5 Proven Ways to Make Habits Stick
Practical strategies for achieving a healthier lifestyle.
July 20, 2021
We don’t have to tell you that breaking old, not-so-good habits and creating new, healthier-for-you routines can be a real challenge. Maybe you’re trying to snack less on sugary foods or you want to start walking more. Whatever the goal, in order to change your behavior for good, you’re going to need determination, dedication, and several easy, science-backed strategies.
Why you should care
According to the latest data from the CDC, a staggering 42% of Americans are categorized as obese, up from 30% just 20 years ago. It’s clear that things are trending in the wrong direction. And given that obesity is linked to a host of other health conditions—including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, a healthier lifestyle can not only bring your weight down into a healthier range, but it can also lower your risk for those chronic conditions.
- It is paramount that adults (if they haven’t already) adopt healthier habits to ensure a longer, happier life.
- Thanks to science-backed evidence and some creative guidance, you can incorporate (and maintain) a set of easy, fun habits that put your healthy lifestyle goals well within reach.
If you’ve ever heard that it takes 21 days to break or form a habit, we’re here to tell you that it’s pure bunk. While it sounds nice, the 21-day rule isn’t actually based on any hard science, just anecdotal results of one doctor 60 years ago.
What the science says: The research actually shows that the time it takes to form a habit is highly variable, depending on the person and the complexity of the new habit (i.e., quitting smoking is obviously much harder than drinking more water daily). In fact, a 2009 study, How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, put the 21-day theory to the test and found that it took study subjects anywhere from 18 to 254 days to get a habit to stick, with the average hovering around 66 days.
What really works: Realizing that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy or timetable for forming habits, here’s what research and experts say can help people build better habits—and make them stick.
- Write it down. Research shows that people are more likely to follow through on a new goal—e.g., exercising three times a week—if they actually put pen to paper. In fact, one study found that subjects were 42% more likely to achieve a goal if it was written down compared to those who only verbalized their plans but didn’t commit them to paper.
- Stack your habits. Behavioral psychologists explain that when you tie a new habit to an existing, already ingrained habit, you’re more likely to integrate it into your process—which makes it stick. This is known as habit stacking. Let’s say you want to start strength training but can never seem to find the time. If you find yourself aimlessly waiting for two minutes while your breakfast warms up in the microwave each morning, use that time to do a two-minute circuit of push-ups and squats. From now on, every morning while you wait for your breakfast to heat up, you’ll take it as your cue to do a little exercise. Another example: If you’re good about picking out your clothes the night before work, tack on using that time to pack a healthy lunch or snack so you don’t have to think about it in the morning. The goal is to use an old habit as a cue for your new one.
- Start really, really small. Often, the big mistake people make when wanting to create healthier habits is that they make them too grand. Perhaps you’ve had a soda with lunch every day for years, but suddenly decide that it’s time to give that up. While some may be able to go cold turkey, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t. Instead, set a tiny goal to start. This could be as simple as downsizing from a 20-ounce drink to an 8-ounce one (until you eventually reach zero); or, giving it up once a week, gradually increasing the days you swap in water. Over time, you’ll still reach your goal—no soda at lunch, but in a much more sustainable way.
- Plan for the worst. We often set goals and plan for optimal conditions: “I’ll always have time to cook a healthy meal” or “I’ll never miss my favorite workout class.” Then life happens: A birthday dinner at a steakhouse throws you off course or a string of late work assignments causes you to miss your workout several days in a row. What then? That’s where an “if/then” plan can come into play—so you can plan ahead when things are less than optimal. “If I’m going to eat out, then… I’ll make sure to plan ahead and find something on the menu that works for my nutrition goals.” Or, “If I know I’m going to have a lot of late nights at work, then…I’ll move my workouts to the morning so I don’t skip them.” Research indicates that by creating plans for when things will inevitably go sideways, you can prevent yourself from letting your newfound habits fall apart just as you’re picking up steam.
- Trick yourself into doing something healthy. If going to the gym feels like an absolute slog, you can find ways to make it more enjoyable by tying your “wants” to your “shoulds” in a practice called temptation bundling. In the study, Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, researchers at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania found that when they only allowed study subjects to listen to a gripping audiobook while exercising, subjects visited the gym up to 51% more frequently than those who were encouraged to work out but could still listen to the audiobook at any time. What’s more, after the study, 61% of participants opted to have gym-only access to these audiobooks so they could continue to feel compelled to work out. If audiobooks aren’t your thing, commit to only watching your favorite shows when you’re, say, walking on the treadmill. Not only will you get to see your favorite show, you’ll have clocked anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour of exercise.
Creating healthier habits requires trial and error. Don’t give up if the first things you try don’t stick. What works for you will depend on your lifestyle, your schedule, and anything else going on in your life. Some of these strategies may work better for you than others—and that’s OK. The key is to find a set of habit-forming tricks that feel effortless. And remember: New habits don’t form overnight. Give it time.