It’s hard to build good habits that last. If you’ve ever tried to hold onto a New Year’s resolution you know what we’re talking about. You start off with great intentions but your motivation quickly begins to dwindle. By the time February arrives you’ve entirely given up on building your habit. At least, that’s how it goes for us.

There are a number of popular methods for building a habit, like maintaining a behavior for 21 days or rewarding yourself with chocolate or money for each successful goal completion. But these methods rarely take into account your unique personality, your environment, or the difficulty of the habit you’re trying to build, which all play a part in how successfully you adopt a new behavior.

There’s no clear cut method for building good habits, which is why popular methods often don’t work. To successfully build a habit, you have to understand what’s happening in your brain, why the touted methods don’t work, and how you can establish doable habits.

Building Habits in the Brain

Humans are good at making habits, including many of your everyday activities—brushing your teeth, the route you take driving to work or to the store, the phrases you use when greeting a stranger. Your brain creates these regularly-used behaviors to free up time and energy, and the actions quickly become automatic.

All actions we take occur in three steps: a trigger, a reaction, and a reward. Psychologists call this the behavior or habit loop. When you wake up in the morning, your trigger to brush your teeth is bad breath. The reaction is brushing, and the reward is minty-fresh breath. This three-part process drives every action we take. While this is a simplified explanation of action and habit, it’s helpful to know when we want to build new behaviors.

Research suggests that attaching a new habit to an activity that you regularly engage in makes it easier to form and maintain that new behavior. According to researchers, “[d]ecades of psychological research consistently show that mere repetition of a simple action in a consistent context leads [to a habit].” So if you want to incorporate meditation into your daily routine, consider doing so while brushing your teeth.

Once you’ve established a habit, you have to maintain it, which is the hardest part for most of us. While using chocolate, money or other external rewards can help you get started when building a habit, it’s unlikely to last without intrinsic motivation. That’s the internal reward you experience as a result of an action. It’s the endorphins evoked through exercise or the warm feeling you get when spending time with loved ones.

There’s no one-size-fits-all method to creating good habits. Your success depends on your own personality, environment, and the difficulty of the task you’re taking on. Researchers debunked the 21 day myth almost ten years ago. They found that creating an automatic behavior (a habit) took anywhere from 18 to 254 days. And that missing a day doesn’t mean all your hard work is for naught. Your ability to hold onto a new behavior depends on how well you set yourself up for success.

Building Habits in Daily Life

We wish there was an easy habit-building button you could press for success but, alas, it’s up to you to put in the work to build a lasting new behavior. Here are some tips to help you succeed:

  • Be specific. What exactly are you trying to accomplish? The more specific your goals, the more likely you are to reach them.
  • Keep it simple. Your habits can build on one another to reach a larger goal, but the smaller and easier a habit, the more likely you are to succeed.
  • Build on your current habits. You already have behaviors you do without effort. By attaching a new habit to an existing behavior, it may be easier to maintain.
  • Change your environment. Adapt your environment to make it as easy as possible. You don’t want a pantry full of junk food when you’re trying to eat healthier.
  • Accept setbacks. Building a new behavior is difficult. Don’t be discouraged if you miss a day, but try not to miss more than one in a row.
  • Find your intrinsic reward. Determine what internal reward you hope to gain in building a new habit. That intrinsic motivation will help you keep going when it’s easier to drop your new habit like a hot potato.
  • Find community support. An oftentimes effective intrinsic motivator is accountability. By sharing your habit-building plan with friends, family, or a like-minded group, you can count on others to help you succeed.

Creating good habits that last past the end of January is a challenge. But through a basic understanding of behavioral psychology and a few helpful tips, you can keep your New Year’s resolutions going strong. Do you have any tips for building good habits? Let us know below, and stop by on Thursday for our next blog featuring good habit recommendations for the new year.

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