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Mindful Living

5 Strategies for forming new habits (and actually sticking to them)

A woman smiles as she jogs.
J Malacoff Headshot
Julia Malacoff January, 01, 2020

Writer, trainer, nail art aficionado

Whether you're looking to exercise more, keep up with your book club's monthly picks (for once) or nab that much-deserved promotion at work, setting attainable goals is a key part of reaching your full potential in any area of life! The only catch? Picking up the new habits you need in order to accomplish your goals can sometimes be a challenge.

Here's the good news: The science around developing and keeping new habits is clear-cut! It typically takes around three weeks to form a new habit and make tweaks to the ritual as needed. Here are five simple ways to set yourself up for success and stay on track no matter what obstacles come your way.

1. Cut right to the chase

Being crystal clear about what you want to achieve — and which habits will help you get there — is essential. Say you want to eat healthier. That's a great goal, but it's not very specific. Do you simply want to eat more vegetables? Eat less fast food? Make more home-cooked meals?

Give it some thought and drill down into exactly what you want to accomplish.

Once you've identified the goal, you can start to figure out what specific habits you need to work into your life!

2. Start slow by taking baby steps

Shot of young woman sitting at a table and writing notes. Businesswoman working at her desk.Aim for progress, not perfection. If, for example, you want to get into creative writing and author a short story, don't immediately resolve to write for an hour every morning. When your alarm went off today, did you want to jump right to your desk and start typing on your computer, or did you want to hit snooze? If your new habit isn't something you normally do, then telling yourself that you're going to do it every day for the rest of your life starting now could be setting yourself up for failure.

Instead, you could start by planning to write for 30 minutes, three times a week. After a month, maybe it would feel right to increase your time to a whole hour. Eventually, you could build up to the point where you're sitting down to write each morning — but starting out with something simple and attainable is the smartest way to get there.

3. Incorporate one new habit at a time

One common mistake is taking on too many new changes at once. It's great to be ambitious, but habit change experts are adamant that it's best to focus on one change at time!

Getting used to doing things in a new way can be a long process, and if you try to pile on all of the changes at the same time, your goals are likely going to feel overwhelmingly difficult. Take some time to strategize about what habit you want to tackle first — and once you've mastered that, move on to the next one.

4. Get back on track

When you're establishing a new routine, occasionally slipping back into your old ways is inevitable. But how you choose to deal with setbacks is completely up to you, and can make all the difference in keeping up your new habits long-term.

When considering your goal, think about the different ways you might get tripped up with your new habit (and how you could recover). Let's say you're trying to make it spin class two mornings a week and you know that you have a tendency to oversleep. To combat this, you might set an extra alarm on those mornings. You could also bribe one your friends to call and check that you haven't slept through the sweat session — finding a "workout buddy" to hold you accountable can be super motivating!

And remember, it's important to cut yourself some slack every now and then. Research shows that missing a habit once is no big deal! So when you mess up (which happens to everyone), instead of spiraling, simply focus on how you can get back on track.

5. Remember to reward yourself

One of the main reasons bad habits can be so hard to break is that there's a built-in reward for doing them. For instance, if you bite your nails when you're stressed, you're getting a sense of relief out of it.

Good habits, on the other hand, tend to have less immediate rewards. You won't become a cross-country runner after one jog — but in order to reinforce a habit, you've got to give yourself some kind of positive sign. So, remember to celebrate early (and often) as you get better at maintaining your new habit.

No matter how small, your wins are worth a reward. So, go ahead, treat yourself!

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