Health & Nutrition

How to Change Habits: 4 Ways to Make New Behaviors Stick

Old habits are hard to break, in part, because they are tied to our identity and because change is inherently difficult. To break out of old patterns, you must first understand how habits work and believe in your capacity for personal revolution.

One red sphere leading others crossing to another side from group of neatly arranged spheres.
One red sphere leading others crossing to another side from group of neatly arranged spheres.

Habits are the building blocks of our lives. How we behave, think, and move through the world all come down to our habits.

But not all habits are good habits. And changing or developing a new habit, as we all know, can be difficult to do.

Understanding how habits work, while important, is rarely enough to unlock real change. Learn how to disrupt and redefine the most difficult patterns of behavior.

How to Change Habits: The Path to Making Real Breakthroughs

1. Understand the components of a habit

All habits, good or bad, old or new, consist of these components:

  • Cue, sometimes called the “trigger”
  • Routine, or the behaviors carried out after the cue
  • Reward, or what signals that the habit cycle is complete

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To change any habit, simply target any of these three components. For example, if you want to go to bed at an earlier time, you might

  • Change the cue: Set an alarm indicating “wind-down” time or take three deep breaths to signal the bedtime transition. Even deciding to feel differently about sleep (e.g. “An early bedtime is a healthy, smart thing to pursue”) counts as a cue change.
  • Change the routine: Think about what drives your current bedtime behaviors. If you’re going to bed late because of your daily responsibilities, can you make time for them earlier? Other ideas: Journal instead of browsing through your phone until you’re sleepy; set a timer to complete your bedtime routine; prep your room and yourself for sleep (e.g., close the shades, place sleep mask and ear plugs on your nightstand).
  • Change the reward: A restful night of sleep is a reward in itself. When we sleep well, we can find better mood, clarity and focus in the morning.

[Read This Next: These 6 Healthy Habits Can Improve Memory & Focus]

2. Why are old habits hard to break?

Sometimes, a change of habit comes painlessly, delivering fast results in a short amount of time.

Unfortunately, many habits feel impossible to change. After all, simple does not mean easy. Old habits are hard to break because they

  • are familiar (they’ve been executed so many times);
  • require less time and effort (we’re really good at them);
  • feel “safe” (they’re tried and trusted);
  • are tied up with beliefs about who we are

That’s why knowing how habits work, or even having the desire to form new habits, isn’t always enough to create change.

3. How to make a new, desired habit stick

Use these tried-and-true techniques to become a master of your habits:

  • Set your vision. Aiming for drastic change is a common mistake. Start small with your habit changes by setting a goal or plan that is doable, limited, and singular.
  • Apply effort daily, consistently, and purposefully. No matter how tiny the goal, you’ll strive to achieve it with your whole heart. Pursue the habit as if it is the only thing that matters in your life. Yes, it’s important to elevate the new habit to that level.
  • Believe in yourself. You can’t set your vision or truly apply effort if you don’t believe in your ability to change. Anyone can instill new patterns in their life for good. Believing in yourself also comes down to habit — practice being kind and patient with yourself. It will help you commit and show up for yourself confidently and reliably.
  • Fight, fight, fight. Old habits don’t want to die. As you work on changing your habits, old ones will rage and roar. When we slack off with our new habits, the old ones are ready to pounce. To change a habit, you’ll need to consciously fight the part of you that is connected with old patterns. Adopt the right mindset for change by repeating an affirming statement like, “I release the old habit because I prefer the new habit. And this is the new me.”

Changing a habit, especially one that is deeply ingrained, feels difficult because you’re changing your identity to fit the new behavior. As daunting as the task might be, remember that life is your creation. When you believe that you are the boss of your life, your mind and body will align to support your desires. 

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination: How Women with ADHD Can Break the Cycle of Delayed Sleep and Stress” [Video Replay & Podcast 382] with Christine Li, Ph.D., and Tracy Otsuka, JD, LLM, AACC, which was broadcast live on December 8, 2021.

How to Change Habits: Next Steps


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