How to Build New Habits and Make Them Stick

2020 checklistMany of us start the new year with a slew of good intentions to adopt better habits like working out regularly and eating healthier meals. And by mid-month, many of us have allowed those good intentions to fall by the wayside.

What gives? Why is it so hard to make these habits stick?

All too often, we set ourselves up to fail because we bite off more than we can chew. In other words, we try to change too much too quickly, setting unrealistic goals that simply aren’t sustainable — like slashing food consumption to 800 calories a day, or saying we’re going to work out for 90 minutes every day. Or we set goals that are too broad or vague — like “eat healthier” — but don’t give any thought to specifics like meal planning.

Here are some commonsense tips to help you succeed in establishing a habit that sticks:

  • Think small: One key to making a habit stick is to make it so small that you can’t say no. If you aim to get in shape, start by doing two lunges while you brush your teeth. Next time, do three. Want to eat healthier? Cut out dessert twice a week. Set yourself up to succeed by making your new habit so easy to achieve that it’s impossible to fail.
  • Break big habits into smaller chunks: Make your goal reasonable and achievable. If you want to work out for an hour a day, break it into four 15-minute sessions throughout the day (it’s usually easier to find an extra 15 minutes than 60!). If you want to do 50 pushups, do five sets of 10 spread out over the day to make it easier to complete.
  • Everything in moderation: Don’t go crazy with crash diets, skipping meals or an over-the-top exercise routine. These extremes are nearly impossible to sustain. Make sensible food choices so you don’t feel deprived and tempted to cheat. Keep portion sizes reasonable, and don’t cut out certain food groups.
  • Be a planner: When you wing it, things like going to the gym or cooking a healthy dinner tend to fall by the wayside. Plan your meals at the start of each week and shop accordingly. Write down your workout dates in your calendar. Do this one week at a time — and before you know it, several weeks have passed and you’ve stuck to your plan.
  • Break up the routine every now and then: It’s just human nature — monotony tends to bore us and we lose interest. So change up your exercise routine periodically, or introduce a new recipe into your meal rotation — it’ll help keep you challenged and motivated because you need to focus on doing things differently.
  • If you fall off the wagon: Chances are, it’s going to happen. You sleep in instead of going for a run. You binge on an entire bag of potato chips. Or you skip your morning meditation. A good rule to follow is never miss twice. It’s okay to miss one workout, but don’t let it slip to two or three. If you adhere to “never miss twice,” you can “fail” your way to ultimate success.

Some experts suggest that it takes 28 days to establish a new habit, which I think sounds reasonable. Keep at something for four weeks, and before you know it, you’ve established a new routine — a new normal — that’ll bring you that much closer to achieving the goals you set for yourself. And just a 1% daily improvement will deliver a huge payoff if you continue to stick with it.

You can do this!

This blog post is part of our Simply Women initiative that caters to the unique health care needs of women and their families.

Guest Blogger: Bryan McGuirk, MD, Internal Medicine, UMass Memorial at Northborough Crossing

  3 comments for “How to Build New Habits and Make Them Stick

  1. Anonymous
    January 30, 2020 at 12:48 pm

    Great ideas, thanks for the suggestions

  2. Joan Simpson
    January 27, 2020 at 12:50 pm

    Thanks as usual for very useful information. All the best for 2020.

    • UMass Memorial
      January 27, 2020 at 1:11 pm

      Thank you so much! We appreciate your thoughts.

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