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How to Make a New Habit that Sticks

There’s a saying by Lao Tzu that says, “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become your habits. Watch your habits; they become your character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” While the quote may seem Pinterest-y, Lao Tzu knew what he was talking about — habits are the root of who you are as a person, and breaking harmful ones while creating productive and empowering ones is imperative to becoming the person you want to be. 

Whether you’re wanting to create a new habit of making your bed each morning, drinking more water each day, or even focusing more on gratitude while you’re at work, there are several keys to make sure that your new habit sticks. “Habit formation is the process by which new behaviors become automatic” –  with repetition and intentionality, you can build habits that matter to you. Here’s how to make a new habit (that sticks).

Form new, healthy habits + get past mindset blocks

Find a cue, and assign it an action.

A study from the British Journal of General Practice talks about the importance of cues and triggers for building an effective, long-lasting habit. When you begin implementing a new habit, always have something that comes before it. For example, turn on your car and then play a news podcast; wake up in the morning and immediately reach for the glass of water beside you; open an email and immediately respond to it. What this does to your brain is train it — as the study says, “therefore habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates. Habits are also cognitively efficient, because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks.”

Deepen the psychological reward of your habit.

When you’re in the early stages of habit-forming, it’s easy to get upset and form mental blocks when you feel like the habit isn’t sticking as quickly as you’d like it to. However, focusing on the benefit and the “why?” behind the habit can make it more personal to you and, therefore, make sure that it’s more likely to stay a habit.

Have a reason and a plan behind the habit.

The whole idea of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is one that definitely applies to habit formation. If you’re not motivated to create whichever habit you’re reaching toward, you’ll never reach it — and that starts with a reason and a plan. Why are you trying to implement this habit? Is it something related to your health or your own personal growth? Or are you just trying to start a habit because you saw it on Instagram? The reason matters. Find your why, and create actionable steps to complete it.

How to replace and kick your bad habits

Identify your triggers.

Just like good habits need a cue and trigger to stick, so do bad habits. The key to breaking and replacing bad habits? Identifying your cue and trigger. For example, maybe you turn to biting your fingernails when your stress levels are high; perhaps you always make a giant bowl of buttery popcorn (great in moderation!) every night when you turn on an episode of Friends; maybe you are sitting in traffic when you pick up your cell phone. Once you identify the cue and trigger, you’re better equipped to fix the issue.

Realize perfection is impossible.

Replacing and cracking bad habits doesn’t come easily. While you should always strive to do your best, holding yourself to an unrealistic expectation doesn’t help anything at all. Realize that you probably will have times where your habits (good or bad!) are broken. That’s okay. Be patient and gracious with yourself.

Find a substitute.

You won’t beat a bad habit if you’re not replacing it with something else satisfying. Here’s a great example for this — “if you are concerned about your binge eating at night, plan to bring 2 cookies up to your bedroom at 10:00 and resolve not to go back downstairs for the rest of the evening to keep you from finding yourself wandering around the kitchen all evening and veering towards kitchen.” Basically, the key is to not deprive yourself, while still remaining disciplined and practicing self-control.

Regardless of whether you’re creating a new habit or trying to break an old one, you have the tools to do so. Focus a little less on perfection and give yourself a break: You’re awesome and capable of living a fruitful, full life, and you deserve the best. With a little bit of discipline, focus, and self-value, you’ll be on the way to building a new habit or breaking a bad one before you know it.

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