developing new habits

Developing new habits – ones that you choose yourself – is not only possible, but quite doable and can be massively life-changing. There is no overstating the power of habits. Our habits form an unseen foundation that we rely on every day. They are the scaffolding that everything else in our life hangs on. Habits, by definition, happen when you aren’t specifically paying attention to what you are doing. Habits run on autopilot, which is precisely why they can be so powerful, yet challenging to change. At their best, our habits can feel like a positive supporting force, propelling us in the direction we want to go. But all too often it seems our habits work against us. And this can be deeply frustrating, exhausting, and disheartening. 

Designing Habits Intentionally

Habits, when adapted mindlessly, can plague us. But designing habits mindfully and intentionally changes the game completely. When you create a new habit, you make it easier for yourself to follow through with something. It literally becomes the default; the norm. It is crucial to consciously choose the habits you wish to bring into your life. By putting the effort into their creation, you can comfortably rely on them going forward.

Tools For Habit Design

As a psychologist and coach, I am literally in the business of helping people make sustainable behavior changes. Developing new habits is a huge part of this. I’ve honed my toolset over the years and have identified a few life hacks that can help make habit change more efficient and even fun. Here are a few of them.

  • Link new habits to old ones – It’s easier to start a new habit if you piggyback it onto a habit that already reliably exists in your routine. For example, if you’re trying to develop a meditation habit, it tends to be easier if you attach it to something like brushing your teeth or brewing your coffee in the morning.
  • Build supportive scaffolding around new habits – Habit change is hard! Accept whatever help you can create for yourself. Try writing out supportive messages to your future self reminding yourself why you are making this change. Hang them up where you might want reminding – like taping them to the inside of your cabinets or on your computer monitor, for example. 
  • Use intentional interrupters to recalibrate – A well-timed reminder on your phone can go a long way in helping you stay on track. If you want to build a habit of being more present with your family, for example you could schedule a specific alarm or reminder on your phone during your usual family time. It could be as simple as a unique tone so you don’t even need to look at your phone to remember, or it could be a message to yourself.  Be thoughtful with how you word your reminders, though. You want to say something that gently reminds you of your intentions. 
  • Practice self-compassion so you can learn from what happens – So often, people get stuck in self-judgment and larger narratives around their identity when it comes to changing habits. In general, shame and self-judgment rob you of the opportunity to learn from whatever happened. No attempt is a failure if you can learn something from it that sets you up for success in the future. Self-judgment and shame are always a dead-end street. They don’t inspire you to keep trying. They usually just leave you feeling defeated. Keep your language clean, and let yourself learn. Then your thought habits can become a part of the larger scaffolding that supports you as you continue growing towards your best self.
  • For more examples – see my book Mindful Willpower, in which I offer additional tools to help develop new positive habits.

Practice Makes Progress

Like they say about planting trees, the best time to develop good habits was 20 years ago. The next-best time is right now. Be patient and gentle with yourself during this process. New habits take effort to establish. Some are easier than others to take root. But stick with the process and before long you will find yourself maintaining habits that support your life and path forward, rather than standing in the way.