4 Keys to Build a New Habit

Why does it take so long to build a new habit? This post shares 4 research-backed tips to transform your next new habit from a good idea into a subconscious thought patterns. Your brains take time to adapt… and once it does, everything gets a whole lot easier.

I can do this, I yelled into the frosty air running full-speed down the side walk. Forearms on fire from two overstuffed tote bags, I hurled myself down the frigid sidewalk as the last passenger stepped onto the bus.

Wait! I cried, haphazardly wiggling my arms to flag down the driver…. Doors shut, the bus pulled away into the snowy morning. I braced myself for the 20-minute wait until the next bus, frustrated that yet again a one-minute miscalculation ruined my plans for the day.

First, this story is a nice reminder of the benefits of working from home, aka no more designing my life around the bus schedule.

Second, this story illustrates why it is absolutely essential to build good habits. Habits that help us get through the day with ease – and less stress.

You probably already know that habits…

  • Save time
  • Improve focus
  • Lessen decision fatigue

In short, habits are the micro building-blocks that create your life. This blog post describes four essential elements to successfully build a new habit that lasts.

Tip #1: Go slowly to build a new habit.

How long did it take you to adopt your last habit? A few days or a week?

Common wisdom says that it takes 21 days for a new habit to form, but a recent study shows that it may take 18 to 254 days to build a new habit. The study, by Phillippa Lally, observed an average of 66-days to install a new habit.

Habits take time to build because they need to be transformed from a conscious decision made in the brain’s executive function, the prefrontal cortex, into the subconscious mind. Some habits may require rewiring in our brain – for example, if you’re breaking an addition to Instagram, your brain will be resetting and recalibrating without its usual dopamine rush from scrolling through IG stories.

Too often, we try to build a new habit and get discouraged by the amount of time, effort and repetition it takes to bring that habit to life.

I’d rather flip on a switch and – presto! – new habit ready to rock ‘n roll.

When we make the commitment to start a new habit, we benefit from an initial surge of motivation. Newness fascinates the brain.

Instead of expecting change to happen overnight, recalibrate your expectations. Use the initial surge in motivation to focus on habit consistency for long-term success.

Key takeaway: Focus on building one new habit at a time. Give yourself a generous timeframe – at least 66 days – for a new habit to form.

Tip #2: Break your habit down into teensy-tiny steps.

Strong habits are built by linking together short 2-minute habits. These teensy-tiny two minute habits serve as cue, imprinting a pattern to go from one activity to the next (without having to use a bunch of decision-making willpower).

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear describes these 2-minute actions as gateway habits, because this initial habit these 2-minute create a clear sequence for your brain to learn. The core of a new habit is formed in a 60-120 second behavior.

Let’s apply this strategy to an example. The goal is to create a wind down habit: Reading for 15-20 minutes every night before bed, instead of finishing your day by sending last-minute e-mails (with typos).

What is the pivotal teensy-tiny action that would make this new habit a success? You may think that they key is reading. Or having the willpower to avoid looking at your phone…

The teensy-tiny gateway habit is the 90 second it takes to plug in your phone and open your book.

If you can master the art of putting your phone away and replacing the phone in your hand with a book, you will have won half the battle. This is the core teensy-tiny habit that will fuel your success.

At this point in your wind down routine, I double dog dare you not to read. Go ahead and try. If you make it all the way to opening your book, your brain will want to achieve your goal and start reading.

Key takeaway: Break your desired habit into the critical bite-sized first step, ideally 2-minutes or less.

Tip #3: Avoid analysis paralysis by making your habit simple.

Once you’ve nailed down the 2-minute gateway habit, take a few minutes to think through ways to simplify your new habit. What environmental cues will make your new habit into the default option?

Let’s continue with the evening wind-down routine. We might simplify this habit ahead of time by:

  • Plugging your phone charger into the right outlet.
  • Finding a safe spot for your phone to lay overnight (without getting stepped-on!).
  • Stacking one or two good books at the side of your bed – and clearing off the rest of your night stand.
  • Ensuring you have easy access to a nightlight for bedtime reading.

Now you have a crystal clear plan for what you need to make building a new habit as simple as possible. Charles Duhigg explains this concept in more detail in his book, The Power of Habit.

Key takeaway: Prepare for your habit ahead of time by knowing exactly how, when, and where your new habit will take place.

Tip #4: Make your habit as fun, exciting and silly as possible so you crave it.

Stay playful when building a new habit to keep your brain engaged.

Don’t forget the value of play! The best habits are fun and attractive.

What makes my workout an attractive habit? Knowing that at the end I get my absolute favorite treat… bulletproof coffee. Oooooh my goodness I have had a love affair with bulletproof coffee for the past seven years and every morning it never fails to give me all the good feels.

Some other examples of making a habit exciting or silly:

  • Give yourself permission to do a little dance or throw your hands-up in the air and say ‘hooray’ when you finish a habit! (P.S. This is a great reminder to cheer others on – it’s contagious!)
  • Can you make the new habit more enjoyable? Earlier this year I kickstarted my habit of hour-plus runs with the simplest tweak – I started listening to podcasts on my runs and that makes the time fly by.
  • Perform your habit in an inviting environment. I try to schedule a check-in with someone on my team every week. Switching to phone calls makes this habit more fun than the standard video conference. I’m excited to talk to my colleagues and get fresh air by going out for a walk.

Key takeaway: Get creative! Find ways to make your new habit itself more enjoyable and design an enticing reward for the finish line.

If you’re looking to improve your work habits and be more productive throughout the work day, I have created a research-backed Productivity Brain Boosters Guide. The guide walks step by step through four cognitive obstacles that keep us from being productive… and the four simple habits you can adopt to stay motivated and productive throughout the work day.

I hope this blog post leaves you inspired to jumpstart your next healthy habit and never miss the bus again – metaphorically or literally! As always, I read every comment and message eager to cheer you on in your journey. Let me know, are you trying to build a new habit? What tips do you have to share, or where are you getting stuck?

P.S. If you know someone who struggles with staying productive and motivated at work, feel free to share the Productivity Brain Boosters Guide. In this time of constant change and pivoting, we need more voices of support and encouragement at home and in the workplace.

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