How to Form Good Habits

At the start of every year we get excited about how this year, we’re really going to follow through on our New Year’s Resolutions. We make plans to get in shape, quit smoking, get out of debt, and floss daily. We look forward to getting to bed early, getting up early, and taking advantage of every moment of every day so that we can fully accomplish our goals.

After only a few months, though, our initial burst of enthusiasm is often replaced our old, bad habits. We start to give ourselves excuses as to why we can break our resolutions:

“We had a hard day at work, so we’ll spend this evening in front of the TV decompressing. The gym can wait until the weekend.” — “We had a stressful week, so we deserve one cigarette. We’ll go back to quitting after this last one.” — “We’re bored, so let’s go spend money. The budget we wrote up is only a guideline, it’s not the law.”

I’m confident that we’ve all fallen victim to this pattern. We know what it is that we want to accomplish, but maintaining these new habits is challenging because it involves a change in routine. Here are three strategies that I use to form good habits:

1. Start Small

Perhaps the worst thing that you can do is task yourself with multiple difficult goals, and try to start them at all once. You want to ease yourself into the new habits gradually, so that they actually become habits that stick. Furthermore, you might start with a single, simple habit and work your way up.

For example, one habit that I couldn’t break for 20 years was to stop sleeping in. Multiple alarms didn’t work. Putting my alarm clock on the other side of the room didn’t work. No matter what fancy alarm clock I tried, I would still sleep in until the last possible moment.

The thing that finally taught me how to wake up when my alarm went off? Practice! I spent half an hour one night repeatedly getting out of bed when my alarm sounded, trying to re-train my brain. The next morning, I got up right away!

After successfully forming this good habit, I was incredibly encouraged! I had been sleeping in for my entire life. Conquering this bad habit always seemed impossible — but now that I knew change was possible, I wanted to form even more good habits!

2. Have a Plan

Some people say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Others say 30 days. Personally, it takes me maybe 90 days before I’m convinced that something I’m doing is officially part of my routine.

If your goal requires a serious time commitment, it’s best to have set days and/or set times for when you’ll be working towards your goal. In other words, it’s best to have a plan!

When my girlfriend and I started going to the gym this year, our trainer recommended that we go three times a week: One day for upper body, one day for lower body, and one day for circuit training.

Although Cassie wanted to be flexible about which days we went (picking and choosing based on convenience and interest), I suggested that we plan on going Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays. As a result, we now have dedicated “gym days” where we know that we must go, regardless of how we feel about it. Consequently, we’ll go even when it’s not particularly convenient, and even when we might not want to.

We’ve effectively replaced a bad habit (watching TV every night) with a good one (attending the gym thrice a week). At the time of this writing, we’ve been to the gym 25 times since we signed up at the start of 2011 — racking up nearly 40 hours of time spent working out! It’s thrilling when you realize how you’re successfully maintaining commitment to your goal by sticking to your plan.

3. Make it Easy on Yourself

Forming new habits is difficult enough — don’t make it any harder than it has to be!

If you want to form good habits, piggyback them on existing habits. Place the Dental Floss next to your toothpaste. Keep your “Learning Spanish” CD in the car and listen to it during your commute. Sleep in your workout clothes so you don’t need to change into them before your morning run.

Similarly, if you want to break bad habits, eliminate any temptations. Take only enough cash with you that you can afford to spend. Toss the cigarette cartons. Don’t buy soda or snacks. Remember that you are simultaneously your own worst enemy and best ally — so be sure that your actions are in sync with your goals!

To recap: Start Small, Have a Plan, and Make it Easy on Yourself. These are three simple strategies that I’m using to form good habits, and stick to my goals for 2011.

What about you?  How are your New Years Resolutions going? If you’re still on target, please share your own strategies in the comments! If not, then let this article serve as a reminder for whatever it is you set out to do this year!

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5 Responses to “How to Form Good Habits”

#1 Clint Cora Canadian Motivational Speaker on 02, Mar, 2011 at 3:43 pm

It also takes repetition to form good habits too. There is the 21 day rule which implies that you must do something straight for 21 days before something is ingrained into your system.

#2 Rojae Braga on 14, Mar, 2011 at 11:37 am

Hi Clint Cora,

I strongly agree with you. I used to have this mentor who used to remind me of the three key steps in forming good habits. And that steps are to 1. Repeat, 2. Repeat, and 3. Repeat. Funny as it may sound but it really played a big role in shaping up good habits of mine. However, I am just a bit curious about the 21 day rule that you have stated? Does it have any reason why they chose 21 as the specific number of days needed before something is ingrained into your system?

#3 Eric on 16, Mar, 2011 at 3:55 am

Absolutely right. I’m starting small, and its paying off. Its not easy, but its not expected to be anyway. Thanks

#4 Darlene on 31, Aug, 2011 at 11:19 am

Just read the sleep practice article by Steve Pavlina. Great read! Steve has a great career ahead as an author – informative with great humor!

#5 Transforming Unhelpful Habits mind mapIQ Matrix Blog on 25, Sep, 2013 at 5:49 am

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