10 Hacks to Form Healthy Habits That Last

Daily habits help drive success, but the good ones are so hard to stick to! These ideas can help you build sustainable routines.

Published November 22, 2022
Sporty young woman eating a yogurt while sitting on fitness ball at home

We've all been there. You see a new health trend online or maybe you hear about it from a friend. You spend about a minute researching it and then you decide that you're fully on board. This is the life-changing habit that will set you on the path to greatness. You head to the store and spend a fortune on supplies because you. are. committed.

Then reality sets in. You practice your new habit faithfully for the first two days. You think, "this is easy!" But then you skip a day. Then a few more. Then, you're over the habit completely and you find yourself wondering why you even tried it in the first place.

If this sounds like a familiar pattern (and, honestly, we've all been there), you might want to explore the tips below to learn how to form good habits that last.

How to Form Healthy Habits That (Really) Stick

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a habit is a "well-learned behavior or automatic sequence of behaviors" that often occurs within a specific context. Over time, these behaviors become unconscious and reflexive, and we no longer have to put a lot of thought into accomplishing them.

However, before a behavior becomes second nature, it must go through the habit formation process. This is the tricky part. It requires a lot of repetition over an extended period of time in order to make the behavior stick.

People want to form habits for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe you want to boost your levels of physical activity. Or, maybe you just want to start drinking more water throughout the day. No matter what habit you're trying to form, it can be helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve. Check out the techniques below to put your best foot forward in your next habit-forming quest.

Practice the Behavior Frequently

This might be a no-brainer, but when you're trying to form a new habit, it's important to perform that behavior often. Ever heard the phrase "practice makes perfect"? It's actually backed up by science.

According to a landmark study from the Psychological Bulletin, the frequency with which a behavior is practiced impacts habit formation. The more you practice a behavior, the more likely it is to become a habit. Conversely, the less you practice a behavior, the harder it is for it to become automatic.

When you're trying to form a new habit, repeat it on as many days throughout the week as possible. Deliberately plan it into your schedule to make sure that you have enough time to dedicate to the activity. It's okay to take breaks or rest days, but just keep in mind that the more often you practice, the more second nature the behavior will become.

Keep Context Consistent

The same study from the Psychological Bulletin also found that context is key when it comes to habit formation. This means that the setting, time of day, and other circumstances can also impact whether a behavior becomes automatic.

For example, if your goal is to drink more water throughout the day, it can be helpful to start by pairing a glass of water with your lunch. Over time, if this behavior is practiced consistently, it can become a habit. Then, you can work on adding more hydration throughout your day, by drinking a glass of water after dinner or after your morning coffee.

Young woman pouring water at kitchen table

Connect New Habits to Old Behaviors

Not only is it helpful to pair a behavior with a context, but it can also be beneficial to pair it with other behaviors. This idea was first created by psychologist BJ Fogg, and is often referred to as anchoring or habit stacking.

If you want to stack a habit, simply connect it to a behavior that is already established. It can be anything from washing your hands, making dinner, brushing your teeth -- any behavior that already feels automatic to you. Then, perform your new habit after your old one. Over time, the two will become connected and form more of a chain of behaviors, rather than two individual events.

In addition, the behaviors that you want to connect don't have to be related. BJ Fogg himself famously pairs going to the bathroom with doing two pushups. But you can create a more traditional behavior chain, like brushing your teeth and then flossing right after. Let your imagination run wild. Think about a goal you want to achieve, and then choose an anchoring behavior that you can rely on.

Start Small

Some habits are more difficult to form than others. Especially if the habit deviates from what you're used to. For example, if you don't currently have a workout routine, it can feel exceptionally hard to hit the gym five days a week. However, if you already get regular physical activity, it might seem a bit easier to increase the number of days you work out.

When you start with small goals it becomes easier to gradually work your way up to larger ones. If your goal is to eat more vegetables, you don't have to become a vegetarian. Instead, aim to add one serving of vegetables to your dinner each night. Then, maybe you'll bump it up to having a serving with lunch and dinner as time goes on.

Small goals are also more manageable and approachable. You may find that you consistently accomplish them over time, and then raise the bar a bit higher as you work towards your greater accomplishment.

Schedule Your Habit at the Start of Your Day

It's estimated that the average adult in the United States makes about 35,000 decisions a day. When you've finally made it through your schedule of work, social events, and general activities, you might notice that both your body and mind feel exhausted. This is due to decision fatigue.

One of the last things you probably want to do when you get home after a long day is work on a new habit that you find challenging. Over the course of the day, all of the decisions and challenges you have faced have taken a lot of effort and used up a lot of your energy.

One way to work around this challenge is to plan your habit in the morning before you have made too many decisions and lost some of your motivation. This way you can be sure to set aside enough time to accomplish the task and not feel weighed down by it at the end of the day.

Choose a Behavior That Is Rewarding

Another way you can boost habit formation is to choose a behavior that you actually like. Research shows that internal motivation and pleasure impact the frequency at which a person practices a behavior.

Are you interested in the habit you are trying to form? Does it make you feel good or happy? Are you doing this for yourself, or are you doing this for some external reward (attention, social status, etc.)? These are questions you should ask yourself to gauge your level of intrinsic motivation. If you feel like you aren't motivated to perform the specific behavior, it might be beneficial to modify it.

Reflect on your overall goal and take a different approach to achieve it. For example, if you want to boost your level of physical activity, you don't have to go to the gym, especially if you don't enjoy that environment. Instead, you can take walks during your lunch break, join a dance class, or follow a yoga flow online. What's important is that you find a behavior that you enjoy that aligns with your larger goal.

Find a Way to Keep Yourself Accountable

When it comes to forming new habits, accountability is your friend. Research shows that people who feel an internal sense of accountability are more likely to experience long-term behavior change than people who don't.

There are several ways to boost your feeling of responsibility to help you on your habit-forming journey, such as:

  • Ask a friend to send you a quick text message each day to check in on your habit.
  • Find a loved one to participate in the habit with you as your designated accountability buddy.
  • Keep a journal filled with your daily reflections.
  • Put stars or stickers on your daily planner or calendar to encourage you to keep your streak going.
  • Set a reminder on your phone 30 minutes before you're supposed to perform your habit to mentally prepare yourself.

Not every activity mentioned above will be a good fit for you, and that's okay. You can use more than one at a time, and test a few out to see which accountability measure works for you. Then, do your best to stick to it.

Think About Your Barriers (And Prepare for Them)

Every person experiences unique barriers when it comes to forming a new habit. What are some things that may get in the way of you and your goals? What aspects of your life may make it more challenging? Once you know some of the obstacles you might face, the more you'll be able to prepare for them when they inevitably arise.

Some questions you might want to ask yourself are:

  • How important and rewarding is this behavior to me?
  • How much time per week am I willing to dedicate to this habit?
  • Do I have room in my schedule to accommodate this behavior?
  • Am I willing to change or compromise other aspects of my schedule to make this habit a priority?
  • How will this habit affect me financially, socially, physically, etc.? Am I willing and able to accept these factors?
  • What other challenges might this new habit bring?

After you ask yourself these questions, you may have a better idea of the barriers that can get in your way. Then, you can brainstorm solutions and resources that can help you overcome some of these hurdles. For example, if time is an obstacle, then you can plan to practice your habit on days when you have a lighter schedule, dedicate a smaller amount of time to the activity, or modify your schedule to prioritize your habit.

Remember That It Takes Time

Repeat after me: developing a new habit does not happen overnight. In fact, a landmark study from the European Journal of Social Psychology shows that it can take anywhere between 18 and 254 days before a behavior becomes automatic. However, it takes about 66 days on average for a person to form a habit.

If you find yourself counting down the days, remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint. It can be frustrating to feel like you're still putting in a lot of effort to form your habits, but every time you practice the behavior it brings you one step closer.

Go Easy on Yourself

Life happens. Some days you might not be able to perform your habit because your schedule is too packed, you forgot, or maybe you simply didn't feel like it. You're human, and that means that not everything goes according to plan 100% of the time.

If you miss a day, it can be easy to put yourself down and engage in negative self-talk. You might feel like if you had more willpower you would be able to tackle the challenge. However, research shows that self-control does not necessarily affect the process of habit formation. Be kind to yourself as you try something new and navigate through the learning curve.

You can develop a behavior into a habit. Some might take more time and effort than others to establish, and that's okay. If you find the behavior valuable and want to incorporate it into your life then stick with it. With time and consistency, you'll find that you are able to accomplish any goals you set your mind to.

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10 Hacks to Form Healthy Habits That Last