Building new habits can feel overwhelming, and frankly, a little bit daunting. Sometimes we get discouraged when something magically doesn’t stick after a couple of weeks.
It goes a little like this. You enthusiastically create a plan on Sunday: Exercise five times a week, get to bed by 10 p.m., meditate every morning and again before bed, and so on. You wake up Monday morning determined to follow your new plan and you do, for about two days. Then something unexpected pops up—a sick kid, a work deadline, a traffic jam on your commute home—and you miss your workout that day. Suddenly your slightly derailed routine spirals into a domino effect where one thing after another falls off. From there, it’s easy to slip into “all-or-nothing” thinking and give up entirely. Pretty soon, it’s Sunday again. You promise yourself to do better next week.
If you can relate, you’re not alone! And even better news—your inability to stick to new habits says nothing about you or a lack of willpower. Research suggests it takes 66 days on average to form a habit. With some time and patience, plus some strategies to set you up for success, you’ll be well on your way. Here are our best tips and tricks for establishing new habits and sticking to them.
One of the easiest ways to start a new habit is to attach it to one you already have. The TV host, best-selling author, and podcaster Dr. Rangan Chatterjee—a big proponent of stacking habits—does a five-minute workout every morning while his coffee brews. He explained why this helps him stay consistent in a 2021 inews.co.uk article: “The reason I very rarely miss a day is not because I have more motivation than anyone else, it’s because I understand human behaviour. If you want to make a new habit stick: 1) make it easy, and 2) attach your new desired behaviour to an existing habit.” It’s as simple as using things you already do throughout the day to remind you to do your new habit. Hold a plank for two minutes between Netflix episodes, meditate for a few minutes while your tea steeps, or do 10 squats at the end of every bathroom break. By coupling something you already do with a new habit you want to adopt, you’ll have a better chance of sticking with the latter.
So small, in fact, that it may seem insignificant. Expanding on why easy habits work, Dr. Chatterjee explains the thinking behind his quick daily workout: “Five minutes is ideal because if we make it too challenging, we are just setting ourselves up for failure when we have a stressful, busy day.” Further, if your ultimate goal is to move your body for at least 30 minutes a day, begin with what’s known as a “gateway habit.” Getting dressed in activewear might be your first step. After a couple of days, follow getting dressed with a 5-minute walk. Slowly build up to 15 minutes and continue until you reach your goal. Starting this small may not seem like a big deal, but it’s important, because you’re doing the toughest part—showing up.
Taking those baby steps reinforces the identity you want to build, too. If you want to be someone who’s active, you will be. Even if you’re moving just five minutes a day, that counts. You’re someone who’s active! The more you do this, the more it becomes part of who you are and requires little to no thinking. You just do it.
James Clear, author of the No. 1 New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits, recommends a tactic related to stacking habits called “temptation bundling.” The idea here is to link something you want to do with something you should do—and research shows it works. For example, listen to your favorite podcast only while going on walks—every minute listening is a minute walking. Or, watch your favorite TV show only while you do strength-building moves (like squats, wall push-ups, or planks). The benefits are pretty obvious: You’ll find your new, not-so-easy activity or habit much more enticing if you also get to do something you truly enjoy at the same time.
Our surroundings tend to influence our behavior, whether we realize it or not. Here are a few simple examples of how you might make your environment more conducive to staying on track:
Trying to reduce your portion size at meal times? Use smaller plates.
Want to eliminate blue light exposure before bed? Remove the TV from your bedroom.
Hoping to stay away from sweets? Toss out any sugary foods lingering in your house, and put out fresh fruit in plain sight on your kitchen counter or table.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present to limit a set of choices in the future. For example, if you’re trying to curb a takeout habit, you might prepare nutritious meals on the weekends and portion out food into containers you can easily reach for during a busy week. Or if you’re hoping to take one yoga class every week, you could book it ahead of time and slate it on your calendar, blocking off time as you would for a doctor’s appointment.
Support from family, friends, and peers is always helpful as you try to build new, healthier habits. And tapping into a community that’s on a similar journey can do wonders for you emotionally and morally speaking, and give you a place to share triumphs and successes. The Found Facebook community is an amazing place to start. You can also lean on a friend as an accountability partner. Knowing you’re not alone and sending your buddy a quick message about your wins and slip-ups in practicing a new habit can go a long way toward helping you stay committed.
Slipping up occasionally doesn’t affect your ability to form a new habit, according to research. You’re in this for the long run—give yourself permission to make a mistake. Missing, say, one 5-minute meditation won’t undo your progress. It’s when you miss it day after day that might cause you to spiral off track. Instead of making yourself feel guilty, recommit to your habit. Prioritize that meditation the next day, and move on—don’t feel you have to make up for what you missed or do some kind of penance. It’s not the end of the world if you recognize what happened and continue to move toward your goal.
Remember, those good habits you’re building—even if they’re small—deserve to be recognized. So celebrate those little wins. Did you keep up with your 10 squats every time you took a bathroom break? Share in the Found community and give yourself a high-five. Trying to eat out less? Set aside $10 every time you cook at home and put it toward a special trip or purchase. Treat yourself along the way because practicing new habits takes work, and you’re doing it. Plus, rewards are great motivators to keep on going!
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