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How to Make Good Habits Stick

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I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions because I don’t know why we feel compelled to wait for a certain starting day to begin being the people we want to be. However, I realize this is a widespread tradition so I’m posting this article today when many people will commit to forming new, good habits.

If you follow these tips, you won’t be asking “what resolutions?” come February. Instead, you’ll be so pleased with how you’ve bettered your life that you’ll tackle another good habit goal.

Although I spout a lot of my own opinions, when it comes to behavior change, I rely on the experts. I don’t want someone’s opinion about how to permanently change my behavior, I want empirical evidence so that I know it will work.

These tips for habit development are based on scientific research, not my random ramblings. If you follow these guidelines, you will be successful in changing your behavior.

a brick background with title text reading How to Make Good Habits Stick

Choose ONE New Habit

When you decide to build a better you, it’s tempting to tackle all areas of your life at once: relationships, health, career, etc. Studies show that individuals who focus on a single behavior change meet their goals faster and enjoy better long-term success than those who tackle multiple goals at once.

Make a Plan and Write it Down

Even if you never look at it again, writing down your goals is an essential step in achieving them. First of all, it forces you to think about exactly what you want to achieve. Second, it compels you to create a plan for meeting your goals. Third, this process of defining your goals and designing a course of action helps you visualize your transformation which is a proven technique in successful habit formation.

Under Commit

Since your intention is to develop a lifelong habit, don’t sabotage your success by sprinting out of the starting gate. If your goal is to exercise every day for 30 minutes, only commit to exercising for 5 minutes a day. It’s much easier to convince yourself to make time to exercise for 5 minutes than it is to motivate yourself for a half hour workout and chances are that once you get started, you’ll work out longer anyway. Psychologically, you won’t feel defeated since you’ve set your goal so low, and thus, easily achievable.

The problem with new habits is that they’re new! Since we haven’t established the habit yet, a lot of times we simply don’t do it because we forget it. Want to start flossing every day? Leave the floss on the counter next to your toothbrush. When I reviewed Prevagen (the memory pill) I had to set the bottle of pills right next to the coffee maker, which is my first stop in the kitchen each morning. When I reviewed the Ageless Derma skin brightener, I left the container on my bathroom counter so I saw it first thing in the morning and last thing at night and thus, never forgot to apply it.

Use If-Then Planning

If-then planning is a proven technique in developing new habits. You can use it in three ways. First, you can use it to link a new habit to an existing one (see above as to why that works). For example, if I have coffee in the morning, then I will eat a piece of fruit. Second, you can use it to motivate yourself to perform your new habit or excuse yourself without sacrificing your goals (e.g. If I am too tired to go for a walk, I will do 100 jumping jacks instead). Finally, you can use it to reward yourself which is a highly effective motivation strategy that allows you to celebrate your success and enjoy a reward. For example, if I sweep the kitchen floor every day this week, then I will enjoy a bubble bath Saturday night.

Don’t Assign a Deadline

I know a lot of people have heard the theory that if you do something consistently for 21 days (or 30 days or 60 days), it will become a habit. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, but the research doesn’t support it. Each person is different. While it’s true that some people might form a lifelong habit after daily practice for a month, some people take up to a year and the average is actually 6 months. The point of developing a new habit is to make a permanent change in your life, so choosing an arbitrary date in the future at which point you will have considered yourself successful is pointless. Instead, view each day that you perform the habit as a success and take your eyes off the calendar.

Count on Peer Pressure

We are social creatures so it matters to us a lot what other people think. If you REALLY want to stick to your new habit, publicize your goal. Tell your friends and family. Create an online log of your progress. Join a group of individuals with similar goals. Your peers will encourage and motivate you, and the pressure of their expectations will help keep you on task even when your stamina is waning.

Minimize Decision Making

Several studies have shown that decision making is a mentally tiring endeavor. Having too many choices can be demotivating. If you’ve ever gone grocery shopping with coupons and had to spend 5 minutes determining the best value on cereal, you understand this phenomenon. Tackling a new habit takes mental and physical energy so you want to save as much of it as possible. Look at the other areas of your life and simplify as much as possible. Instead of spending hours coming up with an innovative meal plan and then grocery list each week, come up with a two-week rotation of meals. Yes, this may be boring, but you’ll be saving time, energy, and stress. Likewise, establish two weeks of outfits and stop wasting time deciding what to wear each day.

Don’t Abandon Ship When You Make a Mistake

Dieters are familiar with this phenomenon. After weeks of sticking to a strict diet, you slip up and binge on dessert. “Well, I’ve blown the diet, might as well enjoy myself” is what many of us say at this point and then we’re so disappointed in ourselves for losing control, we console ourselves with more food, convinced we’re failures when it comes to dieting. To combat this self-sabotage, keep a running total of your number of success days and DON’T restart it if you slip up—just don’t count the slip up day in your total. If you focus on the 87 days you succeeded in eating right, instead of the one day you weren’t perfect, it’s easier to stay on track. By the way, research shows that missing an occasional day doesn’t significantly impact habit development so you really aren’t undoing all of your hard work when you make a mistake.

24 thoughts on “How to Make Good Habits Stick”

  1. These are really great decisions. I think you have to have goals that are reasonable if you are going to even have “goals” or “resolutions.” The most important one is the last one – don’t quit just because you didn’t commit for a day.

  2. I totally agree about the undercommit tip. I’ve made the mistake way too many times about taking on too much too soon and then feeling overwhelmed and quitting!

  3. This is a fabulous post! I have decided to quit sabotaging my life and these tips are going to help me do that! Thank you for adding to my decision. Happy New Year!

  4. Pingback: Improve Your Fitness This Year | WONDERMOM WANNABE
  5. I think focusing on one bad habit at a time is a great idea. I’m sure that it helps if you are focused on just one task at a time.

  6. Those are all great tips, I made a mistake in really under doing it for my goal for last year though and I did step it up a bit this year. I also never really start my goals on New Years day, I start them once I make them as there is no set day to try something new. I agree the 21 and 30 day makes it a habit does not work or I would not still need my Diet Cherry Pepsi in the morning, lol. I can give it up for a month and then one day have to have it and it is all down hill again.

  7. Those are great tips. This year I decided instead of resolutions to set goals. I have been working on them and think I have came up with a few good ones.

    • I think the peer pressure is best. If everyone is bothering you, then you are more likely to reach your goals. Happy new year.

  8. Most people do not stick to their new year resolutions however this year I am determined to become more healthy and lose weight. I am very excited about meeting all my goals in 2014. These are some great tips you have listed to help people stick to their goals. Happy New Years.

  9. Thank you so great tips – I’m good at thinking up things I should improve on but making those good thoughts stick is oh so often my stumbling block. x

  10. We all need to practice good habits. I need to write my plans down more often… that way I can cross them off as I do them and move on to the next one. I bet I would get much more done that way.

  11. I like the idea of under-committing. I think it’s one of my weaknesses… I tend to want to start things with a bang and it eventually dies down. I’d love to be able to stick to my good habits instead of go back to bad ones so quickly..

  12. Those are great tips to make it work! Without a game plan that is specific like this, making resolutions just don’t work. So having a specific game plan on how you will achieve your new goals really makes a difference.

  13. awesome advice on starting a new habit. I was once told if you could do something for a month it would automatically become a habit will have t try it

  14. I’m really bad at sticking to new habits. Especially for things like working out, or eat healthy. I know those are things i NEDD to be doing but i just can’t stick to it (for long). One habit I wish to keep though is my blogging. I went one week without blogging for lack of things to blog about. But I found out the more I blog the more I have to blog about. So will get into the habit of blogging at least 3 times a week.

  15. I think all of these are spot on! I do like to set dates for some of my goals though. I find that it helps me actually *do* them, rather than just having a nebulous thing hanging over my head. But that’s definitely a personal preference/issue.

  16. I like the idea of under committing. I always have this big plan in my head about doing something for longer than is realistic. If I plan on less time and do more I feel so good about myself afterwards.

  17. Great tips on how to change habits without losing your mind over it! I do have a few in mind for this coming year but I have yet to formulate a plan of action-actually I have started but since I have resolved to make no resolutions this year I will keep it under wraps for now!

  18. Great tips. I especially like the tip about linking a new habit to an old one. I have always been a fan or writing things down and feel it is necessary to keep on track. Thanks for sharing!


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