Tips for Making or Breaking a Habit

We've all heard that 21 days is the magic number, but the latest research indicates that it actually takes 66 days to build a habit (or get rid of one). The key is to stay focused—and to remember why you wanted to make the change in the first place. Making and breaking habits can go hand in hand: If your goal is to stay away from something, it helps to replace that something with another, healthier routine: a new hobby, commitment, or favorite food that you enjoy and that's good for you, too. Here are five tips for making it stick.

Set your intention and motivation. Make a list of all the reasons you’ve decided to start a new, healthy habit, or get rid of an old one, and refer to the list often. Visualize both the bigger picture of what you're trying to achieve and the specific steps involved in achieving it; studies show that we're more likely to reach our goals if we focus on the process rather than the fantasy at the end of the rainbow.

Identify and short-circuit the “cue-routine-reward” loop. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg looks at MIT research that isolated three components of every habit: the behavior you want to change (the routine); the trigger that sets off the behavior (the cue); and what you get out of the behavior (the reward). What can you change about each of these three elements that produces a different result? (Check out how Duhigg applies this to an afternoon cookie-eating habit.)

Choose the right time. Keep in mind that it’s almost never convenient to make a lifestyle change—work’s too busy, the kids are demanding, it’s the holidays. That said, after you determine that you’re not just making excuses, set out to implement change during a relatively low-stress time. 

Track your progress. Keep a journal noting your thoughts and actions: When do you think about the old habit, or how did the new one make you feel? Did you have a slip-up—and why? Keeping tabs on your journey will increase your awareness and accountability, and help you recognize the triggers that may encourage falling back into old habits or resisting new ones. 

Ask for support. Letting friends, family, and coworkers know what you’re trying to do can help you stay on track. If possible, team up with a friend who's trying to make or break the same habit; studies on building new exercise habits show that having a buddy—someone to check in with regularly and do new activities with—makes your chances of success significantly higher. 

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