If you receive ready to set your annual goals for 2023, stop. It’s likely that you’re forming and breaking habits the wrong way, experts say, especially if you’re extremely motivated in January but are distracted or overwhelmed in February. Before we dive into the specifics of how to start or break a habit you’ll actually stick with, there are a few things you need to know.
Most importantly, habits are actually separate from goals. “Goals are how we make decisions—how we stick to an exercise program, or eat healthy, or save money,” says Wendy Wood, vice president emeritus of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of the book Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Last Forever. “But habits are how you stick to certain behaviors.”
That’s because once something becomes a habit, it’s very hard to break it, says Wood. This can work both in your favor and against you. You form habits whether or not you make a conscious decision – it’s the brain’s way of freeing up mental space for more important things – so you can do it deliberately. Otherwise, chances are that some of your habits will turn out to be unwanted or will actively sabotage your efforts to reach your goal.
Actually, research has shown that much of our behavior during the day is habitual. “Almost 45% of the time, people repeat the behavior in a familiar context without thinking about what they are doing,” Wood says of the research she has done. When we are stressed or tired, we revert to our established habits. This makes it even more difficult to try to form new ones based on our goals, let alone try to break a bad habit.
“We’re trying to do a lot of things in life, not just keep a New Year’s resolution,” says Wood. “We focus on those things, and then our commitment to change is actually eroded by a lot of other goals that we’re pursuing and other things that we’re trying to get to grips with on a day-to-day basis.”
Forming a habit can take a lot of time and energy, so it’s important to make sure you choose the behavior you really want and enjoy. While it doesn’t take a set amount of time to form a habit, it will get easier with time. “It’s a cumulative iterative process over time,” says Wood. “So be patient with yourself.
Luckily, there are a few things you can do to make it easier to form the habit so that hopefully when you get stressed or tired, you have good habits to fall back into.
1. Make a list of your goals, prioritize and choose one
The worst thing you can do when trying to build a habit is pick multiple goals and try to do it all at once, says Alana Mendelsohn, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia’s Zuckerman Brain and Brain Behavior Institute.
Instead, Mendelsohn suggests making a list of the goals you’re trying to achieve and rank them in order of importance. “When people say, ‘I want to develop good habits,’ it’s almost always three things,” she says. “I want to go to bed earlier, I want to eat healthy and I want to exercise.”