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7 Tips for Making New Habits Stick

We don’t fail at our goals — they fail us. Here, experts explain the science of behavior change and how to hit your goals for studying, fitness, and more.

Between the downtime of winter break (if you’re lucky enough to get any) and the approach of New Year’s Eve, it’s easy to get stuck in your head contemplating an endless string of if only’s. Maybe your life would be easier/better/happier if only you did things differently in the year ahead: wake up earlier, eat better, work out more, take better notes, clean up your space more often.

The good news is that who we are is in large part determined by what we do on a daily basis. In the more quote-worthy words of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit.”

More good news: Habits are something we can change.

Since the last way we want you to start the shiny new year is by joining the clichéd throngs of resolution makers and breakers, we took a look at what several behavioral experts have to say about habit formation and gathered these tips to put you on the path to success.

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1. Understand how habits are formed

new habits of mindHabits, good or bad, don’t just appear; they’re the result of daily repetition and feedback over long periods of time. This creates a cycle that both explains why you do what you do, and — just as important — provides a roadmap for change. In The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg terms this cycle the “habit loop,” and it consists of three parts:

  1. The Cue (something that triggers the habit)
  2. The Routine (the habit itself)
  3. The Reward (the benefit you get from the habit)

Once you’re able to diagnose these pieces, you can use that knowledge to either change an existing bad habit or intentionally create a new good one. Think about your goals in these terms, and write down some possible cues and rewards for a new habit you’d like to pursue.

2. Ditch the laundry list

ditch the long listMost habit experts agree: If you try to change too many things at once, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. Instead, choose one behavior at a time, and focus your energy and attention on it. While there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long it takes to a create a new habit, plan on anywhere from three weeks to three months of repetition to lock in behavior change. This is how long it takes for a new behavior to become automatic (that is, something you don’t have to think about).

3. Believe you can change

believe in changeIn his guide Transform Your Habits, behavior expert James Clear emphasizes the power of convincing yourself that you’re the kind of person who does the kind of thing you’re trying to do.

Says Clear: “Changing your beliefs isn’t nearly as hard as you might think. There are two steps: 1. Decide the type of person you want to be. 2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.”

So if, for example, you want to start working out more often, visualize yourself as the kind of person who doesn’t miss a workout. Then start by doing the exercise of your choice three days per week. Each day you do this, it’s a small “win” that reinforces that you are that kind of person. These mini mental rewards automatically make your new habit easier to maintain.

4. Know thyself (and what motivates thee)

know yourself to form new habitsGretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, has identified four “tendencies” based on how people react to expectations. Which one of these describes you and your tendencies?

  • Upholders respond readily to both external and internal expectations. Upholder strategies for success include scheduling (if it’s on the calendar, they’ll do it) and pairing the new habit with something you’re already likely to do.
  • Obligers meet external expectations but struggle with internal ones. They benefit most from joining a group or engaging a friend to maintain accountability.
  • Questioners query all expectations and meet them only if they feel those expectations make logical sense. Questioners need to do their research and make sure they’re really on board before trying to make a change.
  • Rebels resist all expectations and couldn’t care less about pleasing others. For Rebels, the best motivation for change is identity-driven. They need to see this new behavior as a way to express their true self.

Knowing your tendency is important in understanding why you might resist changing a habit (even when you want to adopt it) and in overcoming that resistance with appropriate motivation and accountability.

5. Start small and pair activities

step by stepYou’ve heard that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Well, so does changing a habit. Stanford professor and behavioral scientist BJ Fogg advocates breaking habit change down into very small, specific actions that, over time, add up to the bigger change you want to achieve. He calls these “tiny habits,” and he explains them in a TED Talk. A tiny habit can start with something as small as flossing just one tooth, then adding additional teeth as you go along.

In addition to beginning with tiny habits, Fogg advocates pairing the new habit with something you already do so that it becomes automatic. (That’s similar to the tip mentioned for Upholders, above.) For example, if you want to start keeping your place tidier, clean or pick up something every time you go to the bathroom. For instance, do a few dishes, pick up laundry off the floor, or throw junk mail in the recycle bin.

Motivational Blogs

Motivated to learn more about staying motivated? Here, websites of the psych-up gurus whose tips are shared here.

6. Reward yourself frequently

celebrate successAs a corollary to breaking down big changes into very small, achievable pieces, it helps to reward yourself — even if with just a small, silent cheer — each time you have a tiny success. You might be surprised to find how much those little celebrations mean and how well they motivate you to keep going!

7. Be smart about slipups

see the day in partsRegardless of how many little successes you celebrate, there will be times when you falter. Be kind to yourself when that happens. Don’t let a slipup derail you, and don’t give in to feelings of guilt or shame. Says Rubin, “Instead of feeling that you’ve blown the day and thinking, ‘I’ll get back on track tomorrow,’ try thinking of each day as a set of four quarters: morning, midday, afternoon, evening. If you blow one quarter, you get back on track for the next quarter. Fail small, not big.”

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