4 ways to build healthy habits—and stick to them—in the New Year


If you’re among the 41% of Americans who set New Year’s resolutions, then chances are your goals have something to do with changing your habits—whether it’s building new ones, or getting rid of bad ones. 

“Habits help us put desirable behaviors on auto-pilot so we don’t have to deliberate about whether they’re worthwhile or plan exactly how we’ll execute on our good intentions,” says Katy Milkman, author of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be and the James G. Dinan Professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

To set yourself up for success this year, here are some tips for building better habits:

1. Try to find a fun way to pursue your goals.

“We persist on new behaviors for far longer when we enjoy them, but we rarely think about how to pursue good habits in a fun way,” says Milkman. To make habits more fun, she recommends “temptation building,” or letting yourself enjoy a temptation while completing a chore. “For instance, only let yourself binge-watch your favorite tv show while working out at the gym. Or only let yourself listen to your favorite podcast while doing household chores. Or only pop your favorite bottle of wine while cooking a healthy meal.”

2. Break your goal down into bite-sized parts and make specific plans.

“Instead of saying ‘I’ll exercise more next year,’ make a plan to exercise four hours each week by going for a run at 7 a.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday,” suggests Milkman.  

3. Enlist the help of a friend, or accountability partner.

“When we team up with others, we have more fun pursuing our goals and we’re accountable to someone, which increases the pressure on us to succeed,” she suggests. “By advising friends with similar goals when they run into road bumps, we also actually help ourselves build confidence and competence, according to research led by Lauren Eskreis-Winkler.”

4. Set up a commitment contract.

As for getting rid of bad habits once and for all, Milkman recommends a “commitment contract,” such as putting money on the line that you’ll have to forfeit if you fail to achieve your goals. In a study by Dean Karlan, a professor of economics and finance at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and collaborators, they found that such contracts led to a 30% higher quit rate for people who wanted to give up smoking than only offering people standard smoking cessation tools.

Milkman recommends websites such as StickK or Beeminder, or simply making arrangements directly with a friend to owe them cash if you fail to reach a goal by a certain date. 

How long it takes to build a habit

Contrary to popular belief, there is no magic number of days for how long it’ll take your new habit to stick. 

“Research led by Anastasia Buyalskaya and Colin Camerer at CalTech that I collaborated on used machine learning to estimate that it takes an average person a few months to build a gym habit, but just a few weeks for caregivers to build the habit of sanitizing their hands when entering and exiting patients’ hospital rooms,” says Milkman. “There’s reason to believe that the more frequently you can repeat the behavior and the less complex the activity, the faster you can form the habit.”

But try not to get discouraged if everything doesn’t fall into place right away. Building new habits and changing old ones requires patience, grace and determination.

“Try not to let one miss ever grow to two,” Milkman says. “Research shows it’s particularly valuable to avoid two misses in a row, so remind yourself it’s OK to break your streak but just don’t ever let the misstep grow to two.” 

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