I’ve been obsessed with habits lately, mostly because I went through a long period in 2020, having a hard time following any kind of habits or routines. I don’t have to tell you that 2020 was a weird year. Every day felt like a standalone one-off with its own unique circumstances.
Of course, 2021 has been no less chaotic, but now I’m finding myself longing for the comfort of good habits. In a world that’s increasingly unhinged, I want to feel grounded and secure. I need a routine based on good habits like a consistent exercise routine and healthy eating: two habits I threw out the window in 2020.
I researched how to form good habits and break bad habits over Christmas break. I learned so much information about how habits are formed, why I got off track last year, and how I can succeed this year. I’ve been putting what I learned into action, and I’m already feeling healthier.
Today I’m sharing what I’ve learned along with 15 critical tips to help you successfully form good habits in 2021. No matter what curve balls this year throws at us, we can still have good habits throughout the year!
- What is a Habit?
- How Do We Form New Habits?
- How Long Does It Take to Create a New Habit?
- When is the Best Time to Start a New Habit?
- The Difference Between Habits and Goals
- 15 Tips to More Easily Form New Habits
- 1. Define Your Habit
- 2. Define Your “Why”
- 3. Redefine Yourself
- 4. Consider Trialing Your Habit Before Committing to It
- 5. Start Small
- 6. Create a Reminder for Your Habit
- 7. Make Things as Automatic as Possible
- 8. Make Your Habit So Easy You Can’t Skip It
- 9. Make Your Habit Pleasurable
- 10. Don’t Reward Yourself, Celebrate Your Progress
- 11. Add Accountability to Your Habit in a Way That Works for You
- 12. Plan for Failure
- 13. Beware of Loopholes
- 14. Track Your Progress, Even – Especially – If You’ve Failed
- 15. Make Adjustments As Necessary
- Good Books About Creating New Habits
- Pin on Pinterest Now
What is a Habit?
A habit is a behavior so deeply ingrained in our personality that it no longer requires conscious thought. The classic example of a habit is brushing our teeth; most of us can’t start the day until we’ve brushed our teeth. The act of starting the day by brushing our teeth is so fundamental that we feel out of sorts if we end up somewhere without our toothbrush and have to start the day with unbrushed teeth.
How Do We Form New Habits?
Charles Duhigg, in his book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” describes the Habit Loop, a neurological loop at the core of every habit. A Habit Loop consists of:
- The Cue: a Reminder (a sight, smell, time of day, etc.) that causes (dum, dum, dum)
- The Craving: that feeling we all know, the desire that can only be fulfilled by
- The Routine: the actual habit. The habit gives us
- The Reward: the satisfaction you feel after the habit
You can see how this works for both good habits and bad habits. Before the pandemic, I had settled into a regular pattern of going to the gym and working out regularly. Looking back, I can see that I had an excellent habit loop set up:
- The Cue – My husband left for work
- The Craving – I wanted to listen to my workout playlist or current podcast (I didn’t know it then, but I was using another habit technique, “habit pairing”)
- The Routine – I went to the gym and worked out
- The Reward – I felt great and proud of myself afterward.
To form a successful new habit, you need to create a satisfying habit loop so pleasing to your brain, it happily chooses to turn this new habit into unconscious behavior.
Turning a new behavior into an ingrained habit requires more than just a satisfying habit loop, of course, though. It requires repetition.
How Long Does It Take to Create a New Habit?
It does not take 21 days to create a new habit. If only. I’ve read before that this myth came from speculation in the book Pyscho Cybernetics by Malcolm Maltz. I happen to own that book, so I checked to verify this and even he says it takes six weeks to learn a new habit. So who knows how this myth began? Unfortunately, it is just that: a myth. Studies have shown it takes an average of 66 days for a behavior to become automatic.
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This shouldn’t really be depressing news. A habit should be a behavior you want to incorporate into your life for the long-term, perhaps forever. You just need to set your expectations correctly about how long it will take for your habit to become automatic.
When is the Best Time to Start a New Habit?
The New Year – and other “fresh start” times of the year such as Labor Day, the beginning of summer, and the start of the new school year – are excellent times to start new habits. In her book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin calls this the strategy of the clean slate. Our daily schedules tend to change during these times. Therefore, it’s easier to incorporate new habits into your new routines rather than trying to shoehorn a new habit into your existing routine.
Don’t have any “fresh start” occasions coming up anytime soon? That’s OK. Spend some time decluttering! Decluttering forces you to examine your life, the items in it, and how you really want to live and spend your time. That can give you the boost of energy you need to jumpstart a fresh start.
The Difference Between Habits and Goals
If you’re anything like me, be prepared to have your mind blown. I learned this while researching this blog post and, while it makes perfect sense, I had never thought about it. Once I realized this, suddenly, so many of my past “failures” at creating habits made sense.
A goal is not a habit. A goal is a way to try out a habit. A goal is something like “Run a 10K,” “Lose 20 Pounds,” or “Write a Novel.” To complete your goal, you must show discipline and follow certain habits for a while.
But a goal has a defined endpoint. Eventually, you run your race, lose the weight, or finish the novel. And then you reach a decision point. Do you choose a new goal? Has the habit become so ingrained that you continue even without a defined goal? Or do you, like so many people, “take a break for a bit” that turns into forever?
It’s OK to have goals; in fact, it’s excellent! Just don’t mistake your goal for a habit. When you’ve completed your goal, you’ll need to take some sort of action if you want to continue the habits you started while you were pursuing your goal.
Some people can handle this by moving from goal to goal. Still, most of us need to consciously develop new routines that incorporate our habits into our lives now that we’ve reached our goal.
15 Tips to More Easily Form New Habits
OK, you’re ready. You know a bit more about habits now, and you’re ready to create some new ones in your life! Here are some tips to make forming new habits a bit easier.
1. Define Your Habit
Pick a habit you would like to bring into your life. Here’s the key: make sure it’s measurable and specific. For example, this year, I really want to start drinking more water. After a lot of effort, I finally cut back to one soda a day (yay, me!), but I keep forgetting to drink water during the day and I’m getting visibly dehydrated. But “drink more water” is way too vague. So the habit I’m implementing is Drink 32 ounces of Water a Day.
2. Define Your “Why”
Sometimes we fail at keeping a habit because it’s something we think we “should be doing.” Still, we actually lack the motivation to follow through. For years, I vowed to drink more water because, you know, everyone says you should be drinking water, right? I never followed through.
It wasn’t until I started seeing how dry my skin and lips were getting that I finally felt motivated to actually drink more water. I could see I really needed to drink more water. Finally, I was ready to take on this habit because I was doing it for myself rather than as something I “should” be doing.
Here’s a unique idea that I read about many years ago and have used many times, so I can tell you that it really works. Use your phone’s camera and film yourself talking about why you want to add this new habit to your life, how it’s going to benefit you and how your life will change as a result. Then watch the video frequently. You’ll be amazed at how powerful this is and how it really helps with the changes you’ll be making.
3. Redefine Yourself
How often have you said something like, “I’m just so bad with money,” or “I really hate to exercise.” If you’re going to change your habits, you’ll need to change yourself, and that means changing the way you see yourself. Take some time to visualize yourself as the person who completes the habit you’re striving for every day. How is she different from you?
Start to think of yourself as the type of person who performs your habit. For example, I’m no longer the type of person who never drinks water. Now I’m the type of person who feels lost without her water bottle. I carry my water bottle with me wherever I go.
Suppose this is a big change, like going from a total couch potato to running your first 5K race. In that case, it’s helpful to create a vision board to help you visualize your success and learn to identify yourself with your new habit.
4. Consider Trialing Your Habit Before Committing to It
Too many people, myself included, start new habits intending to do this new thing forever and then beat themselves up when they quit. The truth is, they simply didn’t like the new habit. Maybe you really weren’t cut out to be vegan, or it turns out you really like carbs too much to give them up forever.
If you’re interested in trying out a new habit, consider trying a 30 day trial of your new habit. If you end your 30 days with a sigh of relief that it’s over, you’ll know it’s not for you. More likely, you’ll end your 30 days with a better understanding of how to make your habit work for you.
5. Start Small
Now you’ve defined your habit and know why you want to start. Your eventual goal is to create your own habit loop that eventually becomes an automatic action. When you’re just starting out building a habit, the most important thing is to repeat your habit every day.
Therefore, you want to start small, build a string of successes, and only then increase your habit. I’ve talked about this before in 10 Tips to Finally Get in Shape After 50.
BJ Fogg, author of the book Tiny Habits, started his habit of doing daily push-ups with a goal of just two push-ups a day and eventually worked up to 40-80 a day.
6. Create a Reminder for Your Habit
You need a way to remember your habit until it becomes automatic. The reminder is the cue of the habit loop you’re forming. There are several techniques for doing this and the best one really depends on what works for you.
Put it On the Calendar. Gretchen Rubin discusses this technique in her book Better Than Before. Like Gretchen, it’s one of my favorites because it’s simple. If you want to remember to do something, schedule the time and respect the schedule. That means blocking off every day at 7:30 a.m. for your exercise class or stopping whatever you’re doing every day at 9 p.m. so you can read for twenty minutes before bed. Putting something on the calendar – and most importantly, keeping the appointment – is a powerful way to reinforce a habit.
This is also a great way to force yourself to finally get to the self-care tasks we tend to put off until everything else is done. The problem, of course, is that everything else is never done. But, if you put something like Manicure at 4 p.m. on our calendar, you can look at it all day. Then, you’re much more likely to actually keep the appointment with you’re.
Tie the new habit to an existing habit. This is the strategy I used in my “Go to the gym” habit loop. My husband left for work and I left for the gym. Another example of this is BJ Fogg and his push-ups – he would do two push-ups every time he went to the bathroom.
Use a Visual Reminder. A post-it note can be a good reminder if you remember to look at it. I find frequently changing the note can help with that or keeping it in my planner where I have to move it is helpful. I use a marked water bottle to help me remember to drink my water.
My habit tracker is a helpful reminder to use with new habits.
7. Make Things as Automatic as Possible
The fewer decisions you have to make, the fewer chances you have to decide to not follow your habit.
Meal prepping is an excellent example of making your decisions automatic. If you’re trying to lose weight, practice meal prepping by making your lunches for the week on Sunday nights when you’re well-fed and motivated for the next week. From personal experience, I can tell you that the motivation to grab a salad is much, much weaker at noon after a long stressful staff meeting. Make the decision for yourself when you’re in better shape to make the right decisions.
Similarly, I get up every morning and put on my workout clothes first thing. I don’t shower and change into my “real” clothes until I’ve worked out. Sure, some days I’m still in my workout clothes at the end of the day. More often than not, eventually I break down and work out.
8. Make Your Habit So Easy You Can’t Skip It
When I was a single mom, the only time I really had to run was early in the morning before work, so I slept in my running clothes. I put my running shoes and iPod (hey, this was years ago) by my bed. When my alarm went off, I rolled over, put my shoes on, grabbed my iPod, and was out the door before my body fully registered that I was awake. If you want to make your habit truly automatic, keep examining anything that makes it more difficult to practice your habit. Then, determine how you can remove those obstacles. Sometimes the answer can be as simple as moving your exercise equipment closer to you or hiding the unhealthy snacks you want to avoid.
9. Make Your Habit Pleasurable
You want to make your habit pleasurable to follow, especially in the early days, when just the thought of getting started can trigger an inner “ugh” feeling. One way to do that is to pair a pleasurable activity with a less pleasurable activity. I love TikTok videos, for example, and like most people, I can look up and suddenly realize that hours have gone by while I’m scrolling on my phone. So I’ll watch them only on the treadmill.
10. Don’t Reward Yourself, Celebrate Your Progress
The issue of rewards for following your habit is a complex one. Studies have shown that rewarding children to engage in certain behaviors undermined their motivation to voluntarily engage in that behavior.
Personally, I’ve never been able to motivate myself to do something by promising myself a reward down the line. If I make some type of deal with myself, like, “Work out 5 times, and you can buy that sweater.” I’ll just buy the sweater whether I work out or not.
Instead of rewarding yourself for accomplishing a milestone or achievement, why not celebrate your accomplishment? A reward suggests you deserve a prize for completing an unpleasant task. When you celebrate, you stop for a moment to revel in and take pride in your amazing accomplishment. Which sounds better to you?
And not to worry, celebrations can also come with presents. Feel free to get yourself a little celebration gift if you should feel so inclined.
11. Add Accountability to Your Habit in a Way That Works for You
It helps to have some form of accountability when you’re starting a new habit. Just make sure it works for you.
Some people do well with an accountability partner who they meet up with regularly to practice their habit. In contrast, others end up actually doing worse. You know how it goes. For every pair of running partners who faithfully meet every Saturday morning, there’s the two workout partners who plan to meet twice a week before work. Still, somehow every week, one of them is too busy and needs to skip this week and then both people don’t work out.
Similarly, you might have a friend or partner you report your progress to or a coach you check-in. There’s a Facebook group for almost any habit you might be trying. These groups offer tons of support, advice, and accountability. I personally find support from a stranger to be highly motivating.
No matter what type of accountability you choose, studies show that adding some form of accountability increases your chances of adhering to your new habit.
12. Plan for Failure
I know! So depressing. But the truth is, You’ll probably mess up. In fact, you can probably anticipate right now some situations where it might be hard for you to practice your habit. The key here is preparation. For example, if you know that you tend to give in and overeat when you are out with friends, make a plan beforehand. Plan exactly what you will order instead of merely vowing to yourself that “this time will be different.”
13. Beware of Loopholes
Ah, the loophole. Gretchen Rubin devotes an entire chapter to loopholes in Better than Before. With good reason. Loopholes are the thin end of the wedge, the seemingly innocuous, perfectly reasonable, beginning of the end of our very good habit that we’ve been oh so faithfully following.
What is a loophole?
A loophole is the following:
- I can’t possibly work out this week; I’m just too busy at work.
- I’m just too stressed to eat healthy; I need this comfort food.
- I know I said I would go to bed every night at 10:00 p.m. but I had to finish that last chapter.
- I’m usually so good! This one time won’t matter.
Rubin defines ten types of loopholes, but they all boil down to the same thing. An angry justification that we spit out in our head when we’ve decided to break our habit. If you hear yourself using a loophole, you have two choices:
- Catch yourself and go back to your habit
- Say out loud, “I’m choosing to break my habit right now.”
Note: This is my advice, not Rubin’s. She says you should always go back to your habit, but sometimes we’re just not that strong. If that’s the case, just acknowledge what you’re doing and don’t justify it.
14. Track Your Progress, Even – Especially – If You’ve Failed
It’s essential to track your progress toward your habit. I use a Habit Tracker to track whether I completed my habits each day so I have a nice Yes/No record to look back on.
If I’m trying to lose weight, I also like to track what I’m eating.
Track your habit, even – especially – if you’ve failed. Dieters, and by dieters, I mean me and probably you, are the worst about this. We eat a bunch of cookies, and that’s what we think: we’ve eaten a bunch of cookies. At some point in the cookie eating, we decide we’re not going to track this. And so we don’t even know how many cookies we’ve eaten. Is it six? Twelve? Forty?
That’s precisely the information we need to know. The truth is, we probably ate twelve cookies, and knowing the accurate information will be reassuring. But even if the answer is forty, not tracking the information sends us into a shame spiral that is difficult to recover from. We won’t start tracking again until the next day at the earliest, and it could be that we won’t begin until the following Monday or never. Show yourself the grace you would show anyone else, forgive yourself, track what you can, and start over.
15. Make Adjustments As Necessary
Here’s where my successful habit loop from the beginning of 2020 ended up not being so successful. My habit loop was based on going to the gym, not working out, or exercising. When the gym closed, I simply stopped my habit rather than adjusting it to the new circumstances.
That’s, of course, precisely what not to do. If you see that you are consistently failing at your habit or if it’s becoming more difficult, analyze your situation to see how to make your habit more automatic or more manageable. Or explore your motivation. Maybe your habit really isn’t as important as you thought.
Or maybe you’re really rocking things, and it’s time to take things up a notch and add five minutes of meditation or check out a retreat. As you periodically review your habits, you can see opportunities to change and expand what you’re doing.
What habits are you wanting to add in 2021?
Good Books About Creating New Habits
If you’re interested in reading more about creating new habits, these are some of the best books I read about creating new habits.
Books About Forming New Habits
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
Rubin presents the science behind creating new habits in easy to understand short nuggets and gives actionable advice that is easy to implement in real life. Her eagerness to tell all her friends and family how they should be improving their own lives made me wonder how much I would really like her in real life, but fortunately, that's not a problem that's likely to come up. She and her sister have a fun podcast called Happier with Gretchen Rubin that's also worth a listen.
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
If you want to read about the science behind the study of habits, this is the book for you. This isn't a dry book, though, it's a fascinating look at how our habits influence our lives and our habits are often manipulated by others to influence us. Learning about the habit loop described in this book is a good way to understand how to change bad habits. Duhigg also has a podcast called How To! with Charles Duhigg.
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
If you wanted to read only one book about habits, this is the book I would recommend. Like the Power of Habit, it provides an introduction to the science of forming habits and like Better than Before, it's also filled with actionable advice on how to form good habits. It's well-written and easy-to-read and filled with good examples that are easy to apply to your own life.