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What Makes Healthy Habits Stick?

Having trouble keeping your New Year’s resolution? We’re here to help

Damon Orion

So you’ve been trying to make a habit of exercising, meditating or eating healthier, but you keep falling off the wagon? 

Relax. The problem might not be your lack of willpower. You probably just need to try a different approach.

For a quick primer on how to develop a new habit, we recommend that you start here. Once you’re familiar with the fundamentals, check out these pointers on how to build your habit on a sturdy and sustainable foundation.    

Start Low and Go Slow 

Habitual behavior expert Dr. Benjamin Gardner recommends starting small.

“Don't go from, ‘I'm going to spend my evening sitting in front of the TV,’ to, ‘I'm going to spend two hours on the Peloton,’” he advises. “You're not going to do that. In fact, the best thing to do is think about what one small change is that you can make. So, if you have to use the Peloton, maybe you start by using it for five minutes or so. You build it up slowly.”  

This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of setting realistic expectations.

“There's nothing more disheartening than trying to change your behavior and feeling like you failed, and then having to give it up,” Gardner offers. “So, the way that you can overcome that is just think of something that you could easily do.”

He says it’s better to start with some “baby steps” to build up confidence.

“Then you can build something from there,” he says. 

Stack Your Habits

BJ Fogg, a social scientist and author, has been credited with creating a technique called habit-stacking. Also known as piggybacking, this is the act of using an established habit as a cue for a new behavior. As an example of this, half of the participants in a British study began flossing before brushing their teeth at night, while the other half of them flossed after brushing. By using the preexisting habit of brushing their teeth as a cue to floss, the latter group was habit-stacking. Need we say which group had greater success in making the flossing habit stick? 

Make It Fun

A study of people who were striving to ingrain a lasting exercise habit showed that people who focused on the activities at the gym that they most enjoyed—for example, going to Zumba class with their friends—got better results than those who did more grueling workouts on exercise machines like the elliptical or the StairMaster. 

“We’re much more able to do things repeatedly and persist in things when we find a way to pursue them that’s fun,” explains behavioral scientist Katy Milkman. “This is very Mary Poppins: Put the sugar on top. Make it fun. Then, it's no longer an uphill battle.”

Reward Yourself

Wendy Wood, a psychologist and habit formation expert, writes in her book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick that our habit-learning circuitry responds best to rewards. For example, you’re more likely to stick with your jogging routine if you reward yourself with a little chocolate afterwards. It’s even better if someone else surprises you with something pleasant, because unexpected rewards yield the best results. The reward needs to happen within a minute the habit being practiced, because according to research the resulting hit of dopamine appears to facilitate habit formation for less than a minute. 

Trends w/ Benefits’ mental health advisor Raghu Appasani, psychiatrist and neuroscientist, notes:

“When your brain recognizes a pattern, such as a connection between action and reward, it files that information away in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia.” 

When this happens, the brain stops consciously participating in the decision-making process. The routine becomes automatic, thus turning into a habit.  

Before You Go

Two final tips from Raghu Appasani: 

  • Share your goal with a friend for accountability. 
  • Stay consistent. Repetition is key when forming habits.“Our brains will try to form routine into habit when done consistently over a period of time,” Appasani explains. 
Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work here.  

Read More: 7 Ways to Make Forming Habits Easier

Read More: How Many Days Does It Take to Form a New Habit?

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