7 Proven Ways to Build Better Habits (That Actually Stick.)

It’s easier said than done, but new habits will change your life.

If you want to be successful at anything, whether it’s keeping your kitchen clean or running a marathon, then good habits are the key.

A good habit is more powerful than willpower, coaching, or any trick you might think of. Moreover, it changes your very character.

woman in blue shirt holding coffee mug

Let’s say you want to have a clean home.

You could hire someone to yell at you every day to clean.

You could tell yourself no desserts unless your house is clean.

Or you could, very naturally, clean your kitchen before bed every night and your bathroom every morning. And you would, through the power of good habits, simply become a person who has a clean house.

Easy to say, hard to do. Here’s how you harness the power of positive habits.

(If you’re trying to establish a new behavior that is medical, like trying to quit smoking, please see a doctor!)

1. Identify your goals

A huge part of actually doing something is actually wanting to do it. You can set a habit in motion, but if you don’t think there will benefit you, why bother?

What’s the big picture here? Why do you want to develop good habits? To live longer? To have a better relationship with your kids? To get a promotion at work?

Replacing bad habits with good habits will need a lot of motivation, so don’t skip this step.

Visualize exactly what you want: Let’s say your house is messy and it’s causing problems in your relationship. You want to get into a habit of keeping your home clean.

Picture what it looks like for your house to be clean. Imagine how your husband will react. Think about your kids coming home from a bad day at school and having a comfortable, pretty home waiting for them.

Focusing on the negative can be super effective. What will happen if you DON’T reach your goals? Sometimes we make decisions without realizing the potential consequences until later. Most of the time, we do this!

You feel like watching Netflix, but you really need to clean your house. What’s the big deal? It’s just Netflix! Don’t you deserve a little break? Nope. Your bad habits are trying to derail you, and you have to stop them.

It’s time to focus on the bad things that could happen if your bad habits don’t change. Maybe you’ll get judgmental looks from your mother-in-law, and maybe you’ll feel gross on Saturday morning when you wake up to a messy living room.

Never forget the why behind a positive habit. Think about why you want to get in the habit of regular cleaning. And concentrate on what will happen if you never master this habit. There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy fear.

2. Be small and specific

woman drinking water while planning

Don’t make your new habit complicated.

Our example above of keeping the house clean is way, way too big.

Other big goals that are doomed to fail are “getting into an exercise habit” or “starting to lose weight.”

Don’t try to change too many things at once, especially if you’re just starting. The more difficult the habit is, the easier it will be to convince yourself that you don’t have time, or won’t remember, or are just too tired.

Here are some examples of habits that would have a high likelihood of success:

  • drink a glass of water before coffee every morning (not “drink more water”)
  • do all the dishes before going to bed (not “keep the house cleaner”)
  • walk the dog for one mile after the kids get on the bus (not “start exercising”)

Habit formation relies on your mind to develop clarity. You don’t want to be wandering around, thinking about what’s next. You just want automatic action.

🌞 Related: How to Develop the Perfect Morning Routine

3. Stick to it for at least 21 days before you change anything

This is where the hard work comes in. It’s time to just… do it.

You can’t just think about it and expect results.

You have to bite the bullet, follow-through, and realize you will still be alive at the end of those three weeks. No matter how much you might want to quit, stay strong for 21 days before making any changes.  

After 21 days of sticking to a habit, your brain starts to accept it as a part of the routine. (After 31 days, you’re even more likely to keep going!) If you can’t last that long, go ahead and change the number of days you have in mind. But 21 is an excellent place to start.

4. Keep track of what you do

Keeping a journal or log will help you stay accountable and motivated!

Record the time of day, how long it takes for yourself to complete this behavior ( “I struggled to get up in the morning but then reminded myself why it important”), your thoughts at that moment, along with any obstacles you face.

You can print out a simple calendar and give yourself a sticker each day you stick to your desired habit; you can get a habit tracker or use a blank piece of paper and write a checkmark next to each date.

Whatever helps you feel like you’re making progress is all you need.

5. Put yourself in an environment that will make you successful

woman on couch on cell phone

You’ve committed yourself, and now it’s time for the tough bit: holding yourself accountable. An accountability partner can be a huge help for some people. Get someone who will keep an eye on you. To make it fair, you should do the same for them.

Rearrange your environment so that sticking to your habit is as easy as possible. For example:

  • If you’re trying to get in the habit of exercising every morning, lay out your workout clothes the night before.
  • Are you trying to get into the habit of working on a specific craft or project? Be sure to set up all of your tools in. visible place before you go to sleep.
  • If you want to work on a specific document every day after breakfast, set up an alarm for 10:15 am and place the paper in front of the coffee machine.

These triggers will help make your new habits more automatic. (Which, as we’ve discussed, is the whole point.)

6. Celebrate your wins

Celebrating the small wins gives you a sense of accomplishment and empowerment. When we reward ourselves for achieving something, our brains respond by boosting pleasure centers. And that motivates us to do even better. Celebrate every time you finish a task, whether it’s your first time or your fiftieth.

Don’t be embarrassed if you get off track. Everyone does. And most importantly, if you miss a day, do not use it as an excuse to give up. Tomorrow is a new day.

7. Find out what triggers unwanted habits

Do you find yourself grabbing a giant bowl of popcorn every Friday when you sit on the couch for a movie? Well… unfortunately… you should probably skip movie night for a while.

If you connect the habit of popcorn to sitting on the couch, it will be tough to break until the couch sitting stops too.

At first, skip the triggering habit entirely. Next, replace the bad habit with a new habit (grab your knitting instead of popcorn). And once the new routine is established, you’ll hardly miss the popcorn at all.

How to keep going and develop more good habits

Enough healthy habits added to your daily routine will completely change your life.

It all starts with a simple idea called “habit stacking.”

Habit stacking is the process of building one new habit upon another in such a way that they become easy to accomplish because they’re so close together in time or space (or both).

The key? You have to attach a new habit to a habit that’s already ingrained. You can’t suddenly decide you’ll drink a green smoothie after your yoga practice when you’ve never gotten in the habit of either.

For example:

  • Every time I brush my teeth, I do fifteen squats
  • When I wait in the carpool line to pick up my kids, I meditate
  • Every time I brew a pot of coffee, I unload the dishwasher

Develop good habits and watch your life change

You can have all the positive thinking and the best mindset in the world, but in the end, your actions are what counts.

Your behaviors determine how you feel and what your life becomes. And when you learn how to create good habits, you’ll see a real difference in everything.

Start small, and start now.