How Do We Make a New Habit Stick?

You’re all ready to go. You know what you want, it’s in alignment with your long term goals and values, and you’re feeling inspired–and then, you just can’t seem to make it stick. That new habit of going for a walk after work or fitting some fruit into breakfast most days or prepping weekly vegetables on Sunday night. You do it a few times, then life gets hard, and pffft, it’s gone.

In my humble, non-professional opinion, motivation isn’t the problem. Everyone’s feelings (motivation is just an emotion after all) will ebb and flow. People learn to stick to habits without constant motivation all the time. When was the last time you got really stoked to floss your teeth?! The problem is creating a routine that we remember to do that feels natural, so that there’s a low bar to cross for compliance.

In a lot of ways, I think I’m pretty damn good at creating new habits that stick. When I want to ADD something to my routines, usually I get it done and it becomes part of the system pretty fast. Definitely a part of that success is that I have systems. I’m naturally inclined towards routines. I like doing more-or-less the same thing every day. I like eating more-or-less the same foods every day. It feels good. My brain enjoys the predictability and the way I can mentally prepare myself in advance for whatever I’m about to take on. It is less stressful to know in advance that on Thursday I’m going to put in a hard deadlift day than it is to suddenly realize it’s Thursday and now I have a big deadlift workout to get done.

My number one technique for making these kinds of new habits stick is to stack them onto already highly successful habits. This isn’t my idea, although I was doing it before I knew it had a name.(1) Habit stacking requires taking something you already do consistently and adding another habit onto it. Classically, this is like learning to floss after brushing your teeth. If you consistently brush your teeth every evening and want to make sure you floss every day, add flossing right after you brush your teeth, and you’re more likely to make a new habit than if you try to add it somewhere else, like right after lunch if you’re not used to wandering into the bathroom around that time each day.

Habit stacking has helped me increase consistency with my workouts. When I was new to exercise, the first goal for me was to go for walks after work most days. The old habit was driving home, changing out of my work clothes, and taking a seat on the sofa to catch up on personal emails. The new habit was driving home and instead of changing out of my clothes, I just changed into some comfortable walking shoes. Then, I put some music or an audiobook into my ears and walked back out the door. It only took a a handful of weeks for this to feel normal and routine, and it was the first exercise habit that stuck with me after a decade or so of less regular physical activity. (It also helped that this routine felt good–got me out of the house to get some sunshine in my eyes, gave me other things to look at and think about. Walking was immediately rewarding, so that made it an easier habit to add.)

When I was ready to add a new challenge to my fitness, it wasn’t difficult to once again switch up this habit to change into workout clothes to walk to the gym after work. This was a slightly more complex habit to integrate because there were more mini-habits I needed to make it work for me. I found I needed a heftier after-work snack to feel good lifting weights, workout clothes needed to be cleaned and ready to put on, a water bottle was nice to have on hand in the warmer months, and so on. But each piece was tackled independently, and stacked with the others, until it became routine. Habit stacking has been a very useful skill to help me add physical activity into my routines.

I have found eliminating unwanted habits to be harder. My understanding is that the research on this is clear: we need to replace unwanted habits with something else that meets the same need (provides the same reward) as the old habit. Sometimes, I find it difficult to think of replacement habits or even just difficult to identify what the reward or need is that the old habit is filling. For example, I need a lot of sleep to feel rested and ready for the next day’s long list of challenges. My happy place is 9-10 hours a night. I wish it wasn’t true. I’m jealous of folks who function on less. When I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not just tired–I get migraines, an upset stomach, dizzy. I’m not functional. And yet, sometimes I just don’t want to go to bed. The unhelpful habit is me sitting around NOT going to bed when I need to be. Sometimes I’m sitting here at my laptop writing or reading. Sometimes I’m watching a show. Sometimes I’m just laying around staring at stuff thinking deep thoughts about my day. So, what is the reward? Me time? Time to decompress and think my own thoughts? Sure. But honestly, I don’t know another way to get that except to take the time to do it. My schedule is stupidly busy. Some of that is on me; I take on a lot of responsibilities. But there’s also just a lot that needs to be done, and when you need 10 hours of sleep a night, there’s less daylight to do it in. So, for now, my solution is to notice when I can take some time for myself and take it at other times in the day, but there’s no real clear way to build that into a routine the way, say, I was able to build lifting into my routine all those years ago. So, that habit is a work in progress, and there’s still more for me to figure out how to more regularly get the downtime I need so I don’t carve it out of my sleep.

In my experience, building new habits takes a combination of honest, nonjudgmental self-reflection and a willingness and ability to focus upon them, to keep it a project until it feels normal and routine. Habit stacking can feel like a superpower when you get it right, but it can take some trial and error. For me, more times than not, I need to break my habits into smaller chunks rather than trying for big changes all at once. My understanding is that research suggests this varies based on our personalities. It’s worth being open to the possibility that the reason a new habit isn’t sticking is because we’re trying to do too much too soon, especially if you’re convinced you have to do the opposite for a change to “count.” Practice rewarding yourself for the incremental improvements along the way, and you may find that you make faster progress than if you wait to celebrate until you do it all exactly “right.”

Have you succeeded in building new habits? What has worked for you? Do you struggle with changing your habits? What do you think is holding you back? You know I’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or find and follow Progressive Strength on Facebook and join the conversation over there!

(1) According to Eric Trexler at Stronger by Science, credit for this idea comes first from B.J. Fog, and then it was popularized by James Clear. In any case, I learned about it from the ladies at Balance 365.

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