It’s that time of year again. Gyms are more crowded, self-help books are flying off the shelves, and budgets are transformed. Whether you love them or hate them, goals for self-improvement—in the form of New Year’s resolutions—pop up everywhere each January. But research suggests about 50 to 80 percent of eager resolution-makers fail.
Most New Year’s resolutions tend to be habits disguised as goals—eat better, work out more, sleep longer. And habits are crucial: They’re the “invisible architecture of daily life,” explains happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin in her book, Better than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits—to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life.
In fact, Rubin writes, about 40 percent of our behavior is repeated almost daily. Consider putting on contacts, commuting to work, checking your email. These actions become your routine (which Rubin describes as “a string of habits”).
But giving up added sugar? Committing to exercising five days a week? Waking up an hour before your alarm is typically set? Doing dishes right away instead of letting them sit in the sink? All of these behaviors may take more effort than something like brushing your teeth every night.
But when our brains make behaviors into habits, Rubin explains, effort is conserved. “Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control,” she writes. In short, “Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish.”
So how do you make a habit stick, once and for all? Here are three strategies from experts on the topic.
01. Make it convenient
Rubin is clear in her book that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for creating good habits—knowing yourself and which methods work for you is key.
That said, she writes that convenience is the most universal habit-formation strategy. From raiding hotel minibars to making impulse buys in the checkout line, “convenience shapes everything we do,” she observes. Convenience is even worth an investment, because it has such a big impact on our habits: Rubin shares how she finally decided to rent a gym locker so she wouldn’t have to deal with transporting items every time she went to work out. That, in turn, helped her to make it to the gym more frequently. So if you want to cook more at home but struggle with finding time to frequent the grocery store, consider ordering groceries online weekly.
Rubin sums it up this way: “Make it easy to do right, and hard to go wrong.”
02. Share your “why”
High performers share their “why”s confidently with themselves and with others, Brendon Burchard writes in his book High Performance Habits: How Extraordinary People Become That Way. Sharing creates social consequences and obligation, he explains. Affirming something, even out loud to ourselves, puts our word—and integrity—on the line.
“When we verbalize something, it becomes more real and important to us,” Burchard says. “It becomes more necessary for us to live in alignment with that truth.”
So share your workout calendar or let people know you’re starting a Whole30, and remember to share why you’re doing what you’re doing. It may give you that extra push to stay consistent and committed.
03. Reward yourself
Ideally, “the reward for a good habit is the habit itself,” writes James Clear in Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. But that’s not how we usually feel when we start cultivating a habit. First, there’s sacrifice—and weeks or months of effort before any noticeable change.
Immediate rewards are vital for staying on track, even as longer-term rewards are building up in the background, Clear writes. “We all want better lives for our future selves. However, when the moment of decision arrives, instant gratification usually wins,” he says.
To combat this, find an immediate reward for yourself to motivate a certain behavior. For instance, if you’re trying to make your own coffee instead of splurging at Starbucks, move five dollars over to your savings account every morning you succeed. Pick something to do with that money, like a vacation or a luxury item you’ve had your eye on. Saving the money feels satisfying and less like you’re depriving yourself, Clear writes. He calls this the “Cardinal Rule of Behavior Change”: “What is rewarded is repeated. What is punished is avoided.”
Whether you aspire to ditch something you know is harmful or adopt a beneficial behavior, keep in mind that habits shape your future, Rubin says.
Making New Year’s resolutions is easy. Cultivating new habits takes hard work and planning. But we can harness the “extraordinary power of habit” to change our lives and help us become happier. As Rubin says, “We take our hands off the wheel of decision, our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise control of habits.”