When it comes to setting healthy habits (whether on January 1 or any other day of the year), we often go about it the wrong way. We give ourselves two options: go big or go home. Something along the lines of, ‘Starting tomorrow, I’m going to give up all processed food, junk food, caffeine, dairy, and sugar and eat salad 5 times a day.’ Not surprisingly, these expectations are often unrealistic, and set us up for failure. Then we hear all about it from our inner self-critic.
While there’s no right or wrong way to go about changing our behaviors — what worked for your sister-in-law or your best friend won’t necessarily be the best approach for you — there are some strategies that behavioral scientists say can help set us up for success.
Here are some tips, backed by research, to help you form a new habit—and make it stick.
“Stack” your habits
The best way to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing habit, experts say. This means looking for things you routinely do throughout your day and using those existing habits as a “cue” that prompts you to take some type of action.
It’s called habit stacking, and here’s how it works: Most of us have fairly consistent morning (and evening) routines: We wake up, have our coffee or tea, eat breakfast, brush our teeth. So any of those would be a great place to “stack” a new habit. A morning cup of coffee, for example, is a great opportunity to start a one-minute meditation practice. Or, if you want to improve your balance, stand on one foot while you’re brushing your teeth.
The existing behavior — morning coffee, teeth brushing — acts as a prompt, or trigger, to “do this new behavior now.” The goal is to get this “habit stack” hardwired into your brain as a single action (drink coffee + meditate) rather than as a series of individual tasks.
The thought of initiating a new behavior can loom large in our mind. And, according to B.J. Fogg, Stanford University researcher and author of the book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, big behavior changes require a high level of motivation that often can’t be sustained. So ... think really small. The idea is to make the new behavior so super tiny, so simple, so easy, there really won’t be an excuse (I’m in a rush, I’m distracted, not motivated, have a work deadline) not do it.
“An easy way for me to make sure I stay hydrated is to start my day with one big glass of water,” says MYX coach Jesse Barton. “It’s so simple, takes almost no time, and helps start me off on the right foot. It also helps my digestive system ‘move things along,’ which is definitely a great motivator!”
Maybe you want to build your upper body strength. Start by committing to two push-ups a day. Even better, tie them to a behavior you’re already doing (see habit stacking, above). For instance, after a trip to the bathroom drop and do two push-ups. (Fogg actually did this himself, and now he has a 40 to 80 push-ups habit a day!)
Or, maybe you want to read more. Think about how that could fit easily into your existing routine. Maybe each night before bed you read a paragraph. You could read more if you wanted to, but the key is to set the bar so low, you can’t help but succeed. According to Fogg, when you learn how to feel good about your successes, no matter how tiny, it changes how you think about yourself. If you think of yourself as “the kind of person who meditates, works out, reads” you’ll find more ways and opportunities to repeat the behavior. That's what leads to transformation.
Reward yourself (and be creative!)
Some habits (especially less healthy ones) are hard to kick because they immediately trigger the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. These “feel-good” chemicals naturally reward your brain and encourage you to keep up the behavior (like going for that extra piece of pie after dinner).
For good habits (exercise, meditation, focused work, healthy eating) the rewards take longer to show up. Though they will eventually stimulate your brain in that same good way, they need a little kick in the pants to get started. Studies have shown, for example, that having a small piece of chocolate post-workout triggers the release of chemicals and neurotransmitters similar to those that you’ll eventually get from the workout itself.
Building in rewards is an important part of habit formation. Your reward should be whatever lights you up – a chocolate treat after a tough workout, or maybe you make an exercise date — the reward being time with a friend. “I love to run,” says coach Jesse, “but with my schedule, it's tricky to find the time. So I rely on my running buddy to help keep me accountable: if we've made a plan to go running, I don't want to disappoint her, and inevitably we have an awesome, heart-pounding, nature-soaked social session that serves to reinforce future runs!”
A reward makes you feel successful and helps hardwire your brain to remember that feeling, so you’ll practice the behavior again and again.
New Year’s Resolution TIP
One of the biggest reasons people don’t keep their New Year's resolutions is because they're not specific enough. For instance, resolving to "exercise more" or "lose weight" is too vague to keep you accountable throughout the year, say experts. Without specific markers to note your progress, you likely won’t stay motivated over the long haul.
Instead, try setting SMART goals—the acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound — like running a particular 5K you’ve marked on your calendar, or losing 10 pounds by a certain date. When your goals are detailed and specific, it's harder to walk away from them.
“Every six months or so, I have my personal training clients send me their updated SMART goals,” says coach Jesse. “Putting them in writing and giving them to someone else goes a long way toward helping ensure you achieve those goals. We’re far more likely to accomplish our goals if they are written down and we've made ourselves accountable to someone else.”
Having a timeline for your resolution is also helpful, so come up with some short-term, medium-term, and long-term benchmarks that will measure and mark successes that you can celebrate along the way, and keep you on track to achieving your big goal.