4 Tips to Make It Easier to Forge New Habits
Whether your goal is to eat healthier, exercise more often, or be more mindful in your day-to-day life, you’ve probably spent some time wondering why changing your ways is so difficult. The problem isn’t not knowing what you want to accomplish, but rather aligning your actions with your desired outcome, and eventually closing the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
“Habits or behaviors are hard to break,” explains Stephanie Gilbert, L.M.F.T., a therapist based in Santa Monica, California. “Oftentimes, we focus on the habit we want to change and think that we can 'willpower' our way out of it. But people like routine, so doing anything out of our normal feels different and uncomfortable.”
Research suggests that actions become habits when we frequently and consistently do them. But how do we get from dreaming about becoming a gym rat, a morning person, or a five-fruits-and-vegetables-a-day eater to actually doing it? Follow these four tips to act with the consistency, simplicity, and self-kindness needed to make lasting change.
1. Break Down Your Goal into Manageable Steps
To set yourself up for success, start by creating subgoals: smaller micro-objectives that can bring you a step closer to achieving a larger overall goal. Studies suggest that setting subgoals may help us build motivation early on and aid our problem-solving ability.
Say, for example, you want to get to bed earlier and change your usual bedtime from 12 a.m. to 10 p.m. Instead of immediately moving up your bedtime and feeling defeated when you can’t doze off two hours earlier than you normally would, start with small steps—try going to bed a few minutes earlier every few nights until you hit your goal time, or maybe put your devices away so you aren’t tempted to stay up scrolling.
“Remember to support yourself in the process of the change,” Gilbert says. “Perhaps you talk through some sleep hygiene steps with someone else, and make some small changes like making sure the temperature of your room is slightly cooler at night, and getting rid of that annoying bedside clock that ticks loudly.”
2. Find an Element of Fun
By creating positive associations with new habits, you may make them stickier. The concept of positive reinforcement, first introduced by behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, is a core component of habit formation. It refers to the introduction of a pleasurable stimulus or reward after a behavior to help train your brain to continue that action.
If you're stressed about poor sleep habits, it can help to add something to your night ritual that is pleasurable, such as reading a funny book, doing a few relaxing yoga poses, or enjoying a fragrant candle or lotion, says Kristen Lee, Ed.D., L.I.C.S.W., the lead faculty member for the Behavioral Science program at Northeastern University.
“The key is thinking small: Change doesn’t happen in one fell swoop or through grand gestures,” Lee explains. “If we set tiny new habits that are enticing, we slowly increase our momentum and capacity to keep making small steps forward.”
In the same vein that rewarding ourselves helps us develop momentum, punishing ourselves can slow our progress. Lee says we are wired to be able to change and grow our resilience—but shaming and blaming ourselves is rarely a catalyst for the change we want.
3. Approach Yourself with Kindness
Change is easier said than done, so it's helpful to remember not to be so hard on yourself if you have a setback or have an off day.
“Watch the negative self-talk and the tendency to label yourself ‘lazy’ or ‘incompetent’ as you navigate the absolutely inevitable ebbs and flows of change,” says Jennifer R. Wolkin, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist based in New York City.
One simple way to practice a little more self-compassion is talking to yourself the same way you would talk to a friend. If a friend were to fall a little short on their goal to get more steps each day, would you talk down to them and make them feel like their efforts were meaningless, or would you approach them with patience and kindness? Showing yourself the same kindness and consideration you would give to others can help you navigate setbacks while maintaining your motivation.
4. Control What You Can, Surrender What You Can’t
“Identify ways you can feel most in control of the behavior change process, and then commit to practicing letting go of all that’s not in your control,” Wolkin suggests. “When we control what we can, and stop trying to control what we can’t, we ease our discomfort and cultivate more peace of mind.”
It’s true: Research suggests that trying to control external circumstances that simply don’t rest in our hands may make us more stressed and less happy. To better understand what you can and can’t control as you strive to form new habits, write down your thoughts.
Say you’re trying to work your way up from jogging to running: You can make an effort to go for a brief run a few days a week, but you can’t control whether your child needs to stay home sick, effectively causing you to skip a day. You may not be able to control the rainy weather outside, but you are in command of your attitude and willingness to persevere through a couple of rain drops.
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