How To Make New Habits That Stick

If you’re anything like me, I often find that there are parts of my life I would like to change—I’d like to eat healthier, exercise more, spend less money on coffee etc. However, it can be hard to stick by these new habits and build them into your daily living; motivation waxes and wanes and while we may be inspired to change up our lives and routines at certain points in time, we can fall back into our old ways of living quite easily.

When building a habit it’s important to understand that a habit isn’t just something you do or don’t do—it’s a lifestyle choice. A habit is formed by the intentional repetition of an act; for it to become an unconscious act that is fully integrated into your daily living, you have to set it up so that it is desirable and easy to slip into your already established routine.

So, below are a few ways to help you build new habits into your life in such a way that you will stick with them.

1. Know your “why” 

This is probably the most important step and should be the first thing you consider when attempting to build a new habit. Why do you want this habit in your life? Understanding the motivation behind a change in your lifestyle can be helpful in not only starting the habit but also maintaining it; “I want to quit smoking because I want to reduce my risk of disease”. The ‘why’ can then serve as a reminder when motivation is low and you’re struggling to carry through with the habit.

2. Be specific about the habit

“I will eat healthy”—what does this mean? Never touching a piece of chocolate again or introducing more fruit and veg into your life? Substituting fizzy drinks for water? Make it clear what it is you want to do—and write it down! —to make it easier to follow and build up this habit.

To go even one step further, you can write down when and where you will perform this new habit, to leave no room for uncertainty. So, if you want to read more, specifying that, “I will read at least one chapter of my book in bed before I go to sleep”, will make it more likely that you will follow through with it as you know the specific details in how to carry it out.

3. Cue-based habits

Having a reminder in plain sight can be a handy way to ensure you continue with your habit. For example, leaving a box of floss beside your toothbrush, rather than tucked away in a cabinet, will remind you to floss your teeth each time you reach for your toothbrush. In this case, even though the habit of flossing your teeth isn’t yet a step in your dental hygiene and you may often forget to do it, you are now reminded each time you do brush your teeth to also floss, just by the sight of the box (i.e., the cue).

4. Stack habits

Find a habit you want to do and stack it on top of a habit or routine that is already built into your life. Essentially, every time you do X, do Y. For example, if your habit is to meditate more, why don’t you set aside 5 minutes of meditation while on the train or bus to work? This is something you’re already doing so it will take minimal effort to set up the environment.

In addition, using the steps above, you could add a cue and make it specific to maximise the chances of building this habit into your life. So, meditating for 5 minutes on your way to work becomes: “While taking the train to work, after it leaves X station, I will meditate for five minutes”.

Most importantly­ be compassionate with yourself. As said before, it’s a lifestyle change and at times that is not easy. If you forget to do it, don’t beat yourself up. Simply urge yourself to try again tomorrow. You’re only human after all and until the habit becomes an unconscious act, there is a chance of you forgetting.

Written by Nicole Russell, a volunteer with the Limerick Mental Health Association and psychology graduate of the University of Limerick.