How to Make New Habits Stick
It’s that time of year when those great New Year’s resolutions you made are often starting to wobble. Whether it’s drinking less, exercising more, finding better life balance or taking braver decisions at work, our good intentions tend to weaken after a few weeks. Historically it has been said that it takes 21 days to break a habit or to form a new one. More recent research by the University College London found that it actually takes an average of 66 days for a new habit to stick. What’s more, in their research, whist some people stuck to their new habit after just 18 days, others took up to 254 days. So, don’t despair if you haven’t yet cracked your new mindset or activity. It is likely to take at least two months and possibly more. Here are some useful tips to help you be successful, taken from the latest research in behavioural science and practical experience of many years working with people in organisations to change their habits.
The first thing to remember is that sticking to new habits needs a combination of cues, repetition and rewards.
Cues are the triggers that prompt us to fall into our old habit – socialising with friends prompts you to order a glass of wine; walking into a Boardroom brings you out in a cold sweat; being asked to take on one more project finds you saying “yes” yet again.
Repetition is just as it sounds – practice, practice, practice. Reaching for the sparkling water; taking a deep breath in the Boardroom and practising your positive self-talk; saying “no” to the extra work or renegotiating priorities, over and over again until it’s your new normal.
Rewards are the benefits that come from your new habit – for other people but especially for you. Breaking old habits and starting new ones takes stamina so there has to be something in it for you and the gains must be greater than the losses.
1. Openly commit – tell at least one other person about your new habit. Share why it’s important to you and what you think the benefits will be for you and for others.
2. Nudges – put in place everything possible to nudge you along the way. This maybe a friend or work colleague asking you regularly how you’re getting on; putting reminders in your phone; sticking up pictures or visual prompts.
3. Take advantage of newness - it’s much easier to start a new habit in a new environment. For example, cycling to work is an easier habit to start if you’ve just moved house, than ditching the car on the same route that you’ve taken for years.
4. Bolt onto existing routines – for example, if you want to practice more mindfulness, build 5 minutes of meditation onto brushing your teeth in the morning.
5. Keep it simple – in the excitement of New Year it’s easy to be overly ambitious with our new habits. Make it as easy as possible to achieve, for example you might ultimately want to cut out all sugar but try starting ‘no sugar Mondays’ and work up from there.
6. Test and learn – long-term shifts in mindset and behaviour are unlikely to go right first time. Be courageous – if you want to be more assertive at work, try it and then be kind to yourself if you don’t get it right first time.
7. Reward yourself – this is most effective when you mix short-term and long-term, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. You might give yourself an initial pat-on-the-back for saying “no” to that extra project and long-term you may enjoy a greater sense of wellbeing.
8. Deepen the meaning – once you have started to stick to your new habit, reflect on the deeper purpose and meaning it’s bringing you. These are often associated with our identity or core values. So ‘worrying less’ might be your initial goal but as your mindset and behaviours start to shift you notice you feel like a calmer person.
If you want to change habits, or ways of working, across a team or an organisation, these tips are every bit as relevant. Two other points become important – firstly, leaders and other key influencers must lead by example. Secondly, committing to new habits, reviewing progress and celebrating success need to be done as a collective activity wherever possible.
We are only a few weeks into the New Year – keep going, you are a step closer to making your new habit stick!