How to Make a New Habit Stick

Why It’s Harder than You Thought—and What to Do about It

We’re over seventy days into the New Year. How are you doing with your goals and resolutions? Some people I talk with are building momentum and making big gains. Others are struggling—especially when it comes to developing beneficial new habits.

For decades now I’ve heard that it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit, thirty days at the most. If a person can just marshal their will power for three or four weeks, bingo! They’ve got it made. But anyone struggling to form a new habit knows there’s more to the story.

What They Don’t Tell You about Those 21 Days

Running is automatic for me these days. I hardly have to think about doing it. But that wasn’t always the case. It used to require a lot of grit and determination. And I can tell you this: Moving from one state to the other took far more than twenty-one days.

It turns out the twenty-one day “rule” is a myth with practically no scientific basis. If we’re trying to do something simple and easy, it might work. But, as Jeremy Dean explains in his book Making Habits, Breaking Habits, acquiring complex or challenging habits will probably take us a lot longer.

How long?

Researchers at University College London tracked people attempting to form different types of new habits. Instead of three or four weeks, they found it took an average of sixty-six days for new habits to become automatic. And they projected that some would take more than 250 days.

6 Simple Tricks to Make Even Tough Habits Stick

Perhaps you read those numbers and groan. I get it. But I bet you’d rather succeed against steep odds than settle for a fantasy and get nowhere. Me too. The good news is that there are several tricks we can use to make even tough habits stick.

  1. Stay connected to your why. Motivation is the key to forming any habit. If we get lost in the monotony and difficulty of forming a habit, we’re not going to make it. The messy middle swamps countless goal seekers.

    As I teach in 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever, a compelling why will prevent us from burning out or losing interest and quitting. If your why is not compelling enough, it’s time to swap it for something that excites you.

  2. Find the right trigger. Sometimes we struggle because we’re using ineffective cues for our new habits. In Making Habits, Breaking Habits, Dean suggests “implementation intentions,” simple statements that formulate our habits as responses to predetermined triggers.

    For example: If I’m hungry before dinner, then I’ll have some almonds. This can be especially effective when tacking new habits on the back of already formed habits. After I finish my lunch, I’ll go for a fifteen minute walk. It takes the thinking out of it because the response is predetermined.

  3. Pick the right reward. The why and the reward are closely linked, but the reward might be a smaller, more immediate incentive. It’s best to find an intrinsic reward—such as the way our new behavior makes you feel. External rewards can work as well, but they can be less effective in the long run, especially if we lose interest in the reward, get demotivated, and slack off before we’re even aware.

  4. Anticipate the reward. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says the real win is when we start anticipating the reward. This moves the reward from mere incentive to a powerful source of energy and drive. It’s like the difference between take your medicine and have another scoop of your favorite ice cream.

    I experience this with running. I feel better once I’ve run. That’s the reward, and when I first started running that was enough to get me going. But having run for so long, I now look forward to that feeling. I anticipate it, and that gets me fired up long before I lace up.

  5. Scale it back. Sometimes we get into trouble by loading too much change on our plates. This is easy to do. I’ve always encouraged big goals, but in our enthusiasm we might slip right from audacious to delusional and only realize it after we’re hitting the wall.

    As Dean says, we can try chunking or sequencing our habit formation—something I also cover in Best Year Ever. Our habits then become stepping stones instead of roadblocks.

  6. Travel with friends. One of the best ways to get through the messy middle is companionship. Most any journey is improved with friends. It’s one of the reasons Gail and I exercise together.

    It should come as no surprise that this is a key factor in creating new habits. Duhigg points to a Harvard study that found forming habits in community makes significant change more believable to us—and thus achievable. By working together we can mutually reinforce positive behaviors, share burdens, and encourage each other.

If you’re struggling to make your new habits stick, welcome to the club. Instead of being discouraged, I hope you’ll be relieved. You’re not doing anything wrong!

If you’re judging yourself against the twenty-one days rule, feel free to scrap it. Instead, you just need to stay committed to your goal, commit to your why, fine tune your triggers and rewards, and pal up for the journey ahead.

I bet you’re already closer than you think.

Question: Are you finding success this year with your new habits? What’s working or not working for you?

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