If you’re getting ready to set your yearly goals for 2023, stop. Chances are, you’re going about building and breaking habits all wrong, according to the experts—especially if you’re extremely motivated in January, but find yourself getting distracted or overwhelmed come February. Before we get into the specifics of how to start or break a habit that you’ll actually stick to, there are a few things you need to know.
The most important thing is that habits are actually separate from goals. “Goals are how we make decisions—how we commit to an exercise program, or to eating healthily, or to saving money,” says Wendy Wood, provost professor emerita of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “But habits are how you stick with a behavior.”
That’s because once something becomes a habit it’s extremely hard to break, Wood says. This can either work in your favor or against you. You’re forming habits regardless of whether you consciously decide to—it’s the brain’s way of freeing up mental space for more important things—so you might as well be deliberate about it. Otherwise, chances are some of your habits will be ones you don’t want or that are actively sabotaging your efforts to achieve a goal.
In fact, studies have shown that a substantial number of our behaviors in a day are habitual. “Almost 45 percent of the time, people repeat behavior in a familiar context while not thinking about what they are doing,” says Wood of the studies she’s conducted. When we’re stressed out or tired, we revert back to our established habits. This makes trying to form new ones based on our goals even more difficult—let alone trying to break a bad habit.
“We’re trying to do many things in life, not just follow through on a New Year’s resolution,” Wood says. “We get focused on these things and then our commitment to change actually gets diluted by the multiple other goals we’re pursuing and the other things that we’re trying to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Building a habit can take a lot of time and energy, so it’s important to make sure you pick behaviors you actually want to do and enjoy doing. While there’s no typical amount of time it takes to build a habit, it is something that will eventually get easier. “It’s a cumulative, iterative process over time,” says Wood. “So be patient with yourself.”
Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to make forming a habit easier so that, hopefully, when you get stressed or tired you have good habits to fall back on.
1. Make a List of Your Goals, Prioritize Them, and Pick One
The worst thing you can do when trying to build habits is picking multiple goals and trying to do everything at once, says Alana Mendelsohn, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute.
Instead, Mendelsohn suggests making a list of the goals you’re trying to achieve and ranking them in order of importance. “When people say ‘I want to build better habits,’ almost always it’s three things,” she says. “I want to go to bed earlier, I want to eat healthier, and I want to exercise.”