I’ve always wanted to spend more time indulging my inner artist, but I haven’t ever gotten around to it. Every once in a while, I’ll resolve to spend time with my watercolors or draw. But inevitably, my practice never lasts more than a few days.
I suspect that you, too, might have a few goals you haven’t gotten around to. Why is it so hard to sustain a habit that is good for us? Luckily, there is a great deal of insightful research to demystify this question. Whether it’s going to the gym three times a week or setting aside time to de-stress every day, it’s worth the investment. Here’s how.
01. Ask Yourself, “Why Am I Doing This?”
Before you jump headfirst into a new habit, take time to outline your reasons for doing so. Framing the “why” of your habit in language that resonates with you will help you stay committed. The British Journal of General Practice found that if you aren’t invested in the habit, it’s less likely to stick. For example, “I want to feel more energetic. Going to the gym will boost my energy and increase my confidence.” This will be much more effective than, “I should sign up for a 10K because all my coworkers are.” When you’re tempted to flake, it will be helpful to remind yourself why you’re doing it. Your initial reason will continue to motivate you.
02. Be Specific About Setting Your Goal.
The more specific you are about the habit you want to form, the easier it will be to put it into practice, says sociologist Christine Whalen in an interview with the Washington Post. If your goal is simply to work out more, it will be hard for you to sustain that habit because you haven’t been clear about what that looks like in action.
Plan out every aspect, but be realistic. You’ll have more success if you know what your habit will look like. How long will it take, and what time of day will you do it? For instance, “I want to go to the gym three times a week at 7 a.m. for forty-five minutes. I will do twenty minutes of cardio, twenty minutes of weights, and five minutes of stretching.” That sounds a lot more specific! It will be easier for you to visualize what you need to do to jump-start and maintain your new habit if you have a better road map.
03. Find Out What Motivates You.
Another effective way to make sure your new habit sticks is to identify what motivates you. In Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better Than Before, she says most people fall into one of four tendencies: Upholders, Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers. If you find that fulfilling expectations set by both yourself and others is easy, you’re an Upholder. If you find that an expectation has to make sense to you before you feel motivated to meet it, you fit the Questioner type. If your preferred style is defying expectations, you’re likely a Rebel. If you find it hard to meet your own expectations but thrive on meeting others’ expectations, you’re an Obliger. Knowing what motivates you can help you tailor an approach to your new habit. You can take the four tendencies quiz here.
When I took the quiz, I found out that I am an Obliger. External expectations are a stronger motivator for me than my inner expectations. When I want to try something new, Rubin recommends that an Obliger like me sign up for a class. Or I should make some other kind of external commitment to help me stick to my habit. I had been wanting to try incorporating the TRX into my workout but (surprise!) never got around to it. Keeping in mind that external expectations motivate me most, I committed to attending a TRX class at my gym. I paid to attend, my instructor and classmates expect me to attend, and it’s held at a set time each week. I never miss a class. It works!
04. Set Reminders.
When first starting out, it will be difficult to incorporate your new habit into your everyday routine. Tangible reminders can help. Setting reminders on your phone is a great option. Or you can go old-school with a sticky note in a prominent place, such as your bathroom mirror or computer monitor.
Experts also suggest pairing the new habit with what the British Journal of General Practice calls a “context clue.” A context clue is a behavior that’s already part of your daily routine. You’ll trigger your brain when you engage in the old habit, and you’ll remember to incorporate the new habit. If you’d like to journal every day, consider putting your notebook and pen by your coffeemaker. When you make coffee each morning, you’ll see the notebook and be more likely to journal as you sip your morning cup. Your coffeemaker is the context clue. Interested in a morning or evening workout? Leave an unrolled yoga mat at the foot of your bed. Hope to drink more water? Keep a filled water bottle on your nightstand at home and on your desk at work. Once your new habit becomes automatic, you know you’ve had success.
05. Set (and Celebrate!) Milestones.
Several experts liken forming a habit to running a marathon, not a sprint. You may have heard that it takes about twenty-one days to form a new habit. But new research indicates that it actually takes much longer. Health psychology researcher Phillippa Lally and her team found that it takes about sixty-six days for a new habit to stick. That might seem like a long time, but setting intermediary goals can help break up the monotony. Celebrate your ability to sustain a habit for two weeks, then one month, six weeks, etc. Give yourself a pat on the back for running a mile without stopping. Then reward yourself for running your first 5K. These milestones are important markers for the progress you’ve made. Don’t be afraid to honor them in special ways.
06. Hold Yourself Accountable.
Holding yourself accountable for forming your new habit lends serious staying power. Depending on the habit, this might involve having a friend check in with you to see how you’re progressing. Or it might be a simple checklist. You can also try the “Jerry Seinfeld Method.” Seinfeld told an aspiring comic that the best way to become a better comic was to write every day. When he was first starting out, he bought a huge calendar. He would place a large X on the calendar for each day he spent time writing. After a few days, he would have a nice chain, and his goal became to not break the chain. Knowing that skipping one day of your new habit breaks that satisfying chain of X’s can be enough motivation to keep you going. There’s even a Seinfeld Calendar App (seriously).
Other ways to hold yourself accountable include keeping accurate records and reviewing them, using social media to keep track of your goals and progress, or joining a team challenge. Small rewards are another satisfying option. One woman puts $1 into a jar for every healthy meal and workout she achieves. Every twenty-eight days, she treats herself to a well-deserved reward.
07. Keep Your New Habit Simple.
Your new habit might mean a significant lifestyle change. But going all in right from the start might be discouraging. The British Journal of General Practice article on habits recommends focusing on making small, manageable changes. If you want to journal or meditate every day for twenty minutes, begin with setting aside five minutes daily. Add a few minutes each week until you’ve reached twenty minutes. Easing into the habit is a better way to set yourself up for lasting success.
Starting a new habit might seem daunting at first—“You mean I am planning to do this every day for the rest of my life?” But remember that you’ve been brushing your teeth twice a day since you were a kid, and you rarely even think about it. All it takes is smart planning and a little determination. Soon your new practice will become as automatic as brushing your teeth. And you’ll be healthier and happier for it.