to hold papers and books for each class; large desk calendar highlighting due dates
Anticipate and plan for obstacles • Run an hour earlier or in the evening to beat the summer heat • Two papers due same day; adjust schedule in advance

3. Consider using a behavior change tool

We’re seeing an explosion of new digital and online tools designed to help us manage our behavior. How to choose one? Check out Wellocracy, a site for choosing and using personal health and wellness technologies, from the Center for Connected Health at Partners HealthCare, a major health system based in Massachusetts. Helpful tools provide:

  • Immediate feedback
  • Motivation (e.g., smiley faces)
  • Easy access (e.g., via your phone)
  • Updates through the day

“You want to know, ‘I’ve done 6,000 steps! If I just walk home or take the stairs, I might make it to my goal of 10,000 steps today,’” says Khinlei Myint-U.

Popular behavior change mobile apps

Learn more

Features
This app helps you set goals, reminds you of them, prompts you to record your progress, and visually presents your new habit streak as it forms, inspiring you not to break it.

Evidence base
Habit Streak appears to have been inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to productivity: cross off days on a paper calendar. The crosses form a chain that steadily lengthens, inspiring you not break it.

Devices
Android

Cost
Free

Learn more

Features

This time-management system helps you prioritize, automatically generates to-do lists, and alerts you to pending tasks.

Evidence base

Unclear (the company did not respond to our request for info), though the website provides links to favorable reviews.

Devices

iPad
iPhone
Android

Cost

Free

Learn more

Features

This incremental running program takes place over nine weeks. It is also available in a 5K-to-10K version.

Evidence base

We found qualitative data only. Which is to say, our friends and favorite bloggers insist it works.

Devices

iPhone
Android

Printable training chart

Cost

Free for basic version
$1.99 for added features

Low-tech behavior change tools

Try paper and a pen (remember those?). Snag some templates to get you started, and don’t underestimate their value. Here’s an example: “For each course, I lay out my assignments on my personal monthly calendar and check them off as each is done. On my personal weekly calendar, I schedule what assignment or reading I will work on each day and set it for a specific time so that it becomes an appointment that I must keep. Thinking of it as an appointment helps to keep me from putting it off,” says Catherine F., a fourth-year undergraduate at Ashford University online.

Sleep chart and tracker: Become a morning person in only two weeks

Food and activity tracking tools (USDA)

Weekly study schedule (Portland Community College)

Note-taking systems (California Polytechnic State University)

Online behavior change tools that work

These free and low-cost online tools and resources are based in decades of research on health-related behavior and motivation

Make a Commitment Contract to achieve your weekly target (e.g., “go to the gym twice”). This site is free to join and use. For accountability, you can commit to making an automatic financial donation to a charity you despise any week that you don’t meet your target. You can appoint a friend to monitor your progress and others to cheer you on.

This tool was designed by Yale University economists and is based in evidence that we do better when stakes are on the table. (That’s stakes, not steaks.) We tend to be motivated by money and reputation, research shows.

Behavioral economists back up what we kind of knew anyway—we don’t always do what we claim we want to do, but incentives help us do it. Ian Ayres, a co-creator of the site, is the author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done (Bantam, 2010).

Cost: This is up to you. It depends on what you pledge and how closely you stick to your plan.

Check out stickK.com

This program empowers behavior change by targeting your environment and promoting baby steps. It targets three new habits over five days. You’ll interact by email with Dr. B. J. Fogg, the social scientist who created this tool and directs the Persuasive Tech lab at Stanford University, California. New sessions start each Monday.

Many years of research lie behind the creator’s behavior model—which emphasizes motivation, ability, and environmental tweaks—and also the use of mobile phones as a prime platform for behavior change systems.

Cost: Free

Check out Tiny Habits

from Prochange Behavior Systems

This online mobile-compatible program is designed to help college students eat healthily, exercise regularly, manage stress, and improve their well-being.

It’s a self-administered program with questions and feedback individualized to each student. It can be assigned by a professor as part of a course curriculum or group project.

Web activities are matched to individuals’ readiness to change. Sample activities include workout videos, budget grocery shopping lists and tips, and stress management tools.

Extensive research supports the Transtheoretical (Stages of Change) behavior change model, which matches tools and approaches to individuals’ readiness and progress. In tests, students whose classes incorporated liveWell did better on almost all measures (physical activity, diet, stress, and well-being) than students whose classes did not.

Check out liveWell


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“My tip for developing healthy eating habits is to remove some of the temptation. It is really easy to do this if you already have healthy options ready to go. People go for fast food because it is ready instantly. Meal prepping allows you to have the instant meal but way healthier.”
—Jake Murray, fourth-year undergraduate, University of Wyoming

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Article sources

Timothy Edgar, PhD, professor, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts.

Khinlei Myint-U, MBA, product director for patient engagement, Iora Health, Boston, Massachusetts.

Ashraf, N., Karlan, D., & Yin, W. (2006). Tying Odysseus to the mast: Evidence from a commitment savings product in the Philippines. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121(2), 635–672.

Ayres, I. (2010). Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done. New York City, New York: Bantam.

Crombie, A., Ilich, J. Z., Dulton, G. R., Panton, L. B., et al. (2009). The freshman weight gain phenomenon revisited. Nutritional Review, 67(2), 83–94.

Dzewaltowski, D. A., Estabrooks, P. A., & Glasgow, R. E. (2004). The future of physical activity behavior change research: What is needed to improve translation of research into health promotion practice? Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 32(2), 57–63.

EdX. (2014). Unlocking the immunity to change: A new approach to personal improvement. Retrieved from https://www.edx.org/course/harvardx/harvardx-gse1x-unlocking-immunity-change-940#.Uz4iXFctaaU

Kang, J., Ciecierski, C. G., Malin, E. L., Carroll, A. J., et al.  (2014). A latent class analysis of cancer risk behaviors among US college students. Preventive Medicine, 64, 121–125.

Proactive Sleep. (n.d.). Publications. Retrieved from https://www.proactivesleep.com/PressReleases.php

Radogna, M. (2014). Stop hitting snooze: How to make the most of your morning. Student Health 101, 9(6). Retrieved from https://www.readsh101.com/l/library.html?id=23edd36d

Student Health 101 surveys, June 2014 and November 2016.

The science of choice: Strategies for better health habits

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College life is all about freedom and independence. Your decisions—including when to work out and what to eat—are finally your own…right?

Maybe not.

Our “decisions” are influenced by environmental cues far beyond our own needs, control, and even consciousness, according to decades of research. “[C]hoices depend, in part, on the way in which problems are stated,” wrote Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their bestselling book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Penguin, 2009).

Default behaviors

This concept, which behavioral economists call “choice architecture,” helps explains why we tend to default to the easiest or most visible course of action. Choice architecture contributes to much of what we do, including what we eat, how much physical activity we get, and other behaviors.

“We often make decisions in the moment, therefore we are influenced by the options available at any given time,” says Dr. Ellen Magenheim, chair of the department of economics at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. If you’ve ever made an impulsive candy purchase at the check-out line, that’s choice architecture working against you. Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to legislate the sizes of sodas at New York movie theaters was based in evidence that we gravitate to the middle size. For most of us, a smaller middle size will serve just as well.

Harness the power of choice architecture

“If you want someone to do something, you should make it as easy as possible,” says Dr. Magenheim. If you want yourself to do something, make it easier by tweaking your own environment.

Choice architecture influences behavior without mandating or banning particular options. “A nudge works best when it is in the background,” says Dr. David R. Just, professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, New York. “Nudges should seem meaningless on the surface.”

Choice architecture on campus

Health officials are increasingly looking for environmental tweaks that can nudge us effortlessly towards healthier behaviors. On college campuses, that means interventions like these:

  • Holding a flu shot clinic outside the campus dining hall minimizes the time and effort between thinking about the flu shot and getting it, says Dr. Magenheim. Result: More students get flu shots.
  • Displaying fruit more prominently in the campus cafeteria signals to students “eat these” and “this is a destination,” says Dr. Just. Result: Display changes have driven a 100 percent increase in fruit consumption.
Become the architect of your own health choices
These four steps can help you steer yourself towards easy healthier behaviors.
  1. Make a plan. E.g., if your dining hall, restaurant, or convenience store has limited healthy options, figure out your selection strategy before you go in.
  2. Spend time with people who share your health awareness and goals. We tend to gravitate towards the health habits of our peers.
  3. Limit your choices. E.g., if you are overwhelmed choosing between hundreds of fitness apps for your phone, reduce the options. Your decision will become easier.
  4. Become an advocate. If you feel that your campus’s healthy lifestyle options are limited, join or create a student advocacy group and collaborate with administrators on improvements (e.g., changing the content of campus vending machines).
Strategies for effortlessly healthier food choices
  • Pick up a small plate. A small salad plate can help with portion control. You do not have to pick up a large dinner plate just because they are located at the cafeteria entrance.
  • Choose a place that encourages healthy eating. If you have access to multiple dining locations, review their layouts and select the one that makes healthy eating easier—e.g., by approaching the veggie selection first.
  • Sit with your back to the food lines. If you see food you’ll be more likely to get up for additional helpings.
  • Buy one type of snack at a time. E.g., more varieties of cookies will lead to more consumption.
  • At home, make less healthy foods invisible and inaccessible. Organize the kitchen to minimize negative cues. If you have tended to stash the junk foods in a particular spot, switching things around can interrupt unhealthy habits.
  • Re-organize your refrigerator. Make sure that when you open it you’re looking at fruits, vegetables, lean meats, low-sugar yogurts, and other healthy options. Consign high fat foods to the lowest shelf at the back.



Get help or find out more

Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness: Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008).
Yale University Press: Newhaven, Connecticut.

Smarter lunchrooms movement: Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program

Food and Brand Lab: Cornell University

Applying behavioral economics to behavior: Ideas42

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