Systems that stick: The science of changing yourself

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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

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.



Learn more


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.





Learn more


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.



Printable training chart


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

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

Your Best Instagram

Your Best Instagram
“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

Follow us on Instagram, and don’t forget to use the hashtag #SH101SelfTransformation


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

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

Radogna, M. (2014). Stop hitting snooze: How to make the most of your morning. Student Health 101, 9(6). Retrieved from

Student Health 101 surveys, June 2014 and November 2016.