Research shows that the best way to align our long term goals with our short term behaviors is by forming good habits. Habits make the actions necessary to reach our goal feel almost effortless, and that’s how we get to where we want to be.
The most common mistake people make when setting a big goal—like losing weight, eating healthier, or working out more regularly—is trying to accomplish too much at once and losing steam quickly. Forming positive habits is the solution to this problem, but it is easier said than done.
Here are research-based strategies to help you form healthy habits:
Take it one step at a time.
Small manageable goals are just easier to stick with. According to B.J. Fogg, a researcher at Stanford University, the large behavior changes necessary to complete big goals require a high energy level of motivation that is difficult to sustain. When we take on too much at once, we’re likely to burn out quickly. Instead of going big and burning out, take small steps toward your goals that can easily be incorporated into your daily routine. Something like one piece of fruit a day could be the beginning of a new healthy eating regimen.
Form new habits using your old ones.
Behavioral scientists suggest that forming a new habit is easier when it becomes intertwined with an existing habit. Make those small incremental changes to your routine stick by taking stock of your current patterns and simply adding on new behaviors. For example, let’s say your goal is to stretch more every day. If you already habitually start each morning with a cup of coffee, make a commitment to stretch for five minutes while the coffee brews. When the new habit is intrinsically connected to something you already do, it seamlessly becomes part of your routine.
Eliminate obstacles, no matter how trivial they seem.
There’s a reason Amazon has a “Buy Now” button. The extra 30 seconds it takes to add an item to your cart and complete checkout is enough time to change your mind entirely. In fact, we are extremely sensitive to small, almost imperceptible shifts in our daily routine, and every moment counts when it comes to decision making. In one study, when participants had to wait just 20 seconds longer for elevator doors to close, they opted to take the stairs instead. So, make it as easy as possible to accomplish your goals. This could look like meal prepping ahead of time, packing a gym bag the night before, or working out first thing in the morning, before you have time to change your mind.
Reward yourself in the present for working toward future goals.
Sure, there are intrinsic rewards built into positive habits like healthy eating or regular exercise, but those perks take time to come to fruition. It’s not unusual for motivation to run out long before we see the fruits of our labor. In order to avoid stopping before you ever really get started, set up a reward system that provides some form of instant gratification. Maybe you schedule time to chat with a friend after your workout, or maybe you eat a healthy lunch but watch one episode of a favorite show while you do. Whatever your reward, this gives you something to look forward to, plus the feeling that you earned it.