3 Steps to Creating Habits That Stick

As a fitness coach, I spend a lot of time helping people figure out which habits are promoting their health, and which ones are probably due for a change. We humans, advanced as we may be in many areas, are still very heavily inclined to be creatures of habit: we like our habits and it can take some serious effort to change them. Often, the bad health habits (overeating, smoking, etc) can be the hardest to change because they seem to be the most addictive, whereas in many cases the good habits are hard to get to and hard to keep. A weird quirk makes us more likely to harm ourselves day to day than to act with the long term in mind.

To help you along in defying this particular (unfair, really weird) quirk, here are three steps to forming new habits. Use these to modify bad habits or form new ones to help you stay healthy and, ultimately, happy.

Step 1: The Reminder

Every habit great and small starts with something that reminds us to do it. Too many people try to make changes by exercising “will power and memory” in order to push their habits into reality. Don’t do that; your brain is a mess of stuff going on all the time and trying to add more without any outside aid hardly ever works. A good reminder doesn’t rely on things like motivation of memory – it relies on either an external stimulus or a current habit.

To piggyback on habits you already have, pick one that has the same frequency as the new habit you want to form. For instance, if you want to start taking vitamins every day and you already make a cup of coffee each morning, then put the vitamins directly in sight next to the coffee pot. Now, every time you make your coffee, take your vitamins too.

To use an external motivator, you either need to use things that already happen to you each day, or cause something new to happen on a schedule that you don’t have to maintain. Lets say you want to remember to stretch every day when you wake up, and you wake up just before sunrise. As soon as the sun comes up, do 10-15 minutes of stretching. An alternative would be to set your own alarms (with labels/reminder text!) for a time when you want to practice the new habit. In the example of stretching, set an alarm that wakes up in the morning, and then 5-10 min later another reminds you to stretch out.

In addition to removing the need for motivation and memory, a good reminder helps you encode your new actions in an effective manner that removes as much pain as possible. Find the habit you want, and spend a few minutes figuring out your process/plan for triggering it.

Step 2: The Routine

This is, quite simply, the thing that you do. The verb. The action. Every action you take is essentially a routine of varying time and complexity. Brushing your teeth is a simple 3-4 minute routine while completing a workout is a complex 30-40 minute routine in most cases. Either way, these are habits that you may already have in your life, or that you want to develop.

So, step two is: figure out what you actually want to do, and then simplify so it’s so easy you can’t justify not doing it.

Having goals that strive for greatness are awesome, but the best place to start is with small steps that lead up to those great things. If you want to be a figure competitor but you don’t even workout now, then that’s not going to happen in a month (or probably several months). Instead, set your short term goal to be “go to the gym twice per week” and find a reminder on two days in your week that will help you get there. Once you have 3-4 weeks of success, try to get there three times per week. From here it’s just a matter of adding small things over time.

It can’t be stressed enough that not only should you start small, but you should also only be adding things you actually want to become a habit. If someone tells you that you should be running 10 miles per day but you literally hate to run, then this is probably a counter-productive habit to try and build.

In the beginning, it doesn’t matter how well you actually perform; it just matters that you become the person who sticks to it. Once the “thing” is part of your behavior, then you can start spending time getting better at it. Have you ever heard, “80% of success is showing up”? This is that 80%.

Step 3: The Reward

In life, you should be learning from your failures and celebrating your successes. Too many people lament the former and ignore the latter. Every day, when you succeed at something, remind yourself that you put in effort and got results. Sure, those results may not seem terribly impressive now, but over time and with patience, things add up. Slow progress is still progress! If you want to lose weight, jumping straight to a 1,000 calorie deficit every day isn’t going to work for 99.99% of people, but 100 calories per day is actually pretty easy – and sustainable, which is what matters!

Little things can be great rewards. When you finish a workout, tell yourself (out loud!) that you made progress today. Literally, say “Good job [Me], you are one step closer to your goal today.” Give yourself some credit and enjoy little successes as they come up. Simple, positive reinforcement through language can make a huge difference. For me, I like to do victory dances of varying lengths and absurdity (totally not a joke).

At the same time, hold yourself accountable when you don’t maintain your habits. You set the goal of working out twice per week and missed a session just because you didn’t feel like going. Well, honestly, that sucks and you did yourself a disservice by not going. Don’t gloss over it when you fail to do something, but don’t freak out about it either. Learn from it, and on the next scheduled day, get your butt to the gym.

From here, you can use these steps applied to just about any habit, though it may take a little time to figure out the details. Spend time considering the Reminder, Routine, and Reward carefully. Does everything fit in your schedule (be honest here, it probably does)? Do you actually want/need this new habit? Is there a bigger goal ahead of you that this habit supports? Once you know what you want/need, you can figure out where to start by reducing the big stuff one step at a time until you just can’t justify not doing it anymore.