A habit is something you do on the regular, almost without thinking. And yet—when it comes to forming new habits, it feels nearly impossible to get behaviors to become sticky. We exercise for a week before begging for the couch to take us back. We keep our online to-do list organized for a day before going back to our Post-it note system. We go to bed at 10:00 p.m. for one night before Netflix rears its beautiful head.
It isn't as easy as plugging in the treadmill or signing up for a new app, but there are ways to give yourself some momentum and transform those good behaviors—whether they're existing or hypothetical—into habits.
1. Start small and create milestones
BJ Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University, is the king of starting small with new habits. His program, Tiny Habits, encourages people to focus on building the habit itself, rather than worrying about how big the impact is.
Here's an example: say you want to start a habit of jogging 30 minutes a day. To get this habit to stick, start tiny: jog for 10 seconds. Sounds ridiculous, yes, but it works. If you make it a habit to jog for 10 seconds every day, three things will happen:
You'll feel silly not doing it. It's literally like 20 steps.
You'll probably jog for more than 10 seconds. Getting started on anything is the biggest hurdle—especially when it involves special equipment (in this case, jogging clothes and sneakers). Also, you'll feel weird jogging to the end of your driveway and then just walking back. Especially if the neighbors are watching.
You'll build the habit. Although jogging for just 10 seconds every day won't get you in shape, after a few weeks have passed, it will feel like part of your daily routine.
Once you've built up the habit, you can add to it incrementally. In our example, you'd start jogging for 30 seconds, and then a minute, and then three minutes, and soon enough you'll be jogging for 30 minutes without stressing yourself out.
The same method works for less tangible habits, too. Let's say you're trying to be more on top of your calendar. Start with a weekly reminder to look over your calendar for the coming week. Each Monday morning when your alarm goes off, just take a minute to look at what events you have coming up for the week. Once you start doing that without thinking, try doing it every morning. Eventually, you'll internalize the calendar checking—it'll be a habit, and you won't even need a reminder for it.
But how long will it take to get to that point where the habit is totally internalized? A 2009 study argues that it takes, on average, 66 days for a new habit to form. When you're just starting a new behavior, 66 days will feel like a lifetime. (And to be clear: that's the average—it might take much longer.)
That's where milestones come in. By adding mile markers to our habits, not only do they seem more achievable, but according to the goal gradient hypothesis, we might work even harder to achieve them. So "jog every day for 30 minutes" is a massive goal. Every day? That's tens of thousands of days if we actually do it forever. But if you add milestones—the first time you jog, the first week you jog every day, and so on—you'll be more likely to build the habit.
In addition to starting small, you should be sure to only focus on one habit at a time.
2. Be specific
Exercise more! Sleep more! Read more!
Not helpful. Also: not habits.
Remember, behaviors are only habits when they happen regularly. Let's say you currently exercise once a year. If your goal is to "exercise more," you've succeeded as long as you exercise at least twice a year. Hate to break it to you: your biannual workout isn't an exercise habit. So as you're building habits, they need to be measurable. At the end of each day or week or month, you should be able to tell whether you've succeeded or failed during that time period.
So now your habit goals look like this:
Jog for 30 minutes a day! Sleep at least seven hours a night! Read one book a week, and your Apple News feed doesn't count as a book!
Less catchy, but much more likely to turn into habits instead of one-off behaviors.
3. Figure out what's stopping you from turning your behaviors into habits
You decide you're going to jog for 30 minutes a day, but after doing it once, you stop.
That's the key question. You need to figure out why you're giving up on forming your new habit—and then take steps to fix it. Did you stop because you were sore the next day? Make sure you stretch before and after the jog. Did you stop because you ended up being late for work? Wake up earlier. Did you stop because you were bored? Listen to a podcast.
A lot of times, the reason you don't do a thing is that you don't want to start doing that thing. Our staff writer Justin has thoughts on how to start doing a thing when you really, really don't want to. But when it comes to habit-building, you can also try to automate the start of that thing. For example, if your habit goal is to journal every day, and getting started is the hardest part, let the computer start it for you.
You can also figure out your positive triggers: what makes you get up and jog? Do you feel motivated after being exhausted by walking up a flight of stairs? Then walk up more stairs. Do you feel like you should jog after you talk to your friend who exercises every day? Talk to that friend more. And so on.
4. Plan ahead
Toby Stubblebine, the co-founder and CEO of goal-setting app Coach.me, says that a lack of situational planning is often the biggest hurdle when trying to reach habit-based goals. Here's Stubblebine explaining the importance of having a plan when trying to give up sugar:
The idea is that when you get into a certain situation, you already know what you want to do. I don't want to go out to dinner, have the dessert menu show up, and not have a plan … Without having thought ahead of time, we tend to stick to old habits.
It may seem daunting to sit down and evaluate all of the situations where you might be tempted to break a habit, but when the time comes, you don't want to have to ad lib. Back to our jogging example, what happens if you have an early meeting and your regular jogging time doesn't work? What if it's raining and you usually run outside? Try to plan ahead for as many of these situations as possible so you know how you'll adapt.
5. Stack habits
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that one of the most powerful methods for building new habits is to stack them onto existing habits. Start with a habit that's so ingrained you almost never miss it: logging in to your computer, walking to the train station after work, picking up your kid after practice. Because these habits are so secure, you can use them as triggers for new habits.
Here are some examples:
After logging in to your computer, read the top three news stories of the day (forming a habit to keep up with current events).
While walking to the train station, drink a full bottle of water (forming a habit of drinking more water).
Before picking up your kid from practice, throw away any trash that's in the car (forming a habit of keeping the car clean).
Start with something you do every day around the same time and use that as a trigger to remind yourself to do your new habit.
6. Make it easy
To chefs, mise en place means getting all your ingredients organized before you start cooking. And think about how much more likely you'd be to cook dinner instead of ordering take out if all the ingredients were portioned out and lined up already.
Having whatever equipment you need easily available takes away the hurdle of getting started on a habit—and simultaneously acts as a reminder to do that thing.
For our jogging example, you'd make sure you had clean workout clothes and sneakers ready to go before go time. Or say you want to drink more water at work. Keeping a water bottle on your desk means you don't have to get up to grab a glass of water; you can just reach out and take a sip while you're working. And seeing the water bottle there all day acts as a reminder to keep up your habit.
7. Reward yourself
And now for the fun part. Every time you complete your habit, celebrate it. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, is a big proponent of rewarding yourself after completing a habit. Duhigg's approach to habits is based around cycles consisting of a cue or trigger, the habit itself, and then a reward.
Eventually, Duhigg says, "when your brain is exposed to a certain cue, it'll kind of go on autopilot because it craves the reward it expects to come at the end."
Make sure you reward yourself with something that's valuable to you, but not something that defeats the purpose of your habit. If the reason you're jogging is to be less sedentary, then rewarding yourself with an hour of TV probably isn't the best.
Forming habits can feel like a slog, but once you've done it—once they're real habits, not just forced behaviors—the slog will disappear. You won't have to think about them anymore. And then you can work on breaking those bad habits instead.
Belle Cooper, Melissa Joy Kong, Megan Bannister, and Deborah Tennen all contributed to this article.