You probably started the year like a lot of us – with resolutions or goals for the new year. And even though you had the best intentions, you might have already skipped the gym, had an alcoholic beverage or spent that money you meant to save. Don’t beat yourself up. You may have been really motivated, but it takes time and consistent effort to develop new habits that stick. The good news is that you can restart working on those resolutions today.
Experts have their own advice, theories and practical steps you can take to develop a new habit or break an old one. They all can be boiled down to a few key psychological ideas and actions.
Theory of a Habit
Author James Clear outlined the anatomy of a habit into four sequential parts: cue, craving, response and reward. This feedback loop applies to everything we do, whether it’s a lifechanging habit or something we don’t even think about – like turning on a light so that we can see. The cue, sometimes called a trigger, is what encourages us to start the chain of actions to get to the eventual reward.
For example, if you drink too much coffee, your cue to indulge in a cup might be simply waking up. The cue leads to the next step, the craving for the feeling you will get when you take your first sip. Your response to these first two steps will likely then be that you turn on the coffeemaker, pour yourself a large mugful and start to gulp. The reward is the jolt of energy you get from the hit of caffeine. Positive habits, like exercising, follow this same cycle.
The trick to start or break a habit, then, is to alter your feedback loop. To create a new habit, you’ll need to develop a plan that associates a reward with a cue (such as looking and feeling better after working out) and makes it attractive, relatively easy or satisfying to complete the four steps. If you want to stop a negative behavior, you do the opposite. Get rid of your cue (like junk food in your desk drawer), or make the habit undesirable and unattractive to yourself, however that looks to you.
One size does not fit all, so your trigger, your reward or your aversion tactic could look totally different from your friend’s, neighbor’s or social media influencer’s. Maybe you want to lose weight to reduce your risk of diabetes and your favorite influencer wants to fit into her beloved pair of jeans again. Figure out what motivates you and design your strategy based on that.
Once you’ve landed on a strategy, plan to be consistent, especially for the first 30 days, but also build in room to grow. For instance, exercise every day so that it becomes part of your routine, but maybe you walk 1 mile daily for the first week and you extend it to 1.25 miles the second week and so on. Eventually, you could work your way up to running a half marathon!
You’ll also want to consider enlisting a friend, family member or even online buddy to help you stay accountable. It’s always more fun to do something with a friend and a little support when you’re making a life change can go a long way.
Remember that any habit you want to create or eliminate requires discipline but also allow yourself to be imperfect. If you miss a workout or sneak one cigarette, it’s not a total failure. Return to the original plan or determine how to adjust it so you won’t be so tempted to cheat next time. But don’t give up!