Some habits, like brushing your teeth, you've done so many times that they feel automatic. In fact, it's probably true that every time you brush your teeth, you do so in pretty much the exact same way every time.
Other habits, like exercising for even twenty minutes a day, can feel nearly impossible to pick up.
But why? Why are some habits so easy to fall into, while others are so darn hard? And why are those "bad habits" so difficult to break?
There's a lot of scientific and behavioral research out there about habits -- from creating new ones and breaking bad ones, to why some people find it harder than others to find motivation. And thanks to the TED Talk program, the leading researchers behind some of these cool studies have been able to share their ideas with the world in a format that's easy to digest.
Ready to form better habits? Here are nine TED talks to give you the research, ideas, and tools to get started.
9 TED Talks on Forming Better Habits
1) Judson Brewer: "A Simple Way to Break a Habit"
Length: 9 min. 24 sec.
Why do we overeat, smoke, or give in to other cravings when we know they're bad for us? Can we learn to break these bad habits by being more curious about them? Psychiatrist Judson Brewer researches mindfulness techniques for a living -- specifically, techniques that help us quell our cravings. One of his studies, for instance, found that mindfulness training was twice as good as gold standard therapy at helping people quit smoking.
In this TED talk, Brewer teaches us what happens in our brains when we develop these bad habits, and how teaching yourself to be mindful can help you target the core mechanisms to help us step out of our unhealthy patterns and addictive behaviors.
2) Matt Cutts: "Try Something New For 30 Days"
Length: 3 min. 27 sec.
Serving as the head of Google's web spam team, Matt Cutts tends to be best known for the work he and other engineers have done on Google's search algorithm. But a few years ago, he felt like he was stuck in a "rut." So he took the simple advice of the American philosopher Morgan Spurlock: Try something new for 30 days.
In this short, lighthearted TED talk, Cutts talks about what he learned from his 30-day challenge and encourages the rest of us to give it a shot.
3) Emily Balcetis: "Why Some People Find Exercise Harder Than Others"
Length: 14 min. 8 sec.
Why is it that some people struggle so much more than others to fit exercise into their routine? Through their research, social psychologist Emily Balcetis and her team found that our motivation levels and our goals can have profound affects on our vision -- the way we literally see the world.
In this TED talk, Balcetis walks us through her research on health and fitness. She finds, for example, that people who are highly motivated to exercise literally see physical distance -- say, the distance between them and a finish line -- as shorter than people who aren't motivated to exercise. Then, she talks about strategies for changing these perceptions of distance, which can ultimately make exercise and fitness goals appear easier and more attainable.
4) David Buettner: "How to Live to Be 100"
Length: 19 min. 39 sec.
Ever heard of "Blue Zones"? They're communities around the world -- from the island of Sardinia to the Okinawa archipelago, 800 miles south of Tokyo -- in which the elders live to record-setting ages. David Buettner is a world explorer and writer for National Geographic, and he studies the world's longest-lived peoples. His goal? To find the optimal lifestyle of longevity, so he and his team can uncover the universal formula for longevity.
In his TED talk, Buettner talks about his quest to find the lifestyle formula for long life and health. Then, he shares the nine common diet and lifestyle habits he uncovered from those "Blue Zones" that kept these communities' elders spry past the age of 100.
5) Dean Ornish: "Your Genes Are Not Your Fate"
Length: 3 min. 12 sec.
Think the genes you're born with determine your health and fate for life? Turns out, the lifestyle choices we make -- from the food we eat to how stressed we are -- can have powerful affects on how our genes "express" themselves, how we age, and even how large or small our brains are.
In this short but empowering TED talk, Ornish shares new research that shows just how profoundly adopting healthy lifestyle habits can affect us at a genetic level. In some cases, people have even reversed heart disease by adopting healthier habits.
6) Nir Eyal: "What Makes Some Technology So Habit-Forming?"
Length: 13 min. 20 sec.
We've all seen how the products we use change our daily behavior -- from your cell phone to your email, Netflix, and Twitter. How do the folks behind these products do it? As Nir Eyal explains, it's because they're "masters of habit." Turns out that about 40% of what you do, day in and day out, is done purely out of habit. Companies leverage this fact by using a design pattern to build habit-forming products.
In his TED talk, Eyal explains how technology companies design these habit-forming products by creating an experience that connects the user's problem with the company's product -- with enough frequency to form a habit. He explains that it isn't all negative manipulation, and that it can (and should) be used for good.
7) Guy Winch: "Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid"
Length: 17 min. 24 sec.
Why don't we take our emotional health as seriously as we take our physical health? Think about it: We teach our children all about physical health -- like hygiene and exercise -- but many of us don't teach them anything about psychological health. It's as if we tend to value our bodies much more than we value our minds.
In this talk, Psychologist Guy Winch explains that emotional pain -- guilt, loss, failure, loneliness -- can impact our lives in dramatic ways, especially if we ignore them or attempt to deal with them in isolation. He makes the case for taking care of our emotional health, along with the scientifically proven techniques we can use to heal our psychological pain.
8) Shlomo Benartzi: "Saving for Tomorrow, Tomorrow"
What can behavioral economics teach us how and why we plan well (or not-so-well) for our financial futures? "Behavioral finance" is a way of understanding the money mistakes that people make. And we make a lot of them -- especially when it comes to saving for retirement. Why? Because, while it's easy to conceptualize saving money in the future, it's harder to actually do it right now.
In this TED talk, Shlomo Benartzi talks about saving money for retirement, which is one of the biggest financial obstacles people have. Using behavioral economics as a lens, he talks about how we can turn this behavioral challenge into a behavioral solution to develop new programs that encourage saving for retirement.
9) Sandra Aamodt: "Why Dieting Doesn't Usually Work"
In a culture where dieting is the norm, it's hard to imagine that it may not work. But according to neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt's research, not only does dieting not work, it's actually more likely to do harm than good. People who eat intuitively -- as in, they eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full -- are less likely to be overweight, while also spending less time thinking about food. Controlled eaters, on the other hand, are more vulnerable to overeating in response to different triggers.
In her talk, Aamodt explains the science behind the myth of dieting, and how getting into the habit of mindful eating -- that is, learning to understand your body's hunger and satiety signals instead of trying to control food and weight -- can lead us to be healthier, happier, and probably thinner.
Which techniques for managing your habits did you find most helpful? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Originally published Apr 13, 2016 8:00:00 AM, updated June 10 2021