How to make and keep good habits?
December 29, 2011 4:24 PM   Subscribe

ResolutionFilter: I really want to start slowly adopting new, healthier habits. As it usually does, the inspiration has hit me just before New Years. But I don't want to make a resolution, I want to establish habits that I can keep. I've tried before, but here's where I always fall down: how do I make the new habits stick? They never actually make it to the "habit" stage for me.

I've tried Health Month, but I tend to overcommit. I'll do fine for a few months, but eventually too many new habits pile up. I haven't really established the habit by the end of the month, so the next month, I'm really establishing two new habits.

I think part of the reason the new habits don't stick is that I don't integrate them into my schedule. If I'm trying to make a completely new daily habit, such as daily exercise, how should I figure out how to fit it in my schedule?

I'm planning on getting an Up (activity tracker thing from Jawbone) once they're on sale again to help with "get x hours of sleep" type habits.

Any other suggestions for establishing good habits that are really integrated into your life?
posted by duien to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I'm not really that good at this either, so take all this with many grains of salt. (Unless you're trying to cut back on salt.)

Re Health Month specifically, try under-committing. It's tempting to add new rules -- I'm debating right now whether to -- but maybe it's best to let older habits accrue for a while. I piled myself a little too high in September and October, and did a reset to just 3 rules for December. Also, with the MeFi team, I find it helps to be a least a little active on the Game Wall; getting comments on notes keeps me motivated when I'm really NOT motivated.

The few things I have managed to get ingrained, it's because they're attached to things I was going to do anyway. Flossing, which I hate hate hate, fits exactly in the time it takes for my shower to warm up. Riding my bike to work is shorter than taking the bus, and not much longer than driving. Stretching works best for me if I do it while I'm watching a movie in the evening.
posted by epersonae at 4:38 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The keys for me are:

1) Never, ever have more than five goals.
2) Never have more than two "new" goals.
3) Make the goal a general attempt - the time (5 minutes of exercise), the logging (write in my journal about my day), etc. - not the results (lose five pounds).
4) Try to do at least one goal for several months in a row.
5) Always have a new goal.
6) Don't start on a daily basis - give yourself days off, and try to do one less day than you think you can pull off.
7) Spread the word amongst friends and family - people who will bug you about whether you've been doing the thing you said you would do.
8) Don't make the goal too specific. "Get 15 minutes of moderate intensity exercise" worked a LOT better than "walk a mile."

I'm trying to start back up with HealthMonth in January. We'll see.
posted by SMPA at 4:41 PM on December 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

I tried healthmonth with either dropping last months habits to try something new, or dropping it because it was integrated. And then I stopped healthmonth for a few months to see what stuck, and a few had. I may do another month here and there, if I want the help to get something else to become a habit. The hardest thing, I think, is picking something that you actually want to do or actually is easy to add. (It would be great if I gardened more, but I don't really enjoy it, so I just put it on healthmonth the months when I really need to get a lot of weeding done, and leave it off the rest of the time.) For me, brushing my teeth after most meals and eating more vegetables/making more salads ended up sticking quite well. Exercise did for awhile, then fell off when I started making a large quilt (it pretty much sucked all my time). So if you do try again, do only one or two things the first month, don't add anything new until two or three months in, and then only one at a time. Give yourself time to change.
posted by Margalo Epps at 4:42 PM on December 29, 2011

Here's a piece of anecdotal habit-forming.

For years I didn't brush my teeth. I just never got the habit. I was lucky; no cavities came after me.

Recently I've been living on my own. The theme of decor in my bathroom is pictures of sexy fox-ladies (I've spent a lot of time in the furry community). It is a place of Pretty Vixens. And a place I go to prettify myself, what with it being where I do my makeup.

One day while I was in there, I told myself that pretty vixens brush their teeth. And ever since, well, I don't brush my teeth every day, but nine times out of ten they get brushed when I get out of the shower. (days when I skip showering tend to be days my teeth don't get brushed)

I can't remember if this was before or after I drew a big cartoon fox face in the condensation on the mirror and half-jokingly consecrated the bathroom to Pretty Vixenitude.

But basically I managed to find a little phrase to embed into my experience of a place to remind me to do something I wanted to do in intellect, but not in my body.

How you can apply this to your own desires to change, I'm not sure.

Oh yeah, and I started exercising regularly last winter, and kept it up all last year. This is because my exercise wasn't just exercise: it was going out to take a dance class for a form I like a lot, which happens to be a pretty good whole-body workout. So if you can find something active that you LIKE to do it might be a lot more sustainable than "oh god I gotta do my workout".
posted by egypturnash at 4:45 PM on December 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You might want to check out BJ Fogg's 3 Tiny Habits.

The basic premise is start very simple, ie instead of working out for an hour every day, commit to doing 2 situps every day.
Commit to doing the habit after an already formed habit, so the current habit acts as a trigger to the new habit (eg floss one tooth after I brush my teeth).
Give yourself positive feedback to reinforce the new habit and commit it to your routine. Once the routine is formed you can then scale up to the actual habit you wanted in the first place more easily so that it sticks.

I've just started giving this a go myself, so I can't tell you yet if it works, but here's hoping!
posted by TwoWordReview at 4:54 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you look at some seriously thrifty guy like Ben Franklin, he probably connected all this habitual healthy stuff with big life projects and core values: God, America, virtue, posterity, his children. I've tried this a little bit, and I think it might work. Gather up your energies. Man up. There's something about holding yourself responsible to something else. Your health is truly a great gift to society.
posted by mbrock at 5:00 PM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

I recommend this book: Living SMART: Five Essential Skills to Change Your Health Habits Forever. It may sound like hyperbole, but it's really a very helpful little book.

They also have a companion site where you can download their goal-setting charts.

What's so helpful? I think it's the, well, health focus and also the breaking things down into manageable chunks. I like the concept of setting a simple goal that I'm 80% confident I can reach. It's great fun to set achievable goals!

I got this book as part of a weight loss program and the SMART skills (yeah, it's an acronym) is a large part of the follow-up program. It really works. The hardest part was thinking up rewards for myself.
posted by rw at 5:03 PM on December 29, 2011

Don't make a long-term resolution. Take a page from the recovery movement: one day at a time.

Today, I'll go to the gym.
Today, I'll cook great meals and eat just enough to satisfy hunger.
Today, I'll study for two full hours.


Then tomorrow, do it again.
posted by xingcat at 5:26 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

do all dishes before bed
make your bed every day
posted by rhizome at 5:48 PM on December 29, 2011

Best answer: Here's the thing, and sorry if this sounds unpleasant:

They never actually make it to the "habit" stage for me.

The way most people use the word "habit" is to mean something you do unconsciously, without thinking or having to make an effort. That state does not actually exist, at least not for habits you acquire as a grown-up.

If it's difficult to make yourself do it today, it will be hard tomorrow and hard ten years from now and hard the day you die. There is no magical state where you don't have to try anymore. But the good news is, you don't have to beat yourself up about "not forming habits." Just keep trying every day- you'll fail sometimes, but you'll succeed a lot.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:57 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

There is a funny Allie Brosh cartoon about exactly this, but I can't find the link right now. I'm sure someone has it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:58 PM on December 29, 2011

This seems silly, but it really helps me to chart how well I stick to my goals - even something as simple as putting an X through the days on the calendar when I work out. I get a real sense of satisfaction from seeing that I've done what I've set out to do. And even if I have an off week (or even month), I can look back and see that I stuck to my routine better in the past and that it's more a signal that I've gotten off track (thus, with the opportunity to get back on track) than going back to my old ways entirely.

It also helps me to have a goal in addition to just "I'm going to do better with this." Set out to run a 5k or a 10k, for example, rather than just "I'll work out four times a week." Or, if you want to eat better, look at it is as trying a new vegetable or a new healthy dish once a week rather than "I will not eat cupcakes."
posted by something something at 6:00 PM on December 29, 2011

Reading over what I just wrote, I think the common thread is: try to make it fun, rather than a chore. Look at it as exploring new things rather than taking on new chores.
posted by something something at 6:01 PM on December 29, 2011

Break down your goals into tiny steps. For example, I have a sweet tooth and eat way too many sugary things. So my goal is to eat less sugar. I don't want to cut out all sweets because I know I'll never be able to stick to that. So I started with things like watering down my juice, 50% water 50% juice. I started experimenting with putting a tablespoon or two less sugar in the muffins I make. Less sugar in my coffee. When those were normal for me, I stopped drinking juice except with my breakfast, the rest of the day is water only. When ever I feel like something has become a normal habit I look for another tiny change I can make. I usually only do one change at a time so that it doesn't feel like a diet, it's just a lifestyle change. Some don't stick but most do.
posted by sadtomato at 6:03 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: drjimmy11 mentions Allie Brosh above. I'm betting the one in question is probably "This is Why I'll Never Be An Adult".

In the spirit of the "Clean All the Things!!" panel and (on preview) what sadtomato said above, my new ambition has been to "Clean Half the Things!" It sounds stupid, but facing only half the dishes in the sink is more manageable, and hey, sometimes I do clean them all if I feel like it. If you think you are likely to over-commit, take what you think is a reasonable goal and half it every time. I was amazed how small some chunks needed to be in order for them to be manageable to me.
posted by juliplease at 6:10 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

I finally got into the habit of flossing. The trick is that I keep the container of floss on the side table next to the couch so while I'm watching TV, I can mindlessly floss my teeth. Doesn't really require much thought or effort.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 6:41 PM on December 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lots of good suggestions so far! I think I'll try breaking things down further than I have before, and making the goal smaller. I definitely have a tendency towards the "clean all the things!" mindset, and it never turns out well.

Anybody have any insight into the helpfulness or non-helpfulness of an Up/Fitbit/etc. type device when trying for long-term habit formation?
posted by duien at 7:00 PM on December 29, 2011

If you're a gadget person, a gadget might help. If not, then not.

Keeping a record (online, on paper, whatever) is helpful. I use myfitnesspal because its iPhone app is totally integrated with the website, but you might find something else that works better for you. I also weigh myself daily, because I understand that my weight can fluctuate a couple of pounds on any given day, so I don't panic (if you are sensitive to this, then weigh once a week), but it helps me stay on top of trends.

I'm all for going slow--you want this stuff to last a lifetime. Figure out twelve goals or steps toward goals you want to meet by the end of the year, and set one per month.
posted by elizeh at 8:38 PM on December 29, 2011

Buy new plates, pretty, smaller ones. We eat too much, all of us. Using smaller plates will help you develop a habit of eating less and hopefully remind you to make better food choices. Don't deny yourself anything that you are craving, just don't eat as much of it if it is covered in sugar or salt.

You aren't going to keep at it if it isn't fun. Try to find an activity that is both fun and will get you enough exercise. If you can't, then give yourself rewards for working out. If you work out 3 times a week for the next month then you can spend $50.00 on or something like that.

Finding time to exercise is usually more an emotional thing than an actual time thing. You are worth taking 20 to 40 minutes every day to do nothing but see to your own needs. Taking care of yourself is important. You have to make yourself a priority. Journal a bit about why you don't feel you have time to exercise. You'll be surprised with what you come up with. We all carry around baggage, brain trash, that keeps us from taking proper care of ourselves. Good habits require getting rid of some of that trash.
posted by myselfasme at 9:23 PM on December 29, 2011

Daily (or regular) exercise isn't gonna work unless it's something that you enjoy doing, something that is really convenient to do, or something that is very regimented, such as signing up for a race every 2 months. So find an activity you like (yoga? rock climbing? swimming? racketball? tennis? zumba?), or find someone else who wants to do it with you so it's enjoyable (jogging with a friend and talking is fun, running alone is the hardest thing in the world, to me at least). Join a gym only if it's within 5 minutes from work or home, and bring your gym stuff with you, instead of counting on your will power to go to the gym after you get home. Sign up for a race so you *have* to train for it. Then sign up for another one when you finish the first one.

The habit of eating healthy isn't going to work if you make yourself eat only salads for a month straight. Even if you make it through the month, the second you see bacon and cake, you will EAT IT ALL. So incorporate healthy meals, but don't go crazy with it. Start by buying more veggies this week and eating a larger side dish of roasted vegetables instead of pasta. If someone brings in cake at work, or you are craving chocolate, eat 1/2 the amount of cake or chocolate you'd normally eat. It's still a healthier choice, but you're not limiting yourself, so it's an easier choice to make. Don't buy unhealthy food while grocery shopping if you have a habit of snacking on ice cream / cookies / chips.

Technology / tracker things never worked for me. Exercise only became a habit when I found hobbies I loved that my friends were into as well (yoga, climbing, running half marathons), and now if I go 2 days in a row without exercise I get so restless. I still don't have a habit of eating healthy all the time, but every other day I plan delicious healthy meals (pretty much lots and lots of veggies so that I don't have to limit portion sizes much) that I can look forward to, and know that I am feeding my body good stuff.
posted by at 9:33 PM on December 29, 2011

Best answer: 1. One month is not enough to form a habit. 2 or 2.5 months is enough. I have to disagree that "there is no such thing as habit". Once a habit is established, it's 95% easier to keep it going than it was at first. Not 100% easier, but 95% isn't a bad deal, you have to admit.

2. It makes sense to do things that are good for you and not to do things that are bad for you. And yet people very often do not do the former and indulge in the latter. Ergo, an approach that makes no sense whatsoever but works is much better than something unfruitful.
posted by rainy at 10:26 PM on December 29, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have a calendar on the back of my front door. I mark off the days I did something by crossing off the day as I walk out of the house in the morning. Last month I wanted to get better about cleaning out the litter box EVERY DAY. The calendar reminds me if I forget and all the big red X's make me feel like I've accomplished something.

I wait until something IS a habit before I add a new habit. I don't wait a month, or two weeks or whatever, I wait until I don't need to be reminded to do something consistently and then I can move on to another habit. Next up, loading the dishwasher every night.
posted by magnetsphere at 6:12 AM on December 30, 2011

It might be wise not to choose too many new habits at once. According to this article: Willpower is a finite resource. (NY Times link)

I have always found this to be case when I have been attempting to do several new things. Not long ago I started getting up early, going to the gym every day, eating my five a day, reading for an hour, checking out the news, limiting my internet time. I did it, but for a few weeks. Eventually I just gave up, I felt like I couldn't be bothered. Essentially, I ran out of willpower.

Shortly after this failed attempt I tried just going to gym every day. I managed to keep this up for several months, at which point I added something else. I introduced my habits one at a time and so far, I've managed to keep them up. Good luck!
posted by v.barboni at 6:22 AM on December 30, 2011

Best answer: You have many reasonable suggestions on your strategy for change already. However, they are much less likely to be effective if you continue to characterize your efforts as "trying". Trying is not doing. Trying is starting, then losing it. Look inside, make a conscious and deeply felt decision that you are now a person who does X. Minor backsliding doesn't mean your not that kind of person anymore. It just means you may need to pay more attention. Don't give up! That's just the last stage of trying.
posted by txmon at 6:51 AM on December 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

For me, it takes (only!) 30 days to form a habit, but the trick is that I can't work on more than one thing at a time. I can't even pick a work habit, an exercise habit, and an eating habit. Nope. One habit.

In your shoes, I'd start with a 15-minute walk (or 15 minutes of calisthenics, or yoga, or whatever exercise you like to do) first thing in the morning every morning. (I find it easiest to exercise first thing in the morning, because I know I'll have energy, and there is a lower chance that something will come up that prevents me.)

If you don't have time for a 15 minutes of exercise first thing in the morning, I'd make the habit going to bed 15 minutes earlier at night, so that you get get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning for January. Then start the exercise in February.

Just because HM lets you pick a bunch of habits doesn't mean you have to use them all.
posted by BrashTech at 7:17 AM on December 30, 2011

I find adopting good habits easiest when I'm under-supplied with things to do. It's easier to choose something I know to be worthwhile in a vacuum, rather than competing with other fun passtimes.
posted by ead at 7:41 AM on December 30, 2011

If it's difficult to make yourself do it today, it will be hard tomorrow and hard ten years from now and hard the day you die. There is no magical state where you don't have to try anymore.

Which means that you can simplify the task to some extent by consciously practising any kind of small useful behavior that doesn't come naturally.

For example, I'm currently working on my own habit-forming ability by always putting away two dry things from the dishrack whenever I leave one wet thing on it. And every single time, I experience internal resistance to bothering to do that. But because putting away two or four or six things is never actually very onerous, and doesn't actually take very long, it's always possible to overcome the instant-slackness urge and just get the thing done.

I've been doing this this for six months now, and putting things away is still not showing any signs of becoming automatic. But what is becoming automatic is a habit of reminding myself that consistently being able to overcome an urge to backslide is a useful skill, and that doing this one small thing is worthwhile in the service of that larger skill. So I think it's working as intended.

Next on the list: buying screen hours with exercise minutes.
posted by flabdablet at 9:37 AM on December 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: As everyone has already said, pick small things and do them one at a time.

My tip is to not fight yourself too much. This comes from watching shows that are supposed to help people with clutter. If you always drop your mail and bag just near the front door, put in a hook for the bag and a file and shredder for the mail there. Don't make youself trudge upstairs to your desk to sort the mail out or imagine that you are going to take your bag up and put it in your wardrobe every day.

For me, it is a bit of a fight to get to the gym. I have to find the time, get changed, just don't like it etc etc. But (and this could be seen as an expensive or smart thing to do), since I bought an apartment closer to my work, I walk to/from work at least once a day. Something I don't feel like it, and figure I'll walk as far as the next tram stop.. and then find I can keep going. I would otherwise spend most of that time standing at a tram stop grumbling, standing on the tram etc. It works with my natural tendencies, but means that most days, I do a decent walk. Maybe you can fit stuff in better if you do it at lunch, rather than first thing in the morning. Maybe it would work for you to do it at night. Whatever works for you.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:14 AM on December 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

It took you years to become who you are.

It will often take years to become exactly who you want to become.

Don't get discouraged if you fall off the path; the straight path from here to there doesn't exist, for any of us.

But when you fall off the path, no matter how long it's been, remember to get back on and keep on walking.

(That, and you can't exactly carry the world on your shoulders while you walk; set reasonable goals, and add more later once you've proven to yourself you can succeed.)
posted by talldean at 7:37 AM on January 2, 2012

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