How to Make Habits that Stick: A Simple Guide to Change Your Life

Most of us were taught a lot of good habits when we were younger, and that pays dividends now.  We may make our beds, turn off lights, and eat the occasional vegetable because Mom nagged us into it.  Thank you, Mom!

Habits matter because they make life easier.

We all have plenty of things to do and think about, and habits relieve some of the pressure.  A habit is a subconscious routine or behavior that's repeated regularly.  We don't have to plan to brush our teeth, wash our hands, or put on clean socks.  Our brains choose the path of least resistance, so if we have habits in place, those well-worn tracks will be activated without effort.

colorful, clean socks

The downside of habits

Unfortunately, not all habits are beneficial.  Do you complain every time you're stuck in traffic?  That's habit.  Do you grab a snack when you watch TV?  Habit.  Do you check your phone as soon as you're awake?  Habit.

For better or worse, your life is the result of your habits.  That's why forming good habits is so important.  According to author Darius Foroux, habits are "the most reliable way to achieve lifelong change."

That sounds great, but how do we do it?

A 4-step plan for habit change

1.  Decide which habits matter to you.

I can tell you which habits are valuable to me, but that doesn't mean they're best for you.

Many people praise the habit of waking very early, at 5:00 a.m. or earlier, to get a jump on the day.  That might work well for them, but we're all wired differently, and what works beautifully for one may not benefit someone else.

When I wake up early, I feel unwell.  I'm short on patience and find it hard to be flexible.  So I get up later, since I feel energized and creative after 10:00 p.m., when the early birds are dragging.

Ask yourself, "Will habit X improve the quality of my life?"  You need a good reason that can motivate your change.  Just because someone else recommends a habit (such as running daily, reading one book a week, or going vegan) doesn't mean it will be meaningful to you or help you meet your goals.

As Foroux suggests, "Adopt habits that bring you closer to the things you want in life."

clock near 7 a.m.
2.  Work on one habit at a time.

Just as multi-tasking doesn't help us do our best work, trying to form multiple new habits at the same time is also counter-productive.

We all go on self-improvement sprees, and try to fix everything we don't like about ourselves at once.  We decide to exercise more, eat healthier, quit wasting time on social media, and more, and then wonder why we fail at everything within a few weeks (or even days).

Too much anything results in chaos.  Clutter, appointments, resolutions, you name it.  We think we can do it all today, and we set ourselves up for epic failure.

We can accomplish amazing things over a long period, but consistency takes energy and focus.  So one change at a time, please!

3.  Make your habit too small to fail.

We may have all the enthusiasm we need to get started on a new habit.  But the real challenge is not getting started with a new behavior – it's maintaining it.

One major reason we give up is that we make the behavior too big.

Long ago, my sister and I decided we were going to "get in shape."  We began by walking about 7 miles on city sidewalks.  That very first evening, we exhausted ourselves.  And then we were ravenously hungry and shared a big pizza.  The next evening, we agreed we had walked so much the previous day we could take a day off.

What do you think of our grand plan?

When we give up, we form zero new habits.  But if our new behavior is so tiny we can't fail to do it – and keep on doing it – we can succeed.  I know for sure this works, because my writing habit is one sentence per day.  No matter what else is happening, I write one sentence.  That tiny habit, consistently applied, has led to hundreds of thousands of words and more than a dozen published books.*

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

Choose habits that are so small you can't fail to do them daily:

  • Want to run a marathon?  Walk briskly around the block.
  • Want to start a business?  Contact one potential client.
  • Want to read a book a week?  Read one page.
  • Want to get out of debt?  Pay an extra $5.
  • Want to declutter?  Remove one item you don't use.
  • Want to improve your diet?  Eat one serving of veggies.

Darius Foroux points out that habit formation is not about big changes.

It's about doing something so often that you do it unconsciously.  When you find yourself doing something repeatedly without effort, you know you've been successful in adopting the habit.

drink more water
4.  Track your habit.

This is the equivalent of nagging yourself.  With a new habit, we may get busy and forget to do it.  "Busy" is not an excuse, because it's part of life.  Mom's not here, so you have to do your own reminding.

  • Create a hook.  Say you want to drink more water.  Hook your new habit to a behavior you already do, such as washing your hands after you use the restroom and before you eat.  Make washing your hands the cue to drink a glass of water, and you're more likely to remember it.

  • Check it off.  Whether you use a paper calendar, the calendar app on your phone, or another tracker, mark each day that you successfully complete your new habit.  Soon you'll have a line of checkmarks, and it's your job to keep that line growing.

The purpose is transformation.

The reason we form habits is to change our lives and make them better.  The goal is for a new, beneficial habit to become as automatic as saying please and thank you.

One day, you'll be surprised by what you've achieved because of these tiny steps.  Your habits will make it easier to live the life you desire.


  1. Great post! And I also loved your post on No Sidebar regarding "working more" and keeping active. That is exactly how I try to live my life. I like being active, especially, outside and
    it is always a great sense of accomplishment. As a bonus, the fresh air and activity helps
    me sleep well at night even if I don't accomplish as much as I'd like!


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