Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution? If so, I bet it didn’t go exactly as you planned. You probably had great intentions and determination on January 1 to start that exercise program, lose ten pounds, begin meditating, or learn a new skill. You may have even started off with a bang, and the first few days, you were killing it. You enthusiastically worked on your new habit and felt proud of your efforts.
But then a week or so down the road, your enthusiasm began to wane. It wasn’t quite so fun anymore — in fact, it was getting hard and tiresome. Suddenly, excuses were popping up left and right for avoiding your new habit. At some point, you probably questioned whether you really ever wanted to pursue this resolution in the first place. Or maybe you started to question yourself. “I must not have much self-discipline. I’m just not capable of doing this. I don’t have what it takes.”
If any of this sounds familiar, rest assured, you aren’t alone. Most of us have failed at keeping resolutions and creating new habits that stick. Most people start off with a bang and end with a whimper. But it has nothing to do with your willpower, abilities, or character. You aren’t a flawed person because you have difficulty with habits. Habit creation is hard — especially if you don’t know the proper skills of forming sustainable habits.
Yes, there are specific and scientifically tested skills involved that allow you to move past that time when your habit work begins to get old and difficult. It’s all a matter of training your brain to accommodate this new behavior and carving out new neural pathways to make it automatic.
Most of the automatic habits you have right now, like brushing your teeth, driving your car, or tying your shoes, didn’t start out as automatic. If you can remember way back when you learned to tie your shoes, you know it was a skill you had to practice over and over again before your fingers could go through the movements without a brain load of concentration.
Every new habit requires that practice and mental intensity until it becomes automatic. That’s why we so frequently quit early in the game — it’s mentally exhausting.
If you want to create habits that stick, here are six strategies you must apply.
How to Make a “Sticky” Habit in 6 Steps
Most of the time when we commit to a resolution or decide to tackle a new habit, we just dive right in. We want to start running, so we just start without any thought to how we can prepare ourselves to ensure success. Then we overdo it, underestimate the difficulty, feel overwhelmed, maybe have physical pain, and realize it was all a big mistake. Before you dive in to any new habit, take several days or even a week to plan and prepare for your success by outlining the remaining five strategies below.
2. Start small
Work on only one habit at a time, and for the first week of performing your new habit, start small. Really small. Begin with just five minutes a day of whatever you are doing. If it’s running, spend the five minutes putting on your running clothes/shoes, stretching, and then run for just a couple of minutes.
If your habit is writing, just write for five minutes. This may feel ridiculous and frustrating when you’re chomping at the bit to start your habit, but the point is to create a regular routine every day that is so easy, you can’t NOT do it. Then incrementally increase your time every week by five minutes or so, until you build up to the optimum time for your habit.
3. Find a trigger
One of the keys to consistency with your new habit is attaching it to a previously established habit (a trigger), like brushing your teeth in the morning, turning on your computer, or cleaning the dishes at night. This trigger must be something you do every single day at around the same time, and your new habit should immediately follow this trigger. The trigger cues your brain to remind you it’s time to perform a new routine.
Don’t do something else in between your trigger and your habit routine. Perform the habit right away.
4. Create a reward
As soon as you perform your five minute habit after your trigger, give yourself a reward. It’s optimal if the reward is something you already crave, like your first cup of coffee in the morning or checking your email. But it can be anything you enjoy or look forward to.
Put a gold star on every day on your calendar when you perform the habit. Give yourself a piece of chocolate. Ask your spouse to reward you with a long hug. Just be sure the reward is consistent and can happen immediately after you perform the trigger.
5. Create accountability
A huge part of success with a new habit is public accountability. When you know someone is paying attention, you are far more likely to follow through on your efforts. Announce your habit plans to friends and family. Report your daily success or failure to perform your habit in some public way — on social media, a blog, or in a group email. Ask someone close to you to serve as a support person who pays attention to your efforts and helps keep you motivated to continue.
If you hide your efforts from other people, it’s far more easy to give up because no one is watching you.
6. Plan for disruptions
Life is going to get in the way of your habit work at some point. You may have to travel. You might get sick. Your children might interrupt you or need you for something important just as you’re working on your habit. During your planning week, consider any possible disruptions to your habit routine and how you will handle them. How can you continue your habit work if you travel? What is another time of day you could perform your habit if you’re interrupted?
If you miss more than a day in a row of your habit work, go back to the five minute rule and work up again to more time. The key to rewiring your brain to make a habit automatic is repetition and consistency.
Building an automatic habit takes time — anywhere from a month to several months depending on the difficulty of the habit. For example, learning a new language will take longer than creating the habit of flossing your teeth every day. But if you start small, remain consistent, and follow the steps outlined above, you will be able to create several new, positive habits over the course of a year. Once you learn the proven skills of habit creation, you can change your life entirely, one small habit at a time.
Barrie Davenport is a certified personal coach, author, and founder of the top-ranked personal development blog Live Bold and Bloom where she writes about positive habits, self-confidence, life passion, and many other self-improvement topics. She is also the creator of the Sticky Habits Course, teaching the simple formula for sustainable habits.
Featured photo by CHARLS