Marney White didn’t like exercising, but she knew weight-bearing exercise was good for her. So, she set a goal to only allow herself to watch TV if she also ran or walked on the treadmill. “I didn’t start to look forward to my daily exercise until I coupled it with trash TV,” says White, a licensed clinical psychologist. Eventually, when she felt the rewards of managing her stress, the intrinsic motivation took over, she says, and it became second nature.
Many of us make New Year’s resolutions to quit destructive habits or start healthy ones, but by the time February rolls around, we’ve given up. When we set huge goals like joining a gym and exercising five days a week or giving up all desserts, research shows we’re setting ourselves up for failure, says White, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Yale School of Public Health and the Yale School of Medicine. Instead, she says, setting specific goals and taking incremental steps is far more likely to help us start and stick to a habit.
“When people tend to view success and failure as an absolute, that sets them up to fail if they have any kind of slip,” White says. “It’s most effective to start with a very small, action-oriented goal. Instead of saying I want to meet a calorie guideline, start with adding fresh fruit an hour before the evening meal” so you’ll be less hungry and eat less.
We can boost our chance of success by writing down our goals, working with an accountability partner and giving ourselves rewards, she says. Checking off on a chart or app that we hit our daily goal gives us the motivation we need to keep going, research shows. Stickers aren’t just for kids; stickers, charts and financial rewards work, White says. While the benefits of a healthier lifestyle take weeks or months to show results, the visible signs of hitting our goals — like the checks on the chart or the growing stash of cash — keep us going.
The buddy system improves goal adherence, but isn’t essential, research shows. For example, when the pandemic lockdowns limited her social times with friends and colleagues, White partnered with a friend to videoconference while doing 10 minutes of yoga a day — each from their own home. Because she has someone counting on her to meet for yoga, she keeps the appointment, even when she doesn’t feel like it, she says. And on days when her friend can’t meet her, she still practices yoga.
Science also shows that starting a habit and doing it the same time of day, the same days per week helps people persist, even when life gets in the way, says Blair T. Johnson, professor of psychological sciences at UConn. The key to forming a habit is to keep doing it, no matter what life throws at you, he says. It’s better to do a slow walk than no walk, because repetition gets us to the point where the new habit becomes part of our routine. Habits are formed in the primitive side of the brain common in all animals, he says, adding, “If you develop positive habits, you can continue doing them without even intending to do them.” Setting realistic goals and following up with yourself monthly to see how you’re doing has been shown to net results.
To quit an unwanted habit, change the environmental triggers associated with that habit. Identify one thing associated with the habit you want to change, White suggests. For example, to quit smoking, don’t allow yourself to smoke in the car so you decouple the association. To break a habit, says Kiran McCloskey, doctoral student in social psychology at UConn, people can ask themselves what reward they’re getting from the alcohol or food. Instead of relaxing with a drink at the end of the day, substitute it with something else enjoyable such as a cup of tea, a walk around the neighborhood or video games, she says.
Some habits are complex and others are simple, Johnson says, and the more complicated ones are harder to start and stick to. He recommends a practice called stacking, in which you work a new habit around existing habits. For example, if your morning routine involves getting up, feeding the pets, making coffee and taking a shower, you could add a new habit such as a 10-minute walk into that routine. Having the clothing and any equipment you need for this new routine ready in the morning removes a barrier and increases adherence.
While conventional wisdom held that it took a month to form a habit, a research study found it took an average of 66 days to form and maintain a habit, McCloskey says, although it differs from person to person. If you try to start a new habit and it doesn’t work, she says, re-evaluate it. Perhaps the time of day doesn’t work for you, or you don’t enjoy the choice of exercise. If walking alone is boring, consider walking with a friend, or listen to music, a podcast or audiobook.
Healthy habits can include starting a hobby you enjoy, McCloskey says. When she began getting up an hour earlier to write creative fiction, she says, she enjoyed the experience so much that “suddenly I had a lot more energy to do other habits. That’s when I was able to get into my other exercise habit. I found when I had the energy component, I was less stressed about work.”
Research-backed tips to form lasting habits
Having trouble sticking with a new habit? Health experts offer this advice.
- Start small with a very specific goal.
- Imagine yourself reaching this goal.
- Pair a new habit with an existing routine.
- Write down your goal.
- Tell a friend your goal.
- Find an accountability partner.
- Make it social; the buddy system helps.
- Give yourself rewards — check marks on the calendar; money you can see grow.
- Change the environment to quit an unwanted habit.
- Check in with yourself once a month to chart your progress.