Actually Stick With That New Good Habit
Struggling to turn a regular “should do” into an “already done!”? These three techniques can give you the confidence you need to succeed.
- Building a habit requires a combo of regularly deciding to do the behavior and actually doing it.
- Habit stacking, incremental changes and maxing out motivation can help you cement healthy routines.
- Following a daily program in NTC makes these techniques even easier, putting you on a fast track to progress.
Here's what you need to know...
Doing leg swings before a run. Eating chocolate after dinner. Taking a walk at lunchtime. Checking Insta before you get into bed at night…and hitting snooze when you wake up.
Whether they’re helpful or harmful, habits are things you’ve done so many times that they’re basically automatic, according to Benjamin Gardner, PhD, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, who researches behavior change and habit formation. Of course, bad habits often feel easier to fall into than good ones. That’s because they’re usually developed in response to some kind of reward (the chocolate or extra minutes in bed), says Gardner.
Plus, our instinct is to go for the least challenging option whenever possible, explains Sohee Lee, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and PhD student who also studies behavior change and habit formation. A big part of developing healthy habits is setting things up so the choice to do them doesn’t feel like one big “ugh.” Once that happens, you can confidently inch closer and closer to your goals.
How Habits Start
A habit can be described as being triggered to act in a particular way because of a particular situation, says Gardner. The action is called a behavior; as mentioned, it results in some kind of reward. The reward reinforces the association between trigger and behavior, forming a relationship known as a habit loop. So every time you get out of bed (the trigger), do a quick foam-rolling session (the behavior), and feel looser afterward (the reward), your habit of rolling out when you wake up becomes stronger. Eventually, you’ll probably find yourself grabbing your roller without even thinking about it. That in itself is progress — and the more healthy habits you stack up, the more progress you’ll make.
(FYI, experts can’t say exactly how long it takes for habits to fully form. The 21-day guideline most people have heard is a myth; some habits take longer, and some can form much sooner than that, according to Gardner and other behavior-change experts. So don’t get too caught up in counting the days.)
Why New Habits Often Fail
We’ve all thought, “I’ll start tomorrow.” But being consistent is hard. The reason? Change takes motivation and self-control, and those aren’t always easy to tap into, even when your mind is set on gaining ground.
We also tend to be overly ambitious, which can set us up to fail, notes Lee. Part of that comes down to confusing the two different types of habitual behavior, “deciding” and “doing,” says Gardner.
Let’s say you want to journal for 15 minutes each morning. You must make habits of deciding to do the journaling and of actually doing the journaling. Even if you nail the former, you still need to put in the effort to do the second part, says Gardner. And if the doing requires more effort than you can motivate yourself to put in, you won’t follow through. (RIP, every resolution we’ve abandoned by mid-January.) To create habits with confidence, you want to make the deciding bit automatic and the doing piece realistic.
There are several strategies you can use to address both halves of the equation.
1. Habit Stacking
What it is: When you attach a new behavior you want to do to a behavior you already do regularly (an anchor)
Why it works: By anchoring something that’s a goal (say, flossing) to something you already do consistently (like brushing your teeth), you use an existing trigger, which makes it easier to smoothly pull the new behavior into your routine, says Lee. It works a lot better than just trying to do that behavior whenever you think of it (pretty sure flossing rarely crosses your mind).
How to do it: “Sit for 20 minutes and write down the things you do every single day without fail. It’s almost everything,” explains Lee. This exercise should prove that you have no shortage of anchor habits to work with.
Then, choose an anchor that’s related to the new behavior you have in mind, says Gardner. If your goal is to hydrate more, you could insert drinking a glass of water into your clean-the-kitchen routine, which works because the sink or fridge is right in front of you.
Note: It’s important to be überspecific about where you’re going to insert your habit-in-the-making. Saying you’ll drink after “wiping down the table” or “putting the last dish in the dishwasher” is way more helpful than attaching it to “cleaning the kitchen.” If you think you’ll forget, simply write down your intention (“clean counter = H20”) on a sticky note and put it wherever you do your anchor activity, says Gardner.
2. Incremental Changes
What it is: Starting with a supersmall version of a new behavior and gradually building up to something bigger
Why it works: Kicking things off with the smallest possible iteration of your habit-to-be and gradually working your way up to your big-picture goal helps you build confidence and competence, says Gardner. In the process, you accrue excitement and momentum, so your desire to build on your habit grows.
How to do it: “Make your behavior so small, so easy, that even on your worst days, you're still able to do it,” suggests Lee. (If you’ve heard of famous behavior expert BJ Fogg, you’re probably familiar with the concept of tiny habits and big changes.)
Take the example of 15 minutes of morning journaling. You’d start by opening your journal after you pour your coffee. With some repetition, simply opening your journal should start to feel second nature. And it should build that excitement and momentum, says Lee.
Once you’ve done that successfully for a while, open your journal and pick up your pen. Progress to opening your journal, picking up your pen, and writing for one minute — and gradually increase from there. But do only as much as you can consistently execute, advises Lee. On an off day, you can drop back to your journal-opening bare minimum to keep your habit of deciding to journal going strong.
Similarly, if you’re trying to get yourself moving every day, start with just a few minutes of stretches or activation drills, on your own or following a program like the Daily Move Challenge in the Nike Training Club app. Once that feels like a normal and necessary part of your day, add to it bit by bit.
3. Turning Inward
What it is: Capitalizing on your own deep internal motivation to get yourself to do your desired behavior
Why it works: Some days, you just feel over it. TBH, that’s one of the reasons experts don’t recommend relying only on motivation to fuel your habits, says Lee. But if you do want to tap into motivation, the kind that comes from within, known as intrinsic motivation, is going to be your best bet, says Gardner.
One big component of intrinsic motivation, per Gardner, is enjoyment. By selecting a behavior you enjoy — and homing in on what you actually enjoy about it — getting it done won’t feel like a total slog.
Sure, there are going to be habits you want to develop that you may have a hard time finding pleasure in. Some people really don’t love warming up for a workout, but they do love getting injured less often. And we all have those days when we don’t feel like doing things we normally enjoy. In these cases, it can help to tap into another component of intrinsic motivation: identity.
“A big part of getting yourself to do behaviors is to change the way you perceive yourself,” says Lee. If you see yourself as a yoga lover, for instance, you’re less likely to nama-stay in bed all morning, even on a literal or metaphorical rainy day.
How to do it: One obvious strategy is to choose a habit you enjoy. Can’t stomach the taste of kale but want to eat more greens? Pick a leaf you actually like.
If you want to use identity as a secret weapon, mentally create an aspirational version of yourself, says Lee. Hoping to be less stressed? Your new ID is “totally chilled out, well-balanced person.” Now when you make decisions about which behaviors you’re going to do, you consciously choose to do things that align with that chilled-out perception of yourself, like “I’m the type of person who meditates at night” or “I take hot baths on Sundays.”
And When All Else Fails...
Know that missing one day (or, heck, three) of your habit is not a deal-breaker. In research, chances to do your habit are called opportunities. “We know that you can form a habit despite missing a few opportunities,” says Gardner. Trusting that a miss here or there isn’t a reason to abandon ship can be enough to keep you coming back — forming that good habit for good.
Words: Julia Malacoff
Illustration: Paul Blow