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 or a behavioral change takes from 18 to 254 days. Usually for about two months. The simple advice to form a habit is: Repeat the behavior (task, action) consistently in the same context. Choose a time and place that you encounter often. [g11] These two sentences are the core of building a new habit. However, actually realizing that, when it comes to new behavior in our complex world and hectic lives, make it harder than it sounds. When following the list below you will have a way fewer feelings of being uncomfortable, needing less effort, and therefore, a better chance of following the process through.

Here are the top ten scientifically based advices on how to adopt new behavior and make it last. They are in priority order and the two first ones are essential, where people usually fail. Also, most of us already do at least 75% right, but then fail on some minor thing, which makes it difficult to keep going when you have a bad day.

HOW-TO change and possible obstacles

1. Start small

Begin the change step by step and build it gradually. This one sentence is the key and contains many well understood psychological concepts including the zone of proximal development.

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 to milestones.

The biggest obstacle is trying to rush the process and think too much about yourself. This easily leads to an overwhelming feeling when going too far out from the comfort zone. This happens usually after the first few days when motivation fades. Proceed slowly, but surely!

2. Make the task easy

Set your environment to support your goal. Especially the beginning of the task has to be easy! When the laziness, lack of energy, or any other negative situation or emotion arises, you will need all the help there is to get started. This is the moment of "I just don't feel like it".

Antidote: Prepare the execution beforehand (fill the water bottle, set gear ready, go to bed early, etc.), and get rid of any distractions.

If you follow these two pieces of advice, it's as if we would be talking about micro habits, which some people like to reference them. The idea is to establish a little piece of new behavior and build on that. Like reading just one page of the book and gradually introducing a reading behavior to yourself.

3. Be consistent

Repeat the task as often as possible. Integrate the new habit with daily routines and do it at the same time. Every repetition strengthens the behavior and it becomes easier. Some find rules to be helpful like write ten pages, wake up at 7:00, drink 500ml.

Building self-disciple helps to be consistent. Actually, repeating the same task, whether you like or not at the moment, is a great exercise!

Obstacles:

  1. Hurry or unpleasant situations like someone is watching.
  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 do the task together with this behavior. This makes easier to remember and trigger 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 peer support

Finding a friend or making oneself accountable makes the job more fun and prevents from opting out. 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 will promise it will not only give you more motivation but deepen the relationship.

6. Just start

The beginning is always the hardest part. Try to take the first step or get off the couch. Just do something small. Do it once or ten seconds long. Do something, anything, to start!

If you begin, you just concluded the most important step 1: Start small. You will even probably keep doing the task until you reach your day's goal. In any case, if you won't begin, you will 100% sure fail.

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

 

7. Reward yourself

Get excited and make the task fun to do!

If you don't get a reward immediately afterward (good feeling, energy, fresh mouth), try to get rewarded during the execution (listening to music, watching a film, thinking about the future benefits, getting fresh air, take it as an exercise). 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 feast without limits.  

8. Build positive associations

Find, learn, and associate favorable things to your goal. Think and link all the benefits from the new behavioral (and negative aspects when not doing it) and the habit becomes a must - even obsession.

This is why Habinator has the "Reasons" and "Rewards" section for every goal. If you can think of a good REAL reason to do something, and make it vividly and crystal clear to yourself, you will bear the discomfort, find the time and push through, no matter what.

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

9. Don't mind the setbacks

We all skip or fail something once in a while. It's totally fine. It even supposes to happen, so don't take it personally. Reflect why it happened and get back in track!

The moment you realize why did you fail, you can do something about it. Maybe it's the story you keep telling yourself, which is not true? Maybe the step you try to take is too much and you need to adjust the goal a bit, or maybe you need to get the energy levels up first? Whatever it is, realizing what makes you fail, might be the single most important thing to figure out before success.

If you ever need a break, take it, but don't stop. Usually giving yourself a little slack by slowing down the process helps.

Obstacles:

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

10. Find out what suits for you

Every one of us, every goal, and every situation is different. Learn along with the progress and find ways to suit your current needs. There is no wrong way to achieve your goal!

The bottom line

The secret and the fact of building a new positive behavior is simply to keep doing the task consistently in the same context. Get started and keep going! Before long it becomes automation, or easier than you would have ever think of. At some point, you can't even imagine how life was without the "new" behavior!

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

Last updated on Mon, 4 May, 2020