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How to Build New Habits

A new year feels like a fresh start, so what better time to start a new (healthy) habit? After all, if a ‘new year’s resolution’ is made for anything, it’s made to set goals that will make you happy. If there’s no single event that you’d like to accomplish (like participating in an extreme sport or visiting a place that you’ve always wanted to see), why not choose something that will make you happy over the long-term, like a healthy habit? While it may seem like a daunting task, if you’re realistic about it (and plan accordingly) there’s nothing to stop you from succeeding. 
A behavioural psychology expert, Charles Duhigg, suggests that new habits fail mostly because people don’t understand the structure of habits. In other words, they don’t appreciate that there is a cue or trigger (you’re triggered to take an action through a cue in the environment), an action (you take action on the habit you want to drop or adopt), and the reward (your brain receives a reward for participating in the activity).
These three components work both ways- they can promote negative habits, but they can also nurture positive habits. While with the latter you might only feel the rewards later on in the process, they are definitely worth your while. As an expert in habit formation, sociologist Christine Whelan explains that because we are creatures of habit, behaviour change is difficult. That’s why she and others suggest that you start with just one habit at a time. James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (2018) suggests a few ideas to build the habit(s) you want:
  1. Build awareness: Assess your current habits and identify one that you would like to change in some way, or whether there is aa new habit that you would like to adopt. Analyze the procedures step by step by making a list of your daily routines and steps that outline that habit.
  2. Set a goal: Select a specific habit that you would like to change by asking yourself questions such as which habits you like, which you don’t like, and which one(s) you would like to change.
  3. Attach a new habit to regular behaviour: Clear (2018) explains that ‘habit stacking’ can help to solidify a new habit by connecting it with a long-established one. For example, if you want to begin taking more walks, start by taking a 5- or 10-minute walk after every lunch. Or, if you’d like to practice mindfulness, set a goal to breathe mindfully for two minutes after every time you brush your teeth.
  4. Clarify the steps: Being specific can help to make the process a lot easier. Research suggests that it can be beneficial to begin with a specific intention or an ‘if-then’ plan. For example, if it’s 13:00 then I’ll stop what I’m doing and read 2 pages of my book, or if I’ve just finished work, I’ll take 5 minutes to complete a few stretching exercises.
  5. Start small: Remind yourself that one small step at a time can add up to your new desired habit or behaviour. Clear advises that you try the ‘two minute rule’- break up the habit so that it can be accomplished in a span of two minutes or less. For example, if you want to make a habit of exercising more throughout the day, set aside two minutes every two hours  and do a few stomach crunches or jumping jacks.
  6. Remember why: Kate Hayes, a performance psychologist, suggests that it’s pivotal to remember your purpose when your practicing and performing the behaviour that contributes to your new habit. Remember why you’re doing it in the first place- the personal meaning, value, and importance of that behaviour can be helpful to keep you motivated by reminding you that you’re doing it for a good cause.
It’s easy to make a new year’s resolution such as implementing a new habit, but sometimes it’s easier said than done. That’s why it’s important to be realistic so that you don’t set yourself up for failure- ask yourself whether your goal is achievable and make a plan about how to go about it. Baby steps in a methodical fashion are key to long-term success.
Fortunately for our team, we have access to an Industrial-Organizational Psychologist as our Wellbeing Manager who can help us to stick to our goals. If you’d like to join our team, you’d be able to have that assistance as well! Take a look at some of our vacancies and be part of a team that feels like a supportive family. You can also register and upload your CV here.
- Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. New York, NY: Avery.
- Hays, K. (July 11, 2018). Personal Communication – Interview with Ilene Berns-Zare.
- Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals: Mental contrasting and implementation intention. In J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.). Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology (114-136). New York, NY: Guilford Press.