- Start small: First day for your new habit? Take it easy. “Forming habits is all about starting habits,” says clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis. “The best way to start is to start small.” For example, if you want to rise early, then try setting the alarm 10 minutes earlier than your usual waking time for the first few days. It’s easier for you to get up at 8.20am than 5.30am if your regular waking hour is 8.30am.
- Track your progress: Self-monitoring is the key to successful habits. “The more you track your behavior, the more you become aware of your behavior and the better chance you’ll have at changing it,” says psychotherapist Eliza Kingsford. Keeping track of your behavior doesn’t have to be tedious. Get a notecard, and simply make a note of whether or not you achieved your goal for the day.
- The 66-day rule: One of the myths in psychology is that it takes 21 days to make or replace a habit. Want to acquire a habit? Just do it repetitively for 21 days. However, a 2009 study in European Journal of Social Psychology showed that it actually took 66 days on average for people to acquire a new habit. Of course, 66 is not a magical number. If you’re trying to acquire a complex habit—like reading fiction for an hour everyday—it may take even longer. The crux here is: your habit won’t be formed in a few days or even weeks.
- Plan a little: You are more likely to take your habit-making goals seriously if you plan them out in some detail. “You may want to start by being specific about when and where you want to start the new behavior,” says Rego. He also recommends tying your new goal to an activity that is already a part of your lifestyle. So, perhaps you’ve been meaning to do a bit of tidying everyday. Schedule it around your meal time. Make sure to declutter a little after dinner. Dinnertime will slowly become your cue to tidy.
- Give rewards: When you’re in the process of forming habits, pamper yourself with little prizes every time you do something right. “We respond to rewards,” says Rego. “They can be verbal (telling yourself you did a good job), emotional (pay attention to how good you feel when you do it), and/or behavioral (treat yourself to something you enjoy).” Fulfilled your promise to practice the guitar this week regularly? Gift yourself a subscription of Rolling Stone magazine.
- Keep at it: Perhaps, you are planning a quick getaway to Alaska? Afraid that it will jeopardize your efforts to form an exercise habit? Not really. A 2011 study in Psychology, Health & Medicine showed that small breaks, such as sick leaves and vacations, don’t really disrupt the habit-making process. Once you return to the environment that provides your ‘cue’ (gym at office, for example), the habit will be reinstated.
Armed with this advice, you can turn bad habits into good ones and improve your life.