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How to form good habits that stick

Psychological tricks such as forming a cue-behaviour link and choosing your moment make it easier to do, say, more exercise

‘If you manage to link certain behaviours to your sense of identity, it might help to establish those habits.’ Photograph: Granger Wootz/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

‘If you manage to link certain behaviours to your sense of identity, it might help to establish those habits.’ Photograph: Granger Wootz/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Identify a cue

Forming a habit is trying to form a cue-behaviour link in your memory, meaning “you perform the behaviour without intentionally having to make yourself do it”, says Phillippa Lally, research associate at University College London, who studies habits. Cues can be internal or external (for example, feeling hungry or making a cup of tea) and are most effective when encountered every day, including the weekend, to minimise daily planning and willpower. Good ones include getting up, and mealtimes.

Be specific

‘You need to have a more specific plan to work out exactly when and how you’re going to eat more fruit and veg.’ Photograph: pixelpot/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Narrow down what you want to do. “Don’t say something broad like, ‘I want to eat more fruit and vegetables’,” says Lally. “You need to have a specific plan to work out exactly when and how you’re going to do that” – for example, by having fruit and vegetables in the house. A behaviour is more likely to become habitual if it’s something you enjoy or find rewarding. Even if it’s something you think you’d rather not do, like exercise, “when you’ve done it you’re likely to be pleased with yourself”.

Think about who you are

There is some evidence to suggest we are more likely to create a habit when it connects to our sense of identity. “Some [habits] are representations of certain important goals or values,” says Bas Verplanken, professor of social psychology at the University of Bath. “Take a person who is very concerned about the environment – habits that relate to environmentally-friendly behaviour link to that identity. If you manage to link certain behaviours to your sense of identity, it might help to establish those habits.”

Choose your moment

‘Switching jobs or schools, or getting a pet, can become a catalyst for broader change.’ Photograph: Samantha French / EyeEm/Getty Images/EyeEm

“Make use of what we called ‘habit discontinuities’,” says Verplanken. These are the “moments when people go through life-course changes, such as moving house, starting a family or a relationship, divorce, retirement or organisation changes”. These kind of events disrupt old habits, and allow you to create new ones. It’s why New Year’s resolutions tend to fail – your life, and old routines, are still the same on 2 January. But switching jobs or schools, or getting a pet, can become a catalyst for broader change.

It’s not about willpower. Good habits happen when we set ourselves up for success. Our new challenge will show you how.

How to form good habits that stick

How to form good habits that stick

  • Published Feb. 18, 2020 Updated Feb. 24, 2020

We’re all creatures of habit. We tend to wake up at the same time each day, brush our teeth, have morning coffee and commute to work, following the same patterns every day.

So why is it so hard to form new healthy habits?

Behavioral scientists who study habit formation say that many of us try to create healthy habits the wrong way. We make bold resolutions to start exercising or lose weight, for example, without taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success.

Here are some tips, backed by research, for forming new healthy habits.

[Try the Healthy-Habits Well Challenge. A 28-day plan to nourish your body, mind and spirit, one daily challenge at a time. You can also get these tips delivered each day to your smart speaker with My Well Minute , our new Flash Briefing skill on Alexa. Find out how to get started here .]

Stack your habits. The best way to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing habit, experts say. Look for patterns in your day and think about how you can use existing habits to create new, positive ones.

For many of us, our morning routine is our strongest routine, so that’s a great place to stack on a new habit. A morning cup of coffee, for example, can create a great opportunity to start a new one-minute meditation practice. Or, while you are brushing your teeth, you might choose to do squats or stand on one foot to practice balance.

Many of us fall into end-of-the-day patterns as well. Do you tend to flop on the couch after work and turn on the TV? That might be a good time to do a single daily yoga pose.

Start small. B.J. Fogg, a Stanford University researcher and author of the book “Tiny Habits,” notes that big behavior changes require a high level of motivation that often can’t be sustained. He suggests starting with tiny habits to make the new habit as easy as possible in the beginning. Taking a daily short walk, for example, could be the beginning of an exercise habit. Or, putting an apple in your bag every day could lead to better eating habits.

In his own life, Dr. Fogg wanted to start a daily push-up habit. He started with just two push-ups a day and, to make the habit stick, tied his push-ups to a daily habit: going to the bathroom. He began by, after a bathroom trip, dropping and doing two push-ups. Now he has a habit of 40 to 80 push-ups a day.

Do it every day. British researchers studied how people form habits in the real world, asking participants to choose a simple habit they wanted to form, like drinking water at lunch or taking a walk before dinner. The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, showed that the amount of time it took for the task to become automatic — a habit — ranged from 18 to 254 days. The median time was 66 days!

The lesson is that habits take a long time to create, but they form faster when we do them more often, so start with something reasonable that is really easy to do. You are more likely to stick with an exercise habit if you do some small exercise — jumping jacks, a yoga pose, a brisk walk — every day, rather than trying to get to the gym three days a week. Once the daily exercise becomes a habit, you can explore new, more intense forms of exercise.

How to form good habits that stick

The Healthy-Habits Challenge

A 28-day plan to nourish your body, mind and spirit, one daily challenge at a time.

Make it easy. Habit researchers know we are more likely to form new habits when we clear away the obstacles that stand in our way. Packing your gym bag and leaving it by the door is one example of this. Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California, says she began sleeping in her running clothes to make it easier to roll out of bed in the morning, slip on her running shoes and run. Choosing an exercise that doesn’t require you to leave the house — like situps or jumping jacks — is another way to form an easy exercise habit.

Dr. Wood, author of the book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick,” calls the forces that get in the way of good habits “friction.” In one study, researchers changed the timing of elevator doors so that workers had to wait nearly half a minute for the doors to close. (Normally the doors closed after 10 seconds.) It was just enough of a delay that it convinced many people that taking the stairs was easier than waiting for the elevator. “It shows how sensitive we are to small friction in our environment,” said Dr. Wood. “Just slowing down the elevator got people to take the stairs, and they stuck with it even after the elevator went back to normal timing.”

Dr. Wood notes that marketers are already experts in reducing friction, inducing us to spend more, for example, or order more food. That’s why Amazon has a “one-click” button and fast-food companies make it easy to supersize. “We’re just very influenced by how things are organized around us in ways that marketers understand and are exploiting, but people don’t exploit and understand in their own lives,” she said.

Reward yourself. Rewards are an important part of habit formation. When we brush our teeth, the reward is immediate — a minty fresh mouth. But some rewards — like weight loss or the physical changes from exercise — take longer to show up. That’s why it helps to build in some immediate rewards to help you form the habit. Listening to audiobooks while running, for example, or watching a favorite cooking show on the treadmill can help reinforce an exercise habit. Or plan an exercise date so the reward is time with a friend.

Take the Healthy-Habits Well Challenge: Now that you know what it takes to start building healthy habits, try the new Well Challenge, which gives you a small tip every day to help you move more, connect with those you love, refresh your mind and nourish your body. Just sign up, and I’ll send you a daily email about your next challenge. You can also get these tips and more delivered each day to your smart speaker with My Well Minute , our new Flash Briefing skill on Alexa. Find out how to get started here .

By Miranda Marquit 2 Comments – The content of this website often contains affiliate links and I may be compensated if you buy through those links (at no cost to you!). Learn more about how we make money. Last edited November 9, 2014 .

O ne of the biggest challenges faced by many consumers is that they don’t know how to form good money habits that stick. It’s depressingly easy to get caught in a personal finance boom and bust cycle in which you live spare for a few months to pay off debt, and then, once the scarcity is over, you return to your old spending ways.

Getting stuck in this cycle can be frustrating, and hold you back from what you hope to accomplish with your money. Instead, it makes more sense to form good money habits that will stick in the long-term. It might mean taking a little longer to see your results, but it could also get you off the personal finance roller coaster.

How to form good habits that stick

Decide What You Want Your Money To Accomplish

Start looking at your money as a tool that can help you accomplish your lifestyle goals. Whether it’s a shorter-term goal, like paying down debt, or a longer-term goal, like retirement, view your money as a means to an end. Figure out what you want your life to look like, and determine how your money can make it happen.

Once you see your money as a resource, it’s much easier to see purpose behind your money. Prioritize your goals and lifestyle preferences, and it will be easier to use your money for the things that matter most.

Focus On One Thing At A Time

Next, focus on one issue at a time. This means that you start with one area that is most important to you and get that squared away. It doesn’t mean that you have to completely accomplish your end game before moving on, but it does mean you have to get comfortable and make something a habit before moving on.

Start Small, And Make It Manageable

When focusing on one thing at a time, it helps to break things down. Instead of saying that you want to pay off your $10,000 in credit card debt, say that you want to put an extra $300 a month toward debt pay down. This is a manageable goal. Start out by freeing up (but cutting expenses or earning more money) $50 a month, and then add to that. Work toward your $300 a month goal. When you reach that goal, and putting $300 extra toward your debt each month has become a comfortable part of your spending plan, you can move on to something else.

While you continue to put money toward your debt, you can start working on some other important goal, such as retirement savings or college savings. Start small with those goals, and step up as well. That way, you move in increments that you can manage, and that you can maintain for the long haul. What’s great about this method is that you can shift the amount to another goal once something is achieved. So, after you pay off your debt, you can take that $300 you were paying each month and add it to your retirement fund.

In the end, it’s about making sure your money practices are sustainable. As long as you make sustainable changes, you should be able to stick to your better money habits indefinitely.

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Need help establishing healthy habits this year? Find out how to make healthy habits stick so you can achieve the lifestyle change you’re after.

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Treating your body as well as you possibly can takes dedication, perseverance, and (you guessed it!) a whole bunch of healthy habits. This isn’t something you can establish overnight unless you have an iron will. For the rest of us, implementing healthy habits and sticking to them is an ongoing process.

How to Form Healthy Habits

Creating healthy changes in your life means that little decisions and actions need to become ingrained in your routine. You’ve heard of the term lifestyle change, right? Crafting a routine filled with healthy habits is the exact same thing. Having healthy habits changes how you think so eventually, instead of telling yourself to eat veggies with every meal, you just do it! No decision necessary.

We like to make little changes, one by one, that grow together to represent holistic change. This theory of change makes a lifestyle overhaul easier since it affords you stepping stones between your starting point and your health goals.

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If the healthy habit you want to establish is to work out everyday and you aren’t used to doing so, you may push yourself too hard and abandon ship if the habit seems too exhausting to maintain long term. But working in a few push ups a day as opposed to a full-on workout is much easier. See what we mean? Focus on stacking up bite-sized healthy habits in order to build up and enjoy the benefits of overall lifestyle changes.

Habit Formation

To form a habit, the activity you’re trying to incorporate into your life needs to become second nature. To get there, we suggest following the three Rs of habit formation. This strategy was recently popularized by James Clear but has been popping up (more or less eloquently) since at least 2010 . The three Rs are:

1. Reminder

When deciding on the habit you want to establish, it’s helpful to put it in context. If you’re aiming to eat a piece of fresh fruit every day, you’re more likely to follow through if you tie the activity to a consistent cue from your day-to-day life. For example, eat a piece of fruit every day with lunch.

When you’re packing your lunch, you’ll automatically put a piece of fruit in, and you can adjust your portions to make sure the fruit—rather than an extra handful of chips or a cookie—gets eaten every day.

2. Routine

This means consistently engaging in the activity you want to become a habit. You can pack an apple in your lunch all you want, but if you don’t eat it you haven’t made it part of your routine.

3. Reward

Practicing self-affirmation —that is, praising yourself for a job well done or identifying how your habits align with your core values—after engaging in your healthy habit can help you stick to it. It may also be the most gratifying part of incorporating your habit into your day-to-day life.

You may have heard (or read somewhere on the internet) that it takes 30 days to form a good habit. This would be great, really, but studies show that it takes closer to 10 weeks or two and a half months for an action to become a genuinely habitual part of your routine.

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To keep you on track with your healthy changes for the full 10 weeks, accountability is key! This can achieved in a variety of ways—from checking in with friends or on social media to starting a fitness journal. And don’t worry too much if you veer away from your new habit momentarily. Studies found that getting off track (thanks to a weekend-long Netflix binge, a vacation, whatever) did not seriously impact habit formation so long as you jump right back in. Don’t beat yourself up about a setback, just keep on trucking and you’ll eventually be golden.

Healthy Habits You Can Aim for This Year

Although everyone is in a different spot when it comes to their wellness and lifestyle goals, we can all make positive changes. Even if they are little, these changes can have a positive impact on your health. Here are our top ideas for healthy habits to implement this year

  • Focus on a healthy, well-rounded diet. You can start with an apple a day and work your way up to cleaner, more conscientious eating.
  • For the couch potatoes among us: Incorporate regular workouts. Start with making your day more active and work your way into to a full-blown fitness routine.
  • Get enough sleep (because lack of sleep is all-around bad for you).
  • Drink enough water.
  • Start a meditation practice.
  • Get enough quality social time in to prevent loneliness .

Apps to Get You There

Healthy changes need to become healthy habits in order to have the long-lasting wellness impacts you’re after. But until a healthy activity has become an automatic part of your day, one of the most helpful ways of keeping on track and moving toward habit formation is with proactive reminders and intentional scheduling.

We highly recommend setting reminders on your phone or calendar (for example, “6:30: 7-minute Meditation”). This works for everything from setting a healthy bedtime to a reminding yourself to eat your salad at lunch. If you’re using online meditation or fitness resources, copy–paste the URL into your calendar description so you can access the resource easily when your calendar reminder pops up!

Those of us with somewhat sedentary lifestyles and office jobs can also use fitness trackers like the Fitbit that will remind us to get up and move our bodies every hour.

Whatever your healthy change may be, we know that taking the time to make it a habit will make your life so much easier. When healthy choices become second nature, your well-being can only benefit.

Experts explain the intricacies of how new habits form in our brain circuitry and offer tips to game the system.

On January 1st you made a promise to yourself to eat less sugar, drink more water, work out regularly, or budget better. What are the chances that pledge will stick a few months down the line? Anywhere from 10 percent to 44 percent, depending on the studies you look at.

Set Your Brain Up For Change

But, here’s what’s really interesting. Making some kind of formal proclamation (like in the form of a resolution) means you are ten times more likely to change compared to non-resolvers—people who don’t make any resolutions—with identical goals and comparable motivation, says John C. Norcross, Ph.D., distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and author of Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing your Goals and Resolutions. And don’t think that you’ve failed if you haven’t reached your goals in the first 30 days; one study found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit or break an old one.

Even if you’ve said to yourself, “I’ll start tomorrow” every morning since New Year’s Day, it’s not too late to kick resolutions into high gear. “It’s preparation; [successful resolvers] are engaging in specific behavior,” Dr. Norcross says. “And the brain is behavior. Any time you change a long-term behavior, there are long-term changes in the brain.”

Understand The Relationship Between Brain Heath and Habits

Part of why we succeed at breaking a bad habit or starting some new positive change may boil down to how fit your brain is. “The ability to hold a resolution is a function of brain health,” says Kavli Prize-winning neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich. You’re more likely to stay on task, he notes, if your brain has a healthy executive function—the brain’s control mechanism used in planning, reasoning, and decision making.

The flip side of that is that less healthy brains may have an even harder time. Among those who fall into this category are people who have depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, severe substance use disorder (addictions), and OCD. The reason is that they have less gray matter in the areas of the brain that control executive function according to a large multi-part study by Stanford neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, and his colleagues who looked at over 7,000 brain images.

The good news is you can always improve your ability to focus and strengthen your self-control. Merzenich adds: “The brain is designed to remodel itself as a function of its use—that’s brain plasticity.”

Navigate Your Neurons

One study found that neuron firing patterns in a part of the brain called the striatum—located in the forebrain’s basal ganglia, known to control voluntary movement—change as animals learn a new habit. At first, neurons fire continuously throughout a task. But as you become better at it, the neuron firing becomes clustered at the beginning and the end. And once these patterns form, they’re hard to break.

At first, you can jump start a habit by reducing friction (putting your gym clothes out the night before) or coupling the new thing you want to do with something you already do (meditate while you brush your teeth). Once you get this under your belt, the goal is to let your brain take over.

Think of it this way. Have you ever lost power in your house and yet every time you walk into a new room, you try to turn on the light switch? That’s your basal ganglia at work. It’s basically your auto-pilot and it sends messages to the rest of your body to do things you’re not exactly consciously thinking about. In essence you move from being goal-directed (“I want to lose weight so I’ll go to the gym.”) to habit directed (“When I wake up, I put my gym clothes on and go to the gym.”) This is where the magic for developing routines that stick happens.

Start A Chemical Reaction

In addition, Dr. Merzenich explains there is chemical machinery in the brain that controls how bright and alert you feel and this also helps power new habits. Here’s how: When you experience something unexpected, you release a primary chemical agent called noradrenaline. “It basically turns on the lights and amplifies the activity in the brain for a period of time,” Merzenich says. If you engage it every day, reliably after a period of time you’re more engrossed in the task.

Dopamine has a similar affect. When we’re hopeful and appreciative, dopamine floods into the body. This gives us a mood rush and turns up the learning centers in the brain, which makes us more engaged and motivated. And, it’s why so many people have tuned into dopamine fasting to break bad habits.

Overall resolution success rate: Statistic Brain Research Institute. (2018). “New Year’s Resolution Statistics.”

Making habits: Eurporean Journal of Social Psychology (2009). “How Habits Are Formed: Modelling Habit Formation In The Real World.”

Basal ganglia and habits: Nature News Neuroscience (2006). “The Role of Basal Ganglia in Habit Formation.”

We all have habits we’d like to snap our fingers, form, and keep up every day for the rest of our lives. You know which ones we’re talking about: Regular exercise, cleaning up a little bit every day so our living spaces never get out of control, eating more vegetables and less sugar, the list goes on and on.

But if forming these types of habits were that easy, we’d all be doing them. There are tools that can help (hello, Silk + Sonder habit tracker!), but studies show it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make a habit stick, and that on average it takes 66 days for a habit to become automatic.

Maybe you formed some awesome new habits in 2019, or maybe that particular task fell to the wayside for one reason or another. Whatever the case, if you’re in the process of deciding which habits you want to form in 2020, here’s a guide to choosing them.

Start with small habits.

You know that feeling when you achieve something, and suddenly you feel more motivated than ever to take things to the next level? For example, say you want to become a runner, and you finally run three miles without stopping. Next thing you know, you’re signing up for a half marathon.

As you choose your habits, start with one you know you can achieve. If you want to cook at home more, start by deciding to cook at home once a week instead of every single night. If you’re able to keep that up for a full month, you may just feel like you can kick this habit up to twice a week, then three times a week—you get the picture. Positive reinforcement goes a long way.

Get clear on your why “why.”

So you’ve decided you want to form a habit of cleaning up your living space every single day. But do you know why you want to become so dedicated to wiping down your counters and putting your shoes where they belong instead of just kicking them off in your hallway? If you don’t, you won’t get very far with this one.

Maybe your “why” has to do with wanting to feel less frazzled and more relaxed when you come home from work, or maybe it’s simply because you don’t want to feel stressed out and like you need to do a giant cleanup every time a friend stops by. Whatever the case, make sure you fully understand why you want to from whatever habits you’re choosing. If you can’t figure it out, maybe it’s not the habit for you.

Pick a habit you’ve already kind of formed.

Back to the positive reinforcement thing: In addition to choosing a super small, achievable habit, choose one that’s already halfway there, or that you’re already kind of good at.

For example, say you write in a journal every day, but you want to get in the habit of writing in a gratitude journal, too. The habit of journal writing is already there, you just need to add a little something. You know that feeling when you add something you’ve already checked off your to do list, just so you can mark it as done? It’s similar.

Don’t forget to pick a “shoot for the moon” habit.

Of course, padding yourself with positive reinforcement won’t help much if you don’t add a pie-in-the-sky habit to your list. Do you want to get into the habit of writing fiction every day in the hopes of someday turning it into a novel? Add that to your list, and every time you feel discouraged, look at everything you’ve already achieved and remind yourself that with some hard work and daily effort, you can make that one happen, too.

Want to kick your self-care game up a notch? Subscribe to Silk + Sonder today. And while you’re at it, tell us what habits you hope to form in 2020.

Plus 5 Tips to Make Good Habits Stick

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How to form good habits that stick

  • B.A., American Studies, Yale University

Conduct a quick Google search about habit formation and you’ll probably learn that it takes a mere 21 days to form a habit. Or maybe 18, or 28, or even 31. The numbers vary, but the standard advice does not. Many self-help specialists suggest that, if you simply repeat a behavior for a specific number of days, you’re destined to develop the habit.

But habit formation is not so simple. After all, many of us know from personal experience that some habits are remarkably easy to develop. If, for a few nights in a row, you tune in to a Netflix crime drama, you’ll start binging night after night. Try to establish a daily gym habit, however, and the cravings may not come so quickly. Why do some habits form easily while others seem so unlikely to last?

How long it takes to form a new habit depends on the strength of the old behavior. Creating a healthy eating habit will take longer for someone who’s been eating ice cream every day for 10 years than for someone who eats ice cream once a week. Establishing a twice-weekly gym routine will be easier if you already have a once-weekly gym routine.

Instead of focusing on a specific deadline, take the habit formation process one day at a time. By employing the following strategies, you’ll speed up the process and ensure your new habit sticks.

1. Define Small, Specific Goals

If you’re working on habit development, you probably have big, sweeping goals in mind: keeping a more organized home, for example, or turning in schoolwork on time. These goals are essential for your long-term motivation, but they won’t help you establish and stick with new habits.

Why? Imagine setting the abstract goal of “being more organized.” In this scenario, you’ve created a goal so vague and abstract that you won’t be able to track your own success rate. Even if you, say, organize your entire closet in a single day, you might still feel like a failure when you look at your messy kitchen.

A habit is simply a repeated behavior. Before you can develop a new habit, you’ll need to define a small, specific behavioral goal. For example, instead of “be more organized”, try “do laundry and vacuum every Sunday morning.” This goal works because it’s concrete. It’s a behavior that you can repeat over and over until it becomes automatic – in other words, a habit.

2. Make It Easy for Yourself

Let’s say you want to eat a healthier diet. You’re motivated to make the change and you enjoy eating healthy food, so why won’t the habit stick?

Think about the logistical and mental barriers that might be stopping you. Maybe you’re too tired to cook after work, so you end up ordering unhealthy take-out meals more often than you’d like. Instead of trying to fight through the exhaustion, consider ways to work around the barrier. You could dedicate one weekend afternoon each week to preparing meals for the next five days. You could research pre-prepared healthy meal delivery services near you. You might even consider increasing your nightly sleep time to reduce your afternoon exhaustion.

This reframing strategy applies to any habit you’ve struggled to make stick. Instead of getting frustrated with yourself, think of ways to eliminate the barriers and make the habit-forming process easier.

3. Get an Accountability Partner

Being held accountable to another person increases motivation. We might sometimes fail to meet our own internal expectations, but we hate to let our friends and family down. Use psychology to your advantage by enlisting an accountability partner.

An accountability partner can help in a number of different ways. Sometimes, simply telling another person that you’re trying to form a new habit is enough to keep you on track. You might set up recurring check-in sessions or ask your accountability partner to text you reminders and words of encouragement.

An accountability partner can also be someone working towards the same goal as you. If you’re trying to build an exercise habit, find a friend who wants to hit the gym and set up a shared workout schedule. Even on those days when you’d rather stay in bed than use the elliptical machine, the thought of disappointing a friend will be enough to get you dressed and out the door.

4. Use External and Internal Reminders

Experiment with post-it notes, to do lists, daily phone alarms, and any other tool you can use to create external reminders. Remember that the process of creating a new behavior may involve stopping an old behavior. In addition to creating reminders about desirable behaviors, you may need to remind yourself not to toss your unwashed clothes on the floor.

Internal reminders are important, too. If you find yourself trapped in an unhelpful thought process, you can use mental reminders to break the pattern. Choose a statement to repeat whenever negative thoughts arise. If you catch yourself thinking “I hate going to the gym,” counter the thought with “. but I love how energized I feel after a workout.”

5. Give Yourself Time

Remember, habit formation is not a straight upward trajectory. If you slip up one day, don’t stress. One small mistake will not erase the work you’ve already done. Developing new habits takes time, but with a smart, strategic approach, your habits will last for life.

How to form good habits that stick

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How to form good habits that stick

This article orignally published on July 26, 2012.

As the late Stephen Covey taught in his runaway bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, cultivating good habits is essential to an entrepreneur’s success. New habits are hard to master, but learning how we turn intention into reality can make the process much easier.

“The biggest problem is that we rely too much on willpower alone,” says Heidi Grant Halvorson, psychologist and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals (Hudson Street Press, 2010). “Wanting something isn’t enough.”

Willpower is like a pool that drains during the day, then replenishes overnight. Each time you make a decision, manage stress, or do any task that is not immediately rewarding, you drain a bit of your willpower. With fewer resources at your disposal, you are more likely to give up quickly.

To successfully adopt new habits to grow your business, you need to bypass willpower. Here’s how:

1. Make a specific action plan. Good habits require planning, so we need to break them down into actionable steps. For example, if you want to prioritize your time (Covey’s Habit 3), then you might make a list of your top five goals, tack them above your desk, and check to ensure that each task you take on falls into one of those categories. “Planning in a very deliberate way takes a lot of the burden off willpower,” says Halvorson. “That’s the secret to success.”

To create your own plan, imagine that you’ve already mastered the habit you want to adopt. How would your behavior change? What would you do differently as you went about your day? Answering these questions will empower you to follow through.

2. Anticipate challenges. As you work toward a goal, you need to prepare for potential problems you’ll encounter. To ensure that old habits don’t derail your goals, create plans that outline, “If I am in situation X, then I will respond by X.”

For example, if you want to become a better listener (remember Habit 5), you might say to yourself, “If I’ve shared an idea with a group, then I won’t speak again until everyone else has responded.” When the moment arises, your brain will already know what to do, so you won’t have to make a decision. “This makes you about three times more likely to actually do it,” Halvorson says.

3. Stick with it (there are no 30-day guarantees). People will often tell you that it takes 30 days to form a habit, or that skipping a single day means you have to start over tomorrow. None of that lore is true. “There is no magic amount of time,” Halvorson says. The time you need to commit depends on three factors: how difficult the new habit is to do, how often you do it, and how much it clashes with your current habits. Imagine a piece of paper with a very deep crease. Mastering a new habit is like ironing out the old crease and reinforcing a new one–it takes time. “It will become a habit if you just hang in there,” Halvorson says.

The power of habits isn’t that they’re a substitute for willpower.

Posted Sep 22, 2019

How to form good habits that stick

When others write about how to form good habits, the focus is usually on how people can get themselves to consistently do things they don’t always feel like doing. The gist is that habits will help maintain desired behaviors in moments when folks are lacking motivation or willpower.

However, this is a pretty narrow and boring way to understand habits. The core definition of habits is that they’re how you tend to act (or think) in response to a particular set of triggers. Here are some alternative ways to think about how to form good habits that aren’t about how to get yourself to “stick to” challenging or tedious behaviors.

1. Observe routines that you enjoy much more than you’d expect.

Whenever I take a trip, I often spend the last full day holed up in the hotel room doing work. My spouse will take our 3-year-old out for the day to do typical vacation activities, while I’m sitting in the room, glued to my computer.

While this sounds like a routine I might resent, in reality, I don’t. I like slow transitions. I like to start anticipating and planning the week ahead of me. I also prefer not to come home to work problems that need sorting out on top of all the usual jobs involved in returning home from a trip (like laundry and grocery shopping).

How did I discover this habit that works well for me? I naturally fell into it, but it took a while before I noticed the pattern. Now that I have noticed it, we can plan for it: My spouse and child can have an activity in mind that they want to do without me.

Experiment: Recognize natural habits you enjoy. How can being cognizant of these habits help facilitate you being able to do them?

2. Focus on context-driven habits rather than time-driven habits.

A time-driven habit is one you do at a particular time; a context-driven habit is one that’s triggered by a particular context. A common context is a place: When I’m at a hotel, I’ll use the gym each day.

Routines you enjoy often stop being fun when it seems like you have to do them—for instance, if you have to drag your butt to yoga every Tuesday no matter how you’re feeling. When you form habits that are based on context triggers, they’re less monotonous.

Context-driven habits often naturally line up better with the type of mood you’re in. For example, when I’m traveling, I often eat Chipotle and enjoy it, but when I’m at home with full access to my own kitchen, there are other meals I’d rather have. As far as vacation food goes, Chipotle is a good choice. Now I tend to book hotels that are close to a Chipotle!

Context doesn’t need to just relate to place. You can use stress or other cognitive-behavioral states as a context cue too. For instance, when I’m having difficulty concentrating due to something major going on in my life, I’ll often do a lot of walking.

Experiment:

  • Identify: What habits do you have that are based on a place trigger rather than a time trigger?
  • Identify: What habits do you have that are based on an internal trigger (a particular thinking or feeling state)?

3. Consider two condition habits: context cue, plus “Do I feel like it?”

People sometimes make the assumption that a habit is something you need to do regardless of whether you want to at the time. However, a habit can also just be a strong tendency to behave a certain way under a certain set of circumstances. You can easily structure some habits so that you only do them if a condition is met, plus you feel like it.

For instance, if I’m going to drive the 25 minutes to Costco, it’s almost always on a Saturday morning. The only time I typically think to do it is a Saturday morning. However, if I have other priorities for the day, I do other things. Another example might be that your social circle has a regular meetup, like after-work drinks on Fridays, but whoever feels like it on a particular Friday shows up.

For some habits, consistency is an important aspect, but not always.

Experiment: Identify a habit where if you’re going to do a behavior, you tend only to do it under a particular circumstance, but where it makes sense to also take into account your mood and other priorities.

Wrapping Up

The suggestions here are particularly aimed at people who feel resistant to too much routine or whose lifestyle needs to retain some flexibility. In reality, if you think you don’t like habits, you probably just don’t like having compulsory and inflexible habits.

Habits arise because cues exert a powerful level of control over behavior, and constant, novel decision-making is inefficient and exhausting. But you can treat habits as helpful decision shortcuts rather than obligations. Thinking of habits only in terms of skills you want to practice more regularly, perhaps that you’re trying to hone and improve, is too narrow a definition of habits.

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