No matter how well-intentioned we are about forming better habits, we usually have trouble making them stick. Why don’t good habits quickly become as automatic as buckling a seat belt or turning off the faucet? Most of us blame our lack of willpower or motivation, but maybe we’re just taking the wrong approach.
Here are seven ideas for making good habits stick:
1. Pick Your Timing
Never make a resolution two weeks before a scheduled surgery or just after learning that your boss has been replaced.
Start a new habit when you’re caught up in normal life and not under unusual stress. Pick a time when your days will be fairly routine for a while.
2. Be Specific
Hardly anyone who resolves to eat healthier, get more exercise or write the great American novel succeeds. Those goals are just too broad.
Make your goals very specific. For example, select 10 healthy meals that you’ll stick to at lunch. Choose three exercises that are easy to do every day at home. Resolve to write at least 500 words per day, not 5,000.
People who don’t set specific goals or make plans wind up driving through the fried chicken place at lunchtime.
3. Start Small
If you suddenly decide to get up earlier and run 5 miles every day, you’re setting yourself up for epic failure.
Instead, shoot for running 2 miles once or twice a week. Gradually, work your way up. Even something like 5 minutes daily will get you into the habit of running consistently each morning. Approach new habits as though you were wading into the shallow end of a pool. Get used to the water before you do a cannonball from the high diving board. Everything is less daunting this way.
4. Focus on Lifestyle Changes Rather Than End Results
Instead of imagining your new life after shedding 50 pounds, focus on day-to-day changes that will result in weight loss and a healthier, happier you. Visualize yourself in a dance class with friends or on a bike ride with your spouse. Looking at the little picture rather than the big one will reduce anxiety and give you patience with yourself.
5. Give It Time and Track Your Progress
Contrary to conventional thinking, habits rarely form in just 21 days. Scientists actually put the number closer to 66 days.
Keep a calendar, but don’t let interruptions discourage you if you miss a day here and there. Mark off each of your successes, and watch them add up.
6. Identify Obstacles
Before you give in to defeat, spend some time pinpointing the things that are holding you back from achieving your broader goal.
If your running shoes are uncomfortable, invest in a new pair. If you can’t control your drinking at happy hour, see a movie instead or plan another activity you enjoy. If you fall asleep while trying to read through the classics in bed each night, don’t change into pajamas so early. Relocate to a comfortable chair where there’s a good source of light.
7. Use Your Head
Finally, trust your brain to do its part.
Nothing can turn resolutions into daily habits like the brain. It snaps to attention whenever new information or muscle movement is introduced. It notices the tiniest changes and learns to repeat them. If an NBA star’s free throws appear effortless, it’s because he spends countless hours in the gym shooting over and over again. Because his brain kicks in when it recognizes familiar motions, the athlete hardly has to think about lining up his shots. They come naturally to him.
Thanks to the brain, repetition eventually results in habits that stick for good. Nourish your brain with healthy foods, physically activity and adequate sleep.