Whether you want to transform your physique, run a marathon, eat a more nourishing diet, or practice more gratitude, building your best life often comes down to little choices and behaviors repeated day after day after day. These intentional steps—better known as habits—add up to a pattern of well-being over time.
Estimates suggest it takes anywhere from 18 days to several months for a behavior to turn into a well-established habit. And if statistics around New Year’s resolutions are any indication, making that happen is no small feat: According to a 2020 study on over 1,000 participants, just 55 percent of resolutioners considered themselves successful at making improvements to their lifestyle at the one-year mark.
So, how can you give yourself the best chance at making good habits stick? Here, health coaches share their top tips for enacting positive change.
1. Find your tribe
Accountability can be a major predictor of the success or failure of a new wellness routine. When starting on the journey toward better-for-you behaviors, don’t go it alone! “Being part of a community or getting some kind of social support, whether through friends, family, or hiring a health coach, can help you stay accountable with your new habits,” says certified health coach Emily Schmitz. Simply sharing your goal or desired new habit with a trusted friend (and perhaps asking them to check in on you from time to time) provides a sense that someone’s in your corner.
You might even search for a new crew of like-minded friends to help you stay on track. “You can find various wellness communities through your gym, neighborhood meet-ups, and on social media,” says Schmitz.
2. Try ‘habit stacking’
This recently trendy concept involves tacking a new habit onto something you already do regularly (like brushing your teeth or making your morning coffee). The idea goes that when a new behavior can piggyback onto an old one, it’s more likely to become second nature.
You might, for example, mentally list out three things you’re grateful for while you brush your teeth or do a quick meditation while your java brews.
“Habit stacking helps with sticking to healthy habit formation because you already have one established habit,” explains Schmitz. “I suggest to my clients that they add on a small, attainable goal to their already existing habits.” (Working on your novel while waiting for your coffee to be ready, for instance, might be a stretch.)
3. Create the right environment
Let’s face it: You’re not likely to attain a habit of healthier snacking if you don’t prune your pantry of nutritionally-devoid processed stuff. Similarly, getting better sleep will be a challenge if your bedroom isn’t a restful place. When it comes to changing your habits, environment matters.
“Think about how you can set up your home to support your goals,” says health coach, dietitian, and personal trainer Maxine Yeung, M.S., R.D., C.P.T. “For example, if you’re working on eating more fruit during the day, it might be helpful to have a bowl of ready-to-eat fruit on your counter so it’s one of the first things you see when you walk into your kitchen.”
Getting serious about a new habit may also involve removing physical barriers. “If you want to exercise at home and space is a factor, consider rearranging your furniture to create a space that works for you,” says Yeung. “Or, if you find yourself randomly jumping on your tablet to play a game [rather than exercise], consider putting it out of view.”
4. Put It in writing
Want to show that new habit you mean business? Put pen to paper. Research from Dominican University suggests that people who write down their goals are significantly more likely to accomplish them than people who merely think about them.
In addition to clearly writing out the habit you want to make a regular part of your routine, you might also consider jotting down an encouraging mantra to look at and read to yourself when you need a boost—a tool Schmitz calls a “commitment card.” “For example, you can create a commitment card that you keep in your purse that says, ‘I am a healthy, motivated, goal-driven person and will make choices to reflect that,’” she says. Whip out your card when you’re considering skipping that morning run or whatever other behavior you want to make stick.
5. Start small
“Starting with a small change first is the easiest way to start forming a new habit,” says Yeung. (After all, drastic, sweeping lifestyle modifications aren’t exactly known for lasting in the long run.) “If you set out to do a lot at once, it’s often unrealistic given all of your other responsibilities, and can feel defeating when you’re unable to succeed. A smaller habit can help you build confidence in your ability to change.”
Want to work your way up to a plant-based diet? Start with a meatless Monday. Or if you’d like to get into a habit of daily jogging, begin by incorporating a walk around the neighborhood. As you acclimate to these step-wise additions, you can increase your commitment over time.
6. Turn a bad day into good data
We all slip up sometimes. On a day when you didn’t squeeze in your morning fitness routine or threw in the towel on your evening yoga practice, use it as an opportunity for healthy curiosity. “Rather than shaming yourself, look at yourself as a scientist,” suggests Schmitz. “Review the specific triggers that may have caused you to stray.”
Meanwhile, try not to let a day or two of being off the wagon boot you from the journey altogether. “Old habits often take over and it can get harder before it gets easier,” says Schmitz. “But remember to treat yourself with the same compassion you would a friend. Would you shame your friend if he or she broke a new habit? Of course not! So why would you use that kind of negative self-talk on yourself?”
7. Celebrate successes
There’s nothing like a pat on the back to keep you headed in the right direction—even if you’re the one doing the patting! Making plans to celebrate new habit milestones can help ensure those behaviors stick.
As a new habit becomes ingrained in your lifestyle, give yourself some credit by celebrating milestones. “The reward should be immediately following the success,” says Schmitz. “And make sure you create a productive reward. If you hit a workout or weight-loss goal, don’t reward yourself with self-sabotaging behavior like going all-in on unhealthy foods.” Instead, you might plan a spa day or finally spring for those running shoes you’ve been eying.
Remember, too, that in the end, your new behaviors are a celebration on their own. Every effort you make to enact positive change propels you closer to the long-lasting results of a healthier future, so give yourself a mental high-five each time you check that new habit off your daily to-do list.