Habits, by nature, are actions we do almost automatically – usually without thought. They’re programmed into our everyday life. Some habits are good, some bad and some we resolve to make a priority. For most of us, making or breaking habits isn’t easy – if it were, we’d likely hear ex-smokers tell stories about how easy it was to quit and we’d be hard-pressed to find a dusty gym membership.
But, just as we learned our old habits, we can learn new ones, too. There’s no tried and true formula to making a new habit stick. But, there are simple steps we can take to move in the right direction, turning a desired behavior into an instinctive one.
Creating is Easier than Eliminating
Because our current habits are fulfilling a need – good or bad – breaking old habits is much harder than creating new ones. If you want to eliminate an old habit, you need to find a substitute for the need it’s currently satisfying. Think about your existing habits. Why do you have them? What needs do these behaviors fulfill? Ask yourself: is there a new, healthy habit I can create to meet my needs, but with better benefits? For example, if your stress reliever is a few glasses of wine, consider whether or not you can get the same stress relief from taking an evening stroll.
Time Lines are Good (When Used Right)
There’s no strict deadline on how quickly or how long it can take for new routine to become habit. But attempting to build new behaviors without an “end-point” can seem incredibly daunting. Most of us need a finish line. Try sticking to your new routine for two weeks. That’s a good window to give yourself enough time to start developing your new habit without feeling overwhelmed.
Once you’ve reached that threshold, keep going and set goals for the next week and the next. If you miss a few days, don’t give up on your new behavior. Instead, come back to it.
One New Habit at a Time
“Starting today I’m going to eat a serving of vegetables with every meal, bike to work, read for an hour each day and get 8 hours of sleep every night.” Sound familiar? This cocktail of new ambitions is a recipe for failure. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Pick one new habit to work on at a time.
For some of us, we need to start not just small, but teeny-tiny. That’s perfectly okay. For example, if you want to start getting up early to exercise before work, your starting point might be setting your alarm a half hour early for the first week, then adding the exercise once this early rising becomes routine. And remember, starting small doesn’t mean your goal needs to be.
Want to start running or walking more? Set out your running shoes and exercise clothes on your bed. Looking at adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet? Get those apples and carrots out of the crisper and put them front and center in your fridge. Cutting back on your TV time? Tape a big sign to your television as a great big visual reminder of your goals.
Build Off Current Habits
Use the habits you already have and build your new habits into them. For example, if you’re trying to get a handle on household chores, use your daily coffee-making routine and put away the dishes while your pot is brewing. If you read before bed each night, considering doing 20 push-ups and sit-ups before you pick up that book. And try and stick to a consistent time of day. Just as our current habits can be triggers for new ones, time of day can be a cue as well.
Repeat. Then Repeat Again and Again
Whatever your desired behavior, repeat it as much as possible. Try and commit to doing this new behavior every day. It may be challenging, but the more your new routine is repeated the more likely it is to stick and become habit.
Be Specific and Write it Down
“Get more sleep” is a great new habit to introduce. But it’s too vague. Be specific about the routine you want to change and write down your plan for making this habit stick. Change “get more sleep” into “I’ll be in bed each evening at 9 p.m. and I’ll leave my phone and all electronics on the kitchen counter, outside of my bedroom.”
Be careful when it comes to rewards. Sometimes, when we reward ourselves for meeting new goals, it becomes more about the prize and less about our big-picture objective. If you decide to give yourself a little something extra, make sure your rewards don’t compete with your new behaviors. It doesn’t make sense to have a piece of cake as an incentive if you’re looking at introducing healthy eating habits into your daily routine.
Consider researching the benefits of your new habit and how this new behavior in itself is a reward to your overall health or lifestyle. Or simply give yourself a little pep talk now and again. Made it through your first day? Great job! Tell yourself “great job.” Be your own best advocate.