December 4, 2023

How to create habits that stick

By Kaitlin White, Instructor

Here’s a million dollar question: How do we build and maintain good habits (while letting go of bad ones)? 

Habit formation has been a topic that has seen a recent surge in the psychological research community. It has been long known that habits can only be formed when a behavior is frequently and intentionally repeated, which can take effort and time. Further, newer research has shown that it can take anywhere from 18-264 days to form a new habit (rather than the 21-day myth that has been widely recognized since the 1960’s). 

At Engaging Minds, our focus is on strengthening student’s executive function skills. Strong executive function skills are founded in habit formation, and building systems and processes to support them. With time and persistence, new habits can become the new norm. 

There are several key points to keep in mind when thinking about building or changing one’s habits. Following are some key tips from researchers that can help with positive habit formation. 

Understand the Why

It’s important to be mindful and intentional when thinking about new habits you want to form. As we think about executive function and planning and time management, why might it help you to use a planner to track assignments or to have weekly check-ins with your teacher during study hall? Having a clear idea of why you want to adopt that new habit will help you stay motivated to keep pushing toward your goal.

Set a specific goal  

With any new goal you have, it’s critical to make sure those goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound (SMART). Instead of having a broad goal like “I want to be more organized” your goal should be more specific, such as “I will set aside one hour every Sunday after dinner to create a list of upcoming due dates for the week ahead.” This has an added benefit of building intrinsic motivation as meeting shorter, specific goals on the way to achieving the bigger goal allows us to feel successful quickly which grows confidence. 

Make your habits cue-based 

Research shows that people are more successful in creating new habits when they identify not only what they want to do, but when they’ll be cued to do it. For example, instead of “I’ll review my Spanish vocab every day for 15 minutes” create a habit that is cue-based like, “Every night right after I brush my teeth before bed, I’ll spend 15 minutes reviewing Spanish vocab.” This ensures that you have a specific plan for when and where these habits will fit into your life.

Stack your habits 

This is very similar to the idea of making habits cue-based, but instead of linking your new habit to a specific time or place, you link it to an already existing habit. This method takes advantage of the patterns of connectedness in our brains that are formed via synaptic pruning. This method works so well because we already have habits that are built into our brains and our routines. For example, if you have a goal of wanting to create habits to support mindfulness, you can stack your meditation habit onto the habit of your morning shower; “After I get out of the shower, I will meditate for one minute.”

Make it fun 

This may seem obvious or self-explanatory, but habits are easier to create when we make them fun or when we link them with something that we already do everyday that we enjoy. For example, if you want to create a habit around exercise, connect walking or running (not-so-fun) to something enjoyable like listening to an audiobook, music or favorite podcast. 

Utilize friend suppor

Habits are much easier to form or change when we have other people helping to hold us accountable, plus good habits are contagious. Whether you’re just letting a friend know about your goal, or actually getting others involved in your habit (e.g., forming a study group or book club), working towards our goals is always easier when we rely on the social support of our friends and family.

Prepare for roadblocks 

If forming new habits was easy, everyone would be doing it! It’s important to remember that creating new habits, or changing bad habits, can be really difficult, and it’s never going to be perfect. Therefore, it’s important to be prepared for challenges that may arise. Two things that can help with potential roadblocks are:

  • Foster flexibility

Research shows that “successful habit building relies on frequently repeating a behavior, and if your routine becomes too brittle, you’ll follow through less often.” If we’re too rigid, it makes it harder to stay consistent. Sometimes switching up the routine, like getting your Spanish practice in during the morning instead of before bed can help us stay flexible and focused on the end-goal. Flexibility is an important executive function skill.

  • Show yourself compassion 

Similarly, it’s critical to be compassionate with yourself, especially when you’re feeling stuck or discouraged. Know that sometimes things come up that get in the way of our goals or routines, and that’s okay. Giving yourself a couple of get-out-of-jail-free cards for those days when you really can’t complete your habit makes it easier to stay motivated because you recognize that life happens, but you don’t need to give up on your goal entirely just because you miss a day or two. 

Creating change takes time and there are going to be many ups and downs along the way. Approaching habit formation with research-based strategies, such as the ones outlined above, gives you a leg up on the process. And remember, success begets success, so once you get the ball rolling in the right direction, you’ll find that you can both form – and stick with – new and positive habits for success.