There is a big chance that you connect the building of new habits and goals to the good old New Years’ resolutions. We’ve probably all been there: setting up a (maybe even endless) list of desired new accomplishments to achieve in the year to come. Skipping out the bad habits, building new ones, and more importantly: stick to them.
But what if we stopped waiting for the new year to start – and started now? Because simple as it is: the earlier you start, the earlier you see the benefits. It’s easier than you think. With 9 simple steps, we’ll guide you along on how to build new habits, make them stick, stay focus and achieve your goal.
What is a habit?
Habit [hab-it] – noun, /ˈhæb.ɪt/: something you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it.
Or, in other words: a pattern of behavior you follow consistently until it becomes almost involuntary. Think, in this case, about self-evident actions such as brushing your teeth morning before you go to work, waiting at a red traffic light, and crossing it when the light turns green. These simple patterns are so wired in our brain, that they result in us doing these seemingly ‘basic’ things without even thinking about it or making an effort. Sounds easy, right?
How do you develop strong habits step by step?
As listed above, you can probably feel what is coming: developing new habits all comes down to consistency. With the help of these 9 easy steps, habits are formed, built, and stuck to in a matter of seconds. Whether you are going to eliminate or change bad ones or create new good ones.
Step 1: Start small, with low commitment
As Rome wasn’t built in a day, habits are certainly not either. Start small and create an accessible new habit – a slight change in your everyday life. A common pitfall in setting new goals is wanting to move too fast – with the result of loss in motivation and feeling discouraged. Example: let’s say your goal is to read, every day, for 1,5 hours. A good start would be 15 minutes a day, and to slowly build up from there: accessible, low commitment.
Step 2: Write your habits down
There is probably a good reason why you want to integrate that new habit into your daily life. Maybe it helps you to reach a certain target weight or maybe you use it to practice and gain a new skill. Not only writing down your new habits is important to set them clear in your mind, but repeatedly writing them down also helps you to remember them better.
Besides writing down the habit itself, don’t forget to include the benefits and the goal as well: why is this habit so important, and what will it bring you if you stick to it? Maybe you could even determine a role model for this specific habit: someone who has already incorporated it in their life and maybe even reached numerous goals with it. Where is this person now and what did it bring him or her?
Step 3: Habit Stacking
The building of habits and the science behind them is a much-debated topic nowadays. Many books are published – so to say, the term “habit stacking” is detailedly discussed in the book Atomic Habits by James Clear: “One of the best ways to build a new, healthy habit is to identify a current habit you already do each day and then stack your new behavior on top. This is called habit stacking”.
For example, to continue on the reading example as discussed above: let’s say, that when you come home from work, you always take a moment to sit down and drink tea. Connect this moment to reading that book for 15 minutes, keep repeating it like you do every workday, and a new habit is formed.
Step 4: Commit to a period
Given the fact that it will take some time for the habit to stick and adapt, prepare yourself to invest in repeating and following the habit for a certain period. As there exist many magic numbers (the 21/90 rule, 30 days, 60 days) that promise to be the number of days to make a habit stick, where other studies prove that it takes between 18 and 254 days.
Long story short: habits take time. Depending on a combination of several things, such as the matter of investment, clearness of your habits, and consistency: sooner or later, the habit will stick.
Step 5: Establish a trigger
This trigger, or cue, is a small action that activates you and your brain to perform the habit. For example, if running every morning for 30 minutes as an exercise is your desired habit, find something that triggers your brain into doing it, such as laying out your running outfit the evening before the morning you run. Performing this action is going to eventually result in your brain knowing exactly what to do if this trigger occurs: a habit.
Step 6: Reward yourself
Forming a new habit, and sticking to it for a certain amount of time is an accomplishment. And accomplishments, they deserve to be celebrated – in this case, with a reward. Rewarding yourself creates positive emotions in your brain – realizing that the efforts you have made, lead to a positive reward. Repeat this and your brain will link pleasure to completing the task, using it as a new form of motivation.
Step 7: Repeat, repeat, repeat.
There it is again: consistency is key – and it will take some energy. However, we’re all human. Even though you’re probably not aiming for it to happen, it likely will: missing a day and ‘breaking’ the healthy habit streak. As long as you avoid skipping out on your habit twice in a row, it will not break your habit routine. But, the more repetitions of the habit you miss, the harder it is to get back into it.
Step 8: Track your habits
A habit tracker can provide a helpful push in the back you need, whether it’s in the form of an app, a bullet journal, or a calendar. It creates a trigger to act again when seeing the number of weeks or even months you’ve already been sticking to your habits. Next to that, using an app can help you form this trigger – by using a notification, for example. In the end, tracking your habits and looking back on them creates a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and satisfaction: and that’s exactly what will keep you going.
Step 9: Find an accountability partner
Last, but not least important: find yourself a buddy in your habit-building process. Studies have proven that this form of motivation is highly effective. Not only creates it togetherness and a feeling of unity, but this accountability partner can be the last bit of motivation you need when you tend to give up. Because, how likely are you to give up your weekly exercise if there’s someone you would have to bail out on? Exactly.
Depending on the type of habit, find someone close to you, who you can depend on, and even better: someone who has the same or a similar habit to build. This way, you can support each other on the road to success!
How to Build New Habits and Make Them Stick (video)
Here is a video that will help you building new habits
How do you break a bad habit?
As both bad and good habits work with the so-called habit loop, it is key to understand what the habit loop is for this specific habit. It is key to recognize your bad habit first and determine the pattern of it. What is the trigger or cue that makes you perform this bad habit? And at which moments are you most likely to perform it? How does the routine work, and what is the ‘reward’ the habit gives you?
Once you can determine these facts, it becomes easier to change it and even replace it for a good habit. Let’s say you want to quit eating sweets, and this is something you do after every meal. When you replace your habit with something else, for example drinking a glass of water, or taking a short walk, your attention is distracted from the sweets: the habit loop is interrupted.
Why is it so hard to break a bad habit?
To come back to the habit loop: as our brain reacts to the reward part of it – with the release of a chemical called dopamine (which gives us pleasure) – bad habits are even harder to break.
According to Russell Poldrack, an American psychologist and neuroscientist and professor of Psychology at Stanford University, when dopamine is present at the moment you perform the habit, it strengthens the habit itself even more. The chemical makes us create a craving to perform the habit again – and thus get rewarded.
What is the 21/90 rule?
The famous 21/90 rule states that it will take you 21 days to form a new habit, and 90 days before it becomes a lifestyle. Unfortunately, this ‘rule’ has been blown out of proportion, due to many repetitions of it. It was originally found by a cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz. As he wrote the book “Psycho-Cybernetics, A New Way To Get More Living Out of Life”, he recommended people to practice self-affirmations and positive actions for 21 days to make them a habit.
To come back to the rule being blown out of proportion: this rule for the surgeon himself was only based on his observations and no proven fact. But, people started repeating it so often that it became a myth. 21 sounds, if you think about it, just too good to be true. And it is. A health psychology researcher, Philippa Lally examined the routines of 96 different people over twelve weeks and discovered that it takes around 18 to 254 days to build a new habit.
How to change habits?
You can easily change habits by replacing them for good, new habits. As you will repeat and perform them as much as the habits you want to get rid of, it will be easier to adapt them to your daily life. The nine steps listed above, are also highly applicable to changing habits.
How long does it take to form a habit?
It takes between 18 to 254 days to form a new habit.
If there is one thing that certainly helps you forming new, healthy habits and sticking to them, it’s without a doubt recurrence and consistency. The most important part to your habit-forming journey is to realize that there is no right or wrong, meaning that some habits are easier to create than others, and it also depends on the person: some may develop habits easier than others. There are different ways that will help you. The only timeline that matters is the one that suits you best. Don’t give up!
If you have any questions regarding healthy habits – feel free to ask them below!