Lean on an established habit, and use its sturdiness as a foundation on which to build a new habit.

I’m full of ideas about what I’d like to change about my life, but when it comes down to actually making a change, I become daunted. Building a new habit can take a lot of work, and my efforts keep fizzling out— despite all that willpower I pour into it. All the energy I spent forcing myself to do pilates every day, for example, wasn’t really worth it, if I’m back to lying around, two weeks later, with no new muscle tone to show for it.

Building a good habit is a beautiful thing because, once it’s cemented into your life, you’re golden. Then, it’s not hard anymore; it’s just normal. A habit makes a task a hundred times easier to do and do consistently. That’s the dream, right? But how do we get there?

Get the hook

Because willpower is the key to the whole thing, it’s hard to get started. If the whole habit is riding on your determination and willpower and nothing else, you can bet it’s not going to be easy right away. But I have found a trick that makes building good habits easier. If you can find a “hook” to hang your new habit on, you’re not starting from scratch. You’re already halfway there.

Here’s what it looks like. I’m terrible about housework, but somehow, come hell or high water, the dishwasher gets loaded every evening. That’s because my husband always calls me from work at his 8:30 break each evening, and I like to have something to do while I’m talking. The dishwasher is just something that’s easy to do with one hand, and I’ve been doing this for so long that it’s basically muscle memory now. I used to have to think about it, but at this point, my body just starts on the dishes right after I pick up the phone.

The phone call is the “hook.” It’s already an immovable anchor in my day. I’m going to be on the phone no matter what, so it was easy to tie the dishwasher habit to the phone call. It took a lot less willpower since there was already a natural time-slot set aside for it.

I have found that finding a “hook” on which to hang a new habit removes a little bit of that initial burden of willpower. The hook could be any habit that already comes easily to you. You can lean on an established habit and use its sturdiness as a strong foundation on which to build a new habit.

Building new habits on old habits

Have you always wanted to read more actual, printed books? It may be hard to make yourself block out a random half-hour of your day for reading time. Instead, take a book to the table when you’re eating breakfast or lunch. You’re already used to sitting down at that time of day, and adding a book to the mix is easy. Leave your book on the counter where you can see it, and you’ve made it twice as easy.

Are you trying to work out more? I do a lot of my core-building exercises while I am (don’t judge me) watching Netflix. I’m already lying down and staying still! It’s a lot less painful since I didn’t have to squeeze time out of a busy day for an activity that’s absolutely boring to me, on its own. Or if there’s a podcast you listen to, listen to it while you go for a run. You’re already in the habit of listening, so you can tie your new habit in with the one that’s already fun and easy.

Hooks don’t just work with good habits, though. When it comes to breaking bad habits, it helps to be aware of every activity that we unthinkingly tie to another one. For instance, I am firmly in the habit of opening Facebook whenever I sit down on my bed with my laptop. Turns out, I get a lot more work done if I just move my body to the kitchen table. The kitchen and Facebook aren’t so firmly tied together in my mind, so I don’t have to fight as hard to not open up my social media. It takes less willpower to do the right thing.

Forming a lasting habit is that much harder when you’re relying on willpower alone—when your new baby habit is weakest. If your willpower fails you regularly enough, the habit is never going to take. And that’s why the hook tip is so genius. If you’re working with habits you’ve already established to get your new thing going, even if the new habit is unfamiliar, you’re still on firm ground and have a better shot at success.