A No B.S. Guide to Creating New Habits
We made it! It’s 2021, and even though we all are a little worse for the wear after 2020, there’s something promising about a new year. I don’t believe in that “new year, new you” B.S., but I also love the start of something new -- it feels hopeful. For me, a new year has always been a time for me to look at my habits to see what is no longer serving me OR what can serve me better. A new year (and often a new month, sometimes even a new week) is when I look to establish new habits that will help me feel better. (By the way, this often means finding new and different ways to treat myself so keep an open mind to what new habits mean; if it feels like a punishment or a chore, it likely won’t become a habit.)
Full disclaimer: I am not a “I’ve dedicated my life to understanding habits” expert. There are loads of TED talks, books, articles, and podcasts on the topic of habits and habit formation that are well-worth checking out if you want to go down the rabbit hole. I’m here to save you some time and give you the five things I’ve found have helped me successfully create new habits time and time again.
But First...Some of the Science Behind Habits
For years, I’ve believed the quoted statistic that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. It wasn’t until recently (when I was going down that rabbit hole of research, books, and YouTube videos on habits) that I found out where that number came from and that true research on habit formation doesn’t support the 21 day statistic. Fun fact: The “it takes 21 days to form a new habit” comes from a 1950's plastic surgeon, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, who noticed his patients took roughly 21 days to get used to their new/changed body (or lack thereof when he had performed an amputation). He then went on to publish a book in 1960 called Psycho-Cybernetics that detailed out his observations of his patients as well as his own habit formation experiences.
So what is the actual number of days? Well...it depends. Recent studies specifically on habit formation have found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days. Yikes...that’s wide range! If you’re looking for an exact number, a 2009 study concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit. Personally, I like the idea of “it depends and can be anywhere from 18 to 254 days.” I like the range because it feels more freeing (I’m not counting down the days to some miraculous deadline that means I’ve formed a new habit), AND the range reminds me of one important fact that is backed by research -- missing a day doesn’t mean that you’ve blown your chance at establishing the new habit.
My Tips for Creating Successful Habits
I’ve tried every habit trick in the book and have found these actions to be my best bet at creating a new habit. (Just an FYI -- while I don’t study habits for an actual living, finding a habit hack that actually works has been a personal hobby of mine since I was in high school...I’m a bit of a nerd.)
1. Study your current habits, especially if you want to change them. - Habits are defined by scientific studies as “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.” Think of it like washing your hands after going to the bathroom or putting on your seatbelt when you get in a car. Knowing that, when you think of the habits you want to change (or replace with new habits) or the new habits you want to start, you need to think of what triggers the habit. For example, when I wanted to start drinking a full glass of water first thing in the morning (we learned about the benefits of doing this in our episode with Erin Zammett Ruddy), I spent a few minutes thinking about why I didn’t do that now, what could be a trigger for me to do that (you know, besides waking up), and how I could set myself up for success. Thinking about that made me realize that I needed to have one of my insulated bottles of water set out on my bathroom counter in the evening. For me, the trigger of seeing the bottle of water in the bathroom (typically the first place I go after waking up) was enough of a reminder to drink water. Now I don’t even need to do that and naturally head to get a glass of water BEFORE going to the bathroom.
2. Know your why! - This is the true secret sauce in forming a new habit that lasts. I never even try to start a new habit until I know why I’m starting, and, to take it a step further, feel emotionally, positively connected to “my why.” First, if you don’t know why you are starting something new (and this goes beyond just habits), it makes it much easier to stop because you aren’t really that invested in it. (For example, if your new habit is getting up an hour earlier to work out every morning, but you don’t know why you are doing it. Ask yourself how easy it will be to bail on that habit?!) Additionally, I think it is important to connect with your why in a positive way. Creating a new habit isn’t about punishing yourself or fixing yourself. If your thought is that you aren’t good enough until you have this new habit, then the habit already feels heavy and daunting. It feels much better and helps my habits to stick when I decide to start a new habit with a positive mindset. For example, I am starting a new habit of reading every night because I know that I get joy out of it. It’s a simple why, but it makes me excited to do it, and it sure beats the thought of starting this new habit because I’m judging myself for watching too much TV.
3. Pair your new habit with something you already consistently do. - I forget where I first heard this piece of advice, but it has been a game-changer for me. Instead of trying to create a whole new routine, I look for things I already do every (or almost every) day. Staying with my reading every night example -- I take a bath almost every night (it’s how I unwind). Now I keep my book in the bathroom and grab that to read while relaxing. I didn’t have to start a new routine, and it feels very natural to pair these two. Another example is brushing my teeth and taking vitamins. I brush my teeth every morning after eating breakfast and take my Vitamin D and DHA supplements. This is where studying your habits really comes into play because if you recognize other habits or consistent behaviors you have, those often become easy things to pair your new habits with.
4. Turn it into a game or fun activity. - This is the most recent “tool” that I’ve added to my habit formation toolkit. And it works phenomenally well for those habits that have been harder for me to stick to. I’ve also found that it tends to be the habits that are a little more involved. For example, I’ve been trying to cook more rather than ordering takeout or resorting to eating chips & salsa for dinner every night. I’ll save my long-list of “why’s” behind this, but it’s been a habit that I’ve been passionate about starting for a while. It wasn’t until I recently realized that I needed to make the actual act of cooking enjoyable for me. And what that means for me is a show on (preferably a Harry Potter movie) that I can “watch” and a glass of wine or sparkling water. This has morphed into some nights having on great music and dancing in the kitchen while cooking. For me, these simple additions have made the habit stick.
5. Have an accountability partner. - This is an oldie, but a goodie when it comes to habit hacks. I try to use this one sparingly because how many accountability partners can one have before it’s too overwhelming?! I tend to use this for those habits that I know I will want to talk (sometimes lament) with someone about. For this new year, I’m wanting to eat less sugar. I’ve found that the amount of sugar I eat now leaves me feeling crummy, and I honestly can’t control myself around sweets. (If there are three candy bars sitting next to me, I’ll eat all three in one sitting. And then feel physically like shit after.) I’ve talked with one of my best friends about it, and she’s been feeling the same way. So we are mapping out a plan together and going to tackle this habit together. It makes me excited to do it, and I know I’ll have someone to talk to when I’m struggling.
Bonus advice: One extra tip that I’ve found can be helpful is using technology to your advantage. When used correctly, setting reminders for yourself on your phone or computer can help you stay on track with your habit formation. But, be aware of your own behaviors with technology. It can be real easy to snooze reminders without ever actually doing the thing that the reminder was set up to remind you to do. That’s why I recommend exhausting my other tips first before turning to technology.
One thing I briefly hinted at earlier that needs to be boldly stated is that missing a day or an opportunity to perform a new habit does NOT mean that you failed. Research shows that you can establish a new habit even when you don’t perfectly perform the habit every single time. This means that you can miss a day of going to bed at a new, earlier time and still form a habit of going to bed early. The key is not to beat yourself up or think you failed -- you just take the next opportunity to perform the new habit and do it. I don’t know about you, but I feel much less stress knowing I don’t have to be perfect while I’m creating new habits.