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How to Develop Good Habits and Routines that Stick

Developing new habits and routines is tricky. Here’s the best way to go about doing it.

Habits are the little things you do every day, like what you eat for lunch, whether or not you go to the gym or meditate, and whether you read a book or look at Instagram in the last few minutes before you go to sleep. They make up a considerable number of the decisions and actions we make every day. When was the last time you bought a different brand of toothpaste? Or cooked a totally new meal?

Since habits make up many of our day-to-day decisions and actions, they have a significant impact on our health and happiness. If your lunch habit is to get a salad and then meditate for 10 minutes, you’re likely to be a lot healthier than someone who has a cheeseburger and chases it up with a cigarette.

Habits have a lot of momentum, so changing them can be hard. If you’ve ever failed at a New Year’s resolution, you’ll know what I mean. But that doesn’t mean dropping bad habits and developing good ones can’t be done. Let’s get started.

Work Out What You Want to Do—and Why

Ever decide you want to do something, like go to the gym every day or meditate or whatever else, and start super gung-ho for the first week? What happened at the start of the second week when your motivation tapered off? I’m guessing your commitment to your new routine tapered off too. It happens to everyone. The problem is that your initial flash of motivation only gets you so far. To develop more sustained motivation, you need a much clearer idea of what you’re trying to achieve, and why.

When it comes to setting goals, there’s one thing you need to remember. They should be SMART:

  • Specific and clear; not vague. Things like “lose 4 lbs” rather than just “lose weight.”
  • Measurable. You need to be able to track your progress. If you lose 0.1 ounces, you’ve technically met a goal to “lose weight” but not your specific “lose 4 lbs goal”.
  • Achievable. Your goal needs to be something you can actually do. There’s no point setting a goal to run a marathon in less than three hours if you can’t run a mile non-stop.
  • Relevant to your broader aims. If you want to be healthy, setting a goal to get on Dirty Dan’s Dirty ‘Dogs most-hotdogs-in-an-hour leaderboard is not a good idea.
  • Time-limited. General, someday goals are pretty useless. All your goals should have a defined timeline like “before Christmas,” “in the next eight weeks,” and so on.

Go through your broad, vague goals and turn them into SMART goals. Then you can start to develop habits that support them. With realistic, achievable, defined goals, you’re much more likely to stay motivated for longer.

Start Small

Woman meditating in her bedroom using a meditation app on her iPad
Monkey Business Images

The biggest mistake people make with any personal development or change to their routines is going too big and trying to do too much at once. It’s hard to start a new exercise routine, change up what you eat, or learn to meditate. It’s even harder to do all three at once.

Don’t try and change everything all in one go. Start small and work to develop a few easy habits that support your goals. Try and work them into your existing routine. For example, if you want to learn to meditate, make it your routine to meditate as soon as you wake up, after your morning coffee, or at some other defined point throughout the day.

Similarly, don’t start off trying to meditate for an hour every morning. Start with ten minutes and build from there. You’re much more likely to stick to an easy habit than a hard one, and sticking to the habits you’re trying to develop is how you to turn them into real, automatic habits.

Keep Track of Your Success (And Don’t Break the Chain!)

Consistency is the key to developing habits. The more consistently you do the same thing over and over again, the more automatic it becomes. To make sure you’re sticking to your habits, you need to track them.

The best way to do it is Jerry Seinfeld’s Don’t Break the Chain method. The idea is that on every day you complete a habit, you mark it off in a calendar (either a physical calendar or with an app like Streaks). As the days pass and your streak of success gets longer, you’ll be motivated not to miss a day and “break the chain.”

And once you have a rhythm going, the habit will become ingrained.

If You Fail, Forgive Yourself and Keep Going

Missing a day from time to time is normal when you’re trying to develop a new habit. Life gets in the way of things; just keep going the next day as before.

Missing two days, however, is a bit of a red flag. It makes it much easier to miss a third and a fourth day and so on. Your aim when developing a habit should be never to miss two days in a row and to do whatever it takes to get the habit done so that you don’t.

Once you start missing three or more days in a row, you need to stop and work out why. Is the habit too much or not something you’re actually interested in doing? If that’s the case, that’s fine. On the other hand, if the habit is still something you want to develop, then you need to work out a way to make it easier to achieve and get back at it.

Whatever happens, when you fail—and you will fail—don’t beat yourself up. Forgive yourself, and keep going.

Embrace the Long-haul

Developing new habits and routines take time. You can only work on a few things at once, and it can take months for them to actually stick. There’s no quick fix to go from someone who watches hours of Netflix every evening to a marathon runner. You have to embrace the long-haul.

Changing your habits is hard, but it’s also gratifying. Put the work in early, and soon you’ll be on autopilot.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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