How to build a lasting habit - Ten most important tips and biggest obstacles

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Tipi Koivisto
Coach, Founder
Reviewed by:
Eero-Matti Gummerus, Psychologist
Read time:
9 min
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Building a positive habit takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days. The easiest and fastest way to form a habit is to regularly complete the task/behavior in a similar context. Choose a time and place that you encounter often. [g11] Regularity in time and environment are at the core of building a new habit. However, achieving a goal isn’t as simple as it may appear, but we are here to make it as easy as possible for you. When following the list below you will have less troubles on your path towards changing your behavior and forming a new habit. You will use less effort, and will have a better chance of following the process through.

Here are the top ten scientifically based tools on how to adopt a new behavior and make it last. They are in order of importance and the two first few are essential to change. Most of us already use around 75% of these tools, but then fail on some minor thing along the way which makes it difficult to keep going.

HOW-TO change, and possible obstacles

1. Start small

Begin the change step by step and build it up gradually. This one sentence is the key to success, and contains many well understood psychological concepts including the zone of proximal development. The Zone of proximal development refers to the amount of improvement on a skill someone can learn on their own. By using this zone we can subtly improve our skill until we become a master in that behavior.

E.g. Push-ups or meditation: Begin doing 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13 repetitions/minutes and after a week you are at 15! If the task feels overwhelming, break the goal into small milestones.

The biggest obstacle is trying to rush the process, and taking on more than you can handle. This will lead to an overwhelming feeling when you are going too far out from your comfort zone. This usually happens after the first few days when your motivation starts to fade. Proceed slowly, but surely!

2. Make your task as easy as possible

Set up your environment to support your goal. Having a motivational environment to push you towards your end goal will ensure that you succeed! When the laziness, lack of energy, or any other negative situation or emotion arises, you will need all the help there is to stay on track. This is the moment where you need your environment to keep you on track.

Example: Prepare for the goal beforehand (fill up your water bottle, have your gym bag ready to go, and go to bed early, etc.), and get rid of any distractions.

If you follow these first two sections, you will be creating miniature goals within your overall goal. The idea is to establish a little piece of the new behavior and build on that. Taking your goal one step at a time.

3. Be consistent

Repeat the task as often as possible. Integrate the new habit into your daily routine and do it at the same time everyday. Every repetition strengthens the behavior and it becomes easier. Some people find it helpful to set rules for themselves like write ten pages, wake up at 7:00, drink 500ml.

Building self-discipline helps you to be consistent. Repeating the same task, whether you like or not, is a great stepping stone to making the behavior a habit.

Obstacles some people might face:

  1. You are in a hurry or in an unpleasant situation.
  2. Quitting during the learning phase.

4. Combine the habit with familiar behavioral

Try to find a behavior you already do regularly (going home from work, having lunch, coffee break, watch TV) and pair the task with this behavior. This makes it easier to remember and complete the behavior.

Obstacle: If the other behavior does not happen, it gives you the excuse to skip the new habit as well. E.g. Not going to work on weekends.

5. Get support from your peers

Finding a friend who can help keep you accountable makes the job more fun and prevents you from pushing it off. Support is important, especially in times of weakness!

But this takes even more effort! Yes, you need to find, trust, and be open to a person about your struggles. That is not easy! But if you do this, I promise it will not only give you more motivation, but a deeper relationship with your supportive friend.

6. Just start

The beginning is always the hardest part. Try to take the first step by getting off the couch. Just do something small. Do it once for ten seconds. Do something, anything to get yourself started!

If you begin, you just concluded the most important step. Start small. Starting is the hardest part, once you get started you will feel energized and probably keep going until you reach your day's goal. In any case, if you don’t take that first step, you will 100% fail.

"The beginning is half of every action." -Greek Proverb

 

7. Reward yourself

Get excited and make the task fun!

If you don't get a reward immediately afterward (good feeling, energy, fresh mouth), try to reward yourself during the behavior itself (listening to music, watching a film, thinking about the future benefits, getting fresh air). If you manage to reward yourself during and after, you can't fail!

Obstacles:

  1. Making the circumstances enjoyable is too complicated and takes too much time.
  2. The reward's disadvantages can outweigh the benefits, like going for a quick run and then feasting without limits.  

8. Build positive associations

Learning to associate favorable things with your goal and associating negative things with skipping your goal can reinforce the behavior. By having favorable things associated with your goal, such as feeling energized and happy after a workout, it propels you to try to achieve that feeling again. These positive associations help you build intrinsic motivation, which is the psychological topic of internal motivation. When you build intrinsic motivation, you are more likely to succeed compared to when you are given external motivations. 

This is why Habinator has a place for you to put  "Reasons" and "Rewards" for every goal. It may have some generic reasons and achievements for you, but when you add your own reasons for why you want to achieve a goal, those reasons will be what inspires you the most to achieve this goal. If you can think of a good REAL reason to do something, and make it crystal clear to yourself, you will have the motivation to push through any discomfort that may come with your goal (Tiredness from working out, feeling tired trying to cut down on caffeine).

Obstacle: We tend to forget the reasons why we do the things we do. Just keep reminding yourself about your goal and the reasons why you want to achieve them, and your unconscious mind will pick them up.

9. Don't mind the setbacks

Everyone has a cheat day, everyone forgets every once in a while. No one is perfect, so don’t be upset if you aren’t either. It's totally fine. If you miss one day, it is normal, don’t take it personally. Reflect on why it happened and get back on track!

The moment you realize why you failed, you can correct your mistake and get back on track. Realizing what makes you fail, might be the single most important thing to figure out before you succeed.

If you ever need a break, don’t be scared to take one, but remember to jump right back into your goal. Usually a mistake or a small break here or there can energize and motivate you to achieve your end goal..

Obstacles:

  1. Giving yourself too much slack.
  2. Not getting back to the plan.

10. Find out what suits you

Every person, every situation, and every goal is different. While going through your goal, take a look at what helps you best. Learn what helps motivate you and what helps you achieve your goal. There is no wrong way to achieve your goal, but learn what way works best for you!

The bottom line

The secret to building a new positive behavior is to  keep doing the task consistently in the same context. Get started and keep going! Before long, it will become automatic, easier than you would have ever thought it could be. At some point, you won’t even be able to imagine how life was without the new behavior!

Achieving goals and developing habits is a learnable skill. After forming your first positive habit, it is always easier to tackle the next one.

Last updated on Mon, 4 May, 2020