9 Powerful TED Talks to Kickstart Your Habit Change Journey

We all have habits we‘d like to change, whether it‘s exercising more, saving money, or learning a new skill. But despite our best intentions, making these changes stick is notoriously difficult. In fact, research suggests that nearly half of our daily actions are habitual – which means if we want to transform our lives, we need to tackle our habits head-on.

Fortunately, some of the world‘s leading experts on behavioral science and psychology have shared their insights on how to successfully break bad habits and form good ones. Their engaging TED Talks have collectively garnered tens of millions of views and sparked countless "aha" moments.

So if you‘re ready to finally take control of your habits, look no further. These nine talks offer an array of science-backed strategies and thought-provoking perspectives to help you make lasting changes. Let‘s dive in!

The Power of Mindfulness

According to psychiatrist Judson Brewer, the key to breaking bad habits is learning to be mindful of our triggers and cravings. In his talk, "A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit," Brewer explains how our brains get stuck in feedback loops that reinforce unhealthy behaviors.

The way out, he says, is to pay close attention to what we‘re experiencing in the moment: "What does craving feel like? What are the body sensations? What are the thoughts going through your mind?"

By cultivating curiosity about these patterns, Brewer‘s research shows we can disrupt them. For example, in one study of smokers, mindfulness training was twice as effective as the gold-standard behavioral treatment in helping people quit long-term.

The lesson? Slowing down and tuning into our inner experience, rather than operating on autopilot, can give us the space to make different choices. Some simple ways to build your mindfulness muscle include:

  • Focusing on your breath for a few minutes each day
  • Noting physical sensations and emotions as they arise
  • Savoring pleasant experiences with all your senses
  • Observing urges without immediately acting on them

The Case for Self-Compassion

Another crucial ingredient for successful habit change is self-compassion. But as psychologist Guy Winch points out in his talk "Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid," most of us are sorely lacking in this department.

"We are very good at noticing when our bodies need care and giving ourselves physical first aid… But we are not nearly as good at noticing when our psychological health is in trouble," Winch says. "We don‘t do emotional hygiene."

The problem with neglecting our emotional wounds – whether it‘s harsh self-criticism, rumination, or feelings of inadequacy – is that they sabotage our efforts to grow and change. If deep down we believe we‘re lazy or undisciplined, those beliefs will constantly undermine our new habits.

What‘s the antidote? Treating ourselves with the same kindness and understanding we‘d extend to a close friend. Some practices Winch recommends:

  • Writing yourself a supportive letter when you‘re struggling
  • Challenging negative self-talk with realistic counter-arguments
  • Focusing on your strengths and past successes
  • Reaching out for social support during tough times

Indeed, research has consistently linked self-compassion to greater motivation, resilience, and overall well-being. So don‘t discount the importance of being kind to yourself on the habit change journey – it may be the very thing that helps you go the distance.

Small Steps, Big Rewards

Of course, no one transforms their habits overnight. And according to several TED speakers, that‘s precisely the point – the most sustainable changes happen gradually, with one small step at a time.

Matt Cutts, an engineer at Google, illustrates this beautifully in his short talk "Try Something New for 30 Days." His argument is that anyone can muster the energy and willpower to add one new behavior for one month – whether it‘s meditating for two minutes or writing a paragraph in your novel. Those 30-day challenges then become a rewarding way to test-drive different habits and expand your comfort zone.

Behavioral economist Shlomo Benartzi echoes this "start small" mentality in his talk "Saving for Tomorrow, Tomorrow." Through his research on retirement savings, Benartzi found that nudging people to increase their contributions by just 1% every few months led to a whopping 10% boost over time. The beauty of this approach is that it feels doable in the present while still delivering big results in the long run.

So if the idea of revamping your habits feels overwhelming, zoom in on the tiniest step you can take right now. Some examples:

  • Adding one vegetable to your plate at each meal
  • Walking around the block after dinner
  • Reading one page of an inspiring book
  • Placing $5 in a savings jar every Friday

Remember, the goal isn‘t to be perfect – it‘s to make steady, incremental progress. As Cutts reassures us, "Small, sustainable changes are more likely to stick… The next 30 days are going to pass whether you like it or not, so why not think about something you have always wanted to try and give it a shot!"

Designing Your Surroundings

In addition to starting small, a surefire way to set yourself up for habit change success is to create an environment that makes your desired behaviors as easy and automatic as possible.

Nir Eyal, an expert on habit-forming products, explains how external cues can powerfully shape our actions in his talk "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products." Just as seeing a notification on your phone can send you down an internet rabbit hole, visual reminders of your habits can draw you to them like a magnet.

"If we can understand the deeper psychology of why we do what we do, we can figure out what motivates us, what sparks our behavior, and what gets us hooked on products," Eyal says.

You can utilize this knowledge to help (rather than hinder) your goals. For instance, let‘s say you want to drink more water. Some ways to optimize your surroundings for that outcome:

  • Keeping a full water bottle at your desk
  • Placing a glass by your bathroom sink as a visual cue
  • Setting a reminder on your phone to hydrate every hour
  • Buying an attractive water bottle you enjoy using

By sprinkling these subtle prompts throughout your day, you make it nearly effortless to get into a groove with your new habit.

Blue Zones researcher Dan Buettner takes this idea a step further in his talk "How to Live to Be 100+." His team has identified the regions across the globe where people live the longest, healthiest lives – and their surroundings have a lot to do with it.

From plant-forward diets to regular social interaction, the healthiest habits aren‘t a chore in these places because they‘re baked into the rituals and rhythms of daily life. "The secret to longevity isn‘t pureed kale shakes or expensive supplements," Buettner jokes. "When it comes to longevity, there is no short-term fix. But when healthy behaviors are woven into the fabric of your community, you‘re much more likely to stick with them."

While most of us can‘t move to Okinawa or Sardinia, we can be intentional about shaping our worlds (and social circles) to naturally reinforce the habits we aspire to. Some ideas:

  • Joining a fitness class or active Meetup group
  • Keeping junk food out of the house
  • Inviting friends over for healthy potluck dinners
  • Making your bedroom a tech-free, relaxing oasis
  • Surrounding yourself with lush plants and greenery

Over time, these environmental shifts add up to an identity and lifestyle where your desired habits fit right in.

Rethinking Success

At the end of the day, the most compelling reason to change your habits is because you believe it will improve your life in some meaningful way. But several TED speakers caution against getting too attached to traditional metrics of "success" in this arena.

Neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt makes the case that dieting is often counterproductive for achieving sustainable wellness in her talk "Why Dieting Doesn‘t Usually Work." She cites a study wherein chronic dieters were actually more likely to overeat in response to stress than their non-dieting counterparts.

"Willpower is limited, and every time you use it, it gets harder," Aamodt explains. "Mindful eating is really the opposite of dieting. It‘s about bringing attention to your experience… being flexible, curious, and kind with yourself." In other words, fixating on eating the "right" things backfires – learning to trust your body‘s intuitive cues is far more effective in the long run.

Psychologist Emily Balcetis uncovers a similar theme in her research on "Why Some People Find Exercise Harder Than Others." She found that people who focused intently on a finish line perceived a running distance as 30% shorter than those who looked around at their surroundings. What‘s more, the narrow-focused group actually moved 23% faster!

The takeaway? Our thoughts and perceptual habits play a huge role in shaping our reality – not just our objective results. "Some of the most important habits for success involve managing your perspective," Balcetis says. "Focusing on that high-priority goal can help pull you through challenging experiences."

So as you embark on your own habit change journey, consider how you might redefine what progress and achievement look like. Maybe it‘s not about hitting a certain number on the scale, but about having more energy and vitality. Maybe it‘s not about reaching an income benchmark, but about aligning your time with your deepest values.

Here are some reflective questions to get you thinking along these lines:

  • How do I want to feel as I cultivate this new habit?
  • What deeper need or aspiration is this change really about for me?
  • How will I know I‘m on the right track, beyond external metrics?
  • What would "success" look and feel like on my own terms?

By getting clear on your intrinsic motivations, you‘ll be far more equipped to stay the course when obstacles inevitably arise.

Putting It All Together

As you‘ve probably gathered by now, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for transforming your habits. Different approaches will resonate for different people at different times. That said, there are some common threads that run through the most salient advice from leading experts:

Theme Key Ideas Action Steps
Mindfulness – Notice cravings and urges without automatically acting on them
– Get curious about the thoughts, feelings, and sensations driving your habits
– Practice focusing on your breath for a few minutes each day
– Pause and observe your experience when a craving arises
Self-Compassion – Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, not harsh judgment
– Acknowledge that change is hard, and setbacks are normal
– Write yourself a supportive letter when you‘re struggling
– Challenge negative self-talk with more realistic thoughts
Small Steps – Break daunting goals down into tiny, doable actions
– Aim for steady progress rather than perfection
– Identify the smallest step you can take toward your new habit
– Gradually increase your effort and commitment over time
Environment Design – Make your surroundings work for you, not against you
– Utilize visual cues and prompts to make good habits easier
– Keep temptations out of sight and out of mind
– Surround yourself with people and places that support your goals
Redefining Success – Focus on intrinsic rewards, not just external metrics
– Cultivate a growth mindset and be open to learning
– Clarify your deeper "why" for pursuing change
– Celebrate your efforts and the journey, not just the destination

Ultimately, the key to sustainable habit change is finding the strategies that truly resonate with you – the ones that feel authentic, meaningful, and even enjoyable. So don‘t be afraid to experiment, get creative, and trust your own intuition.

As the acclaimed researcher BJ Fogg reminds us, "There are only three things we can do that will create lasting change: have an epiphany, change our environment, or change our habits in tiny ways."

I don‘t know about you, but I‘m ready for some tiny changes that lead to big adventures. Here‘s to the next leg of the journey!