5 Techniques to Make New Habits Stick
Trick your brain into starting and maintaining healthy rituals
Change rarely happens overnight. Even if they do, they are not likely to last very long. Think of the last time you told yourself that you’ll head out for a daily 30-minute run. Perhaps you hit a seven-day streak in the first week. The following week, things get busy at work and you miss a few days of your run. In the third week, you spend most of the week playing host to friends visiting from overseas and are too exhausted to put on your running shoes. At this point, you decide to abandon the goal you had set out for yourself. It seems almost futile to keep trying.
Sometimes, we are unable to achieve our goals because we forget that new habits and rituals demand a certain level of consistency. One study found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for our brain to break a habit or form a new one. That’s both good news and bad news – depending on how you choose to see it. On one hand, yes, you will have to put in the hard work required to build a new habit. On the other hand, the pay-offs are rewarding; once your brain registers a new habit, it is not likely to abandon it.
Indeed, you’ll be surprised by how much you can alter in your life through a series of tiny, gradual changes. And the way to embed these changes is to work with your brain’s innate circuit-building tools. Below, some ways to do just that.
1. Graft new habits onto existing ones
If you’re one who enjoys the aromatic brew of your morning coffee while eating a slice of warm, buttered toast, wake up 30-minutes earlier and squeeze in a morning run before rewarding yourself with breakfast. Perhaps you enjoy listening to a certain podcast on your commute to work. Consider tuning in to this podcast while you’re on your run. By grafting a new branch onto the roots of a happy circuit you’ve already developed, you help your brain to overcome any friction that might arise from trying to nurture a new habit.
2. Prioritise your new habit
New behaviours consume more energy than you expect and unfortunately, your brain has a limited amount of energy to sustain it. When it runs low on energy, you can easily succumb to temptation, such as choosing to take a nap instead of going for a run. As such, try to push your new habit to the top of your schedule or to-do list so that you tackle it while your mental energy is still high.
3. Start small
It is common for many to abandon their goals because they set outsized (albeit well-intentioned) targets and lack the high level of motivation required to sustain this large change. If a 30-minute run is daunting, start with just 10 minutes. Pushing off with tiny habits that you’re more likely to comply with will pave the way to building a bigger habit that lies closer to your end goal. Trying to lay off sugar? Switching from soft drinks to lightly flavoured sparkling water is a good start, as opposed to going cold turkey on sweet beverages altogether.
4. Remove obstacles
Researchers have found that we are more likely to establish new habits when there are no obstacles standing in our way. If you only do your laundry once a week and you don’t have enough exercise clothes, consider purchasing a set for each day of the week. This way, you have no excuse not to head out for your daily run.
In one study, researches prolonged the time – from 10 seconds to nearly half a minute – it took for elevator doors to close. Users, frustrated with the delay, started taking the stairs instead. Interestingly enough, even after the elevator reverted to its normal timing, people continued to utilise the stairs.
5. Treat yourself
When we exercise and see a stronger, toner physique in the mirror, we are incentivised to continue with our new exercise habit. However, such changes might take time to show up, and it is important that we build in a series of immediate rewards to help us stay the course. Running with a partner might be rewarding for some as it allows couples to spend more time together. Or perhaps you enjoy watching sunsets, so timing your run to coincide with it will allow you to appreciate the beautiful colours of the sky as you work towards your goal, stride by stride.