• Successful, long-term habits need to be flexible and tightly linked to something that really matters to you

  • Freya Stephens, author of The Good Habit Workbook, shares her tips

Think of the last time you tried to form a new habit. Maybe you wanted to practise a musical instrument more regularly, start a new mindful morning routine, or simply get to the office on time each day. Whatever it was, after the initial honeymoon phase, you probably discovered that building a new habit into your daily routine was hard! But it’s not impossible, and that’s what we’re here to work on.

How long does it take to build a new habit?

The most commonly cited timeframe is 21 days, but as it turns out, this myth came from the misinterpreted work of cosmetic surgeon Dr Maxwell Maltz who found that, actually, 21 days is not long enough to build a new habit. But people enjoyed the simplicity of the theory, so regardless of the data, the myth was born! Some research suggests that on average it can actually take around 66 days, while further research suggests even longer.

Building new habits can be easy or hard, and often depends on the type of person trying to build the habit, the habit in question and the underlying reason behind a desire to change. The best way to approach building new habits is to assume it could take anywhere from one day to one year to become a subconscious habit, make it as easy and enjoyable as possible, and buckle your seatbelt for the long haul!

Physical and emotional triggers

Every habit has a physical or emotional trigger, so to start a new positive habit you will probably need to add some strong physical triggers to your environment. For example, if the habit is practising guitar regularly, the trigger might be seeing the guitar in front of you each day, so the change could be to set up a guitar stand in your living room so the instrument is always visible.

The emotional triggers behind your positive habits are the real reason you are putting in so much effort to change. For example, if the habit is running four times a week, the emotional trigger could be seeing the decline in a parent’s health, which makes you want to take care of your own health as long as possible. Therefore, the change could be keeping a photo of your kids next to your running shoes, to remind you that you are running to stay healthy for them.

Find your 'Why'

Behind every habit there should be a “why”: an underlying desire of some sort that keeps you motivated on your journey. Your “why” could be your big life goal, but sometimes you need to go deeper to discover why you have that goal in the first place. Here’s an example:

Habit: I want to run three times a week

Why? To build up my fitness

Why? To run a marathon and get a good time

Why? I want to run past my kids near the finish line and make them proud of me

Suddenly, the idea of dragging yourself out into the cold weather to go for a run three times a week sounds more appealing, because it’s helping you reach the moment when you can run past your children and show them what you’re capable of. This heartfelt reason will provide much more drive than any aesthetic goal.

Habit tracking

Eventually, we want to move our new habits from our conscious to our subconscious mind, so they become automatic and easy. This means we no longer require any measure of how many days we’ve completed in order to keep going. However, in the very beginning, it can help to boost the reward we get by ticking off a box at the end of the day if we’ve stuck to our new habits. This could be a simple tick, a smiley face, words of encouragement for tomorrow or a comment on how it’s going so far. Anything that allows you to enjoy the accomplishment.

Most people are driven by a desire to continue a streak, so if every time you complete your daily habit you mark it up somewhere that’s visible to you (for example, on a calendar), you will start to feel accomplished every time you achieve it and will want to ensure every box is ticked.

Use positive reinforcement

Feeling rewarded each time you complete your new habit will help it stick, so allow yourself to feel happy and proud afterwards – it will help spur you on! By using positive reinforcement, you can increase the feelings of achievement that encourage you to keep going with a daily habit again and again. Say you’re trying to build a habit where you run three times a week. You might end each run by listening to a song you love, indulging in your favourite snack or maybe resting on the sofa with an episode of a great TV show – whatever makes you feel happy and gives you an opportunity to bask in the achievement of your habit.

Protect your time

Connecting with others is so important, but sometimes their demands (whether they mean to make them or not) can distract you from your daily habits and overall goal. Protecting your own time is crucial, so other things don’t sneak in and take priority. In order to maintain your habits, decide what time you want to set aside and rehearse saying no when people ask to do things during those hours.

Establish where you will draw the line ahead of time, in order to avoid awkward conversations with people. By setting boundaries, you aren’t just protecting your time, you’re guarding those goals in order to make them happen.

Use visual cues

It’s disheartening to get to the end of the day, climb into bed and realise you completely forgot to do the thing you set out to do that morning. One of the biggest downfalls we all face when trying to incorporate a new positive habit into our daily lives is forgetting to add it to our usual routine. Instead, we allow our current habits to take over.

This can be fixed easily with visual cues that prompt us to take action. Although it might seem silly or childish to put a Post-it note on your bathroom mirror saying, “Remember to floss today”, if a note is the very thing that will remind you to do it, why not give it a try?

Schedule your habits in advance

Deciding to start a new positive habit is a great thing, but unless you add it to your schedule, it won’t happen. Many of us are full of plans for the future, but it’s the small daily actions that create that future, so ensuring you make time for them is crucial.

Add your new habit to your schedule, diary or calendar – wherever you’ll be reminded to do it – and treat it like a set-in-stone appointment that cannot be moved unless it’s for something very, very important.

Usually work and family commitments need to come first, but your habits and goals should be prioritised, too. Don’t forget to schedule them into your upcoming week, month and year in order to start seeing results, and if you’re really serious about achieving your goals, start treating yourself like the boss. If you ever miss a day of habits, have a meeting with yourself to see how things can improve going forward.

Find a community

One of the best ways to create longevity in a habit is to join a community that can help you stick to your goals by providing motivation and encouragement, a shared sense of direction and accountability when you set yourself a target.

If your new habit happens to be one that can be supported by joining an existing community, whether directly related to your habit or not, then this can be a great way to gain inspiration from others around you. Plus, it’s always more fun to start something new alongside friends! A community can offer you a safe place to share your goals with people who understand your desire to succeed, and gain additional tips and advice from others on a similar journey. It also offers a place to foster the new identity you are creating with your habits – more on this in the next section!

If you can’t connect with an existing community, consider starting your own or reaching out to a few friends you know might want to help each other.

Create a new identity

Don’t worry, you don’t need to join the witness protection program! But part of committing to your big life goals is becoming the person you need to be to make those goals happen. For example, if you see yourself as a lazy person, but your goal is to master a handstand within six months, you may need to adjust this image of yourself: a lazy person wouldn’t pull out an exercise mat and do ab workouts at the gym to strengthen their core. However, an athletic person might. If you want to achieve a goal like this, you will need to create a new identity as an athletic person through positive self-talk and other means, in order to stick with your habits long term.

Another example would be writing. If you feel you might have a book in you but you struggle with imposter syndrome, a writing habit of 500 words a day may not come easily. But if you identify as a writer, the words may start pouring out of you.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with this – embody a new identity and mention it to people. It may feel alien at first, but over time it could be the key to your motivation.

Adjust your habits as needed

Habits should be pliable and change over time. There is absolutely no point in rigidly sticking to a habit that no longer works for your schedule or for the goal you are trying to achieve. Life happens, things change and your habits can too, so don’t be afraid to course-correct when required. Doing so will help you more in the long run, because you can get back on track with a more sustainable habit.

Just because you set out aiming to go to the gym three times a week doesn’t mean you need to stick to this when you start a new job. Adjusting to two days or even one day a week is OK and you shouldn’t feel guilty about doing so. It’s far better to adjust your daily habits as needed than to drop them completely.

Freya Stephens is the author of The Good Habit Workbook

Further reading

What stops us from changing?

6 psychology-backed tips to make successful lifestyle changes

7 tips to silence your inner critic

5 things I learned about resilience cycling across Europe at record-breaking speed