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Exactly How to Lock in a New Habit, According to Science

We set ourselves up to fail by starting new habits only to abandon them. These 11 expert-approved brain hacks can help lock in that healthy new habit the right way.

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Tap into the brain’s fantastic plastic power

There are lots of tricks that may help healthy habits stick, but the brain has to undergo physical change for this to really take place. “The brain’s unbelievably subtle and sophisticated ability to change physical shape when exposed to new environments, activities, thoughts, and emotions is what underlies its capacity to create and sustain new habits,” explains Delia McCabe, MA, PhD, the Queensland, Australia-based author of Feed Your Brain: 7 Steps to a Lighter, Brighter You. This phenomenon is known as “neuroplasticity,” and it’s being studied as a way to stave off lasting brain damage after stroke and to help reverse some symptoms of autism. You may be doing some of the work already if you practice these 8 healthy habits that keep your brain sharp.

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Give it time

Researchers once thought that it took just 21 days to make a new habit stick, but the latest research suggests it can take a lot longer. “We don’t just have to create a new habit. We are also working at eliminating an old one,” McCabe says. This all takes place at the cellular level in the brain and involves neurons, membranes, axons, dendrites, and synapses, as well as neurotransmitters in specific parts of the brain that are being activated via this new habit, she explains. “To create a new neural pathway, or network, means that we have to get neurons to ‘fire together so that they wire together’ in a new way,” she says. This doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient.

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Align with an existing habit

One of the simplest ways to create a new habit quickly is to align it with an activity that you already perform, McCabe says. “If you’re aiming at increasing the amount of time you spend moving every day, then do 10 squats every time you go to the toilet to urinate,” she suggests. “You can’t avoid urinating, and you don’t have to carve out any new time to do so—you’re adding a new habit to an activity you already do automatically.”

Paleo style breakfast: gluten free and oat free muesli made with nuts, dried berries and fruits, top viewLilly Trott/Shutterstock

Nourish your noggin

Creating and sticking with new healthy habits starts with optimizing your brain so it’s primed to learn, says Steven P. Levine, MD, a Princeton, New Jersey-based psychiatrist and founder and CEO of Actify Neurotherapies. “Exercise promotes the production of proteins that have a positive effect on brain plasticity, and healthy eating also helps to change the environment,” he says. Healthy social interactions and meditation can also have a beneficial impact on the brain’s capacity to morph. Here are 30 more strangely interesting facts about your brain.

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Overthink it

Yes, ruminating and obsessing can be detrimental, but repeating positive thoughts can help lock them in tight. “There are so many neural connections in the brain devoted to negative thoughts, behaviors, or information that can’t be extinguished,” Levine says. To turn this into something positive, he suggests creating a realistic schedule to practice your new habit. “If you want to read more, carve out a block of time and set a daily goal such as reading for ten minutes a day and gradually building up to an hour,” he says. “If it is important enough to do, it’s important enough to schedule.” And the more you do it, the more likely it will become imprinted in your brain, and the more likely it is to stick.

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Put your money where your mouth is

Is fitness your goal? Invest in a personal trainer, suggests Benjamin Hardy, a PhD candidate at Clemson University in Clemson, SC, author of the upcoming Willpower Doesn’t Work: Discover the Hidden Keys to Success. “When you invest dollars in who you want to be and your goal, it makes a difference,” he says. In economics, this theory is known as the “sunk cost bias,” and while it does get a negative rap because people can overcommit to the wrong thing, it’s actually positive when it comes to locking in a healthy habit. “In my own PhD research, where I compared wannabe entrepreneurs vs. actual entrepreneurs, the primary difference was that the actual entrepreneurs were invested financially, and they said their point of commitment was when they became invested,” he says. Check out these 11 tricks to get the exercise motivation you need.

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Force the function

This concept is not new to designers and engineers, and it can also help lock in a healthy habit. “If you want to make taking your daily multivitamin a habit, put your vitamins where you will see them before you do anything else,” he says. This can be on your nightstand, next to toothbrush, or even in your coffee cup. In other words, make it impossible to miss.

It is 4:15 o'clock am or pm. The time is quarter past four. Get off work. A retro clock isolated on a wooden table and a white background. Image taken in a small angle to create perspectiveJne Valokuvaus/Shutterstock

Start small

You won’t go from couch potato status to gym rat status overnight. It just doesn’t work that way. “Instead of deciding that tomorrow you’re going to become a gym rat, stop smoking, and read a novel, select one manageable goal and do it for 15 minutes a day every single day,” says New York City-based success strategist Carlota Zimmerman, J.D.

Jonathan Alpert, a psychotherapist in New York City and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, agrees: “If you’re trying to get into shape and are embarking on an exercise program, introduce walking briskly for 10 minutes a day for the first week and then increase it from there. Setting up small tasks that you can actually accomplish will help to reinforce behaviors that support the goal.” You may even be ahead of the game. Check out these random, everyday habits that have surprising health benefits.

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Become a morning person

Mornings are magic when it comes to locking in new habits, says Alpert. “Most people have more energy earlier in their days after a night of sleep and are less likely to have excuses that could arise later in the day,” he explains. Take advantage of this by scheduling new tasks in the morning. “I recommend to many of my clients to allow 30 minutes in the morning for self-care, such as exercise, stretching, or reading [and] these have essentially become habit for them.” Here are 9 almost effortless ways to become a morning person.

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Chart your success

Kerby T. Alvy, PhD, a Los Angeles-based psychologist believes the only way a habit will stick is if we see results. “It is unlikely an action will become a habit without any results,” he says. “If you do start to see progress, that’s the best reinforcement.”

And reward yourself for the wins. “After consistently meeting your goals for a predetermined time, take time to go see a movie. Get a massage. Go to the beach. Read a book. Buy yourself a latte. Feel the sun on your face, hike, sit by a brook, watch the stars, garden, play with a puppy, enjoy a sunset,” says Karen L. Garvey, MBA, a New York-based personal and professional coach.

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Don’t go it alone

It’s easier to lock in a new habit when you join forces with a friend or group. “If you have low motivation one day to exercise, meeting a friend at the gym—aka your swole-mate—really helps, ” says Kathy McCabe, a life coach in Chicago. Now that you know how to make a habit stick, check out these 51 health tricks you’ll definitely want to turn into a habit.

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Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.