To quote Joan Didion, "With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved." Here's how to kick-start real change -- and start on your path for good.

By Jena Pincott

Perfect Your Hospital Corners
Making the bed every morning doesn't seem like it has much to do with our more ambitious goals, like meditating twice daily or learning Mandarin. But it's an example of a "keystone habit" -- along with regular family dinners and daily exercise -- that sets in motion other good habits, explains Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. (Bed-making, he writes, is "correlated with better productivity, a greater sense of well-being and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.") The point is that strategic "small wins" strengthen something you really need when you want to change for the better: willpower. First, conquer the bed; next, the world.

Tell The Cloud You Want To Drink 9 Glasses Daily
Download Lift, a free habit-tracking app for iPhone, to start accumulating "small wins." Lift asks you to choose goals that you'd like to transform into habits (such as "Read," "Run," "Sleep 8 Hours," "Zero Body Fat" and "Make Spouse Feel Loved/Desired"), and then it blasts reminders to your phone. As you track your progress, friends (and yes, strangers) send props, share tips and hold you accountable. Best are the rewards: clicking a giant checkmark and gaining a sense of momentum on your frequency chart, which (for better and for worse) is visible to the whole community. Other popular habit-forming apps are StickK (which lets you to put real money on the line) and Habit Streak (which prompts you to report every day).

Seduce Yourself With The Right Syntax
Try this robotic but psychologically savvy strategy to hardwire your neural pathways: the "if…then" plan. "If X happens, then I will do Y." (In around 100 experiments, this intention-declaring formula proved strikingly effective.) If it's 10 p.m, then, wherever I am, I'll meditate for 15 minutes." Or, "If I get hungry watching TV, then I will eat only fruit." Or, "If it's Monday, then I will do 20 minutes of crunches at the gym." (In one study, 91 percent of those who made a concrete commitment like this actually exercised, versus only 39 percent of non-planners.) Cue, Action, Automate. Repeat. When the programming starts to work subconsciously -- as it will, really -- your habit is born.

Dangle A Low-Hanging Carrot
Perhaps now you're thinking, "If I jog every morning this week, then I'll let myself have an ice cream on Friday." Maybe you'll get there. But the odds are higher if you reward yourself right after each workout. That's because dopamine, the feel-good chemical that reinforces habits, increases more with the prospect of an imminent reward than an abstract one. (Even X'ing out another square on a progress chart can satisfy the need for immediate gratification.) Have faith: Once the habit is established, you won't need to be so strategic. "Only when your brain starts expecting the reward -- craving the endorphins or sense of accomplishment -- will it become automatic to start lacing your jogging shoes each morning," Duhigg writes.

Bond Yourself For 9 1/2 Weeks
If we can just keep it up for 21 days, it'll become a habit, right? Not so fast. The three-week rule is something of an urban legend, found a study led by Phillippa Lally, PhD, a psychologist at University College London. It actually took people 66 days (9.5 weeks) for a behavior to become automatic (or feel weird not to do it). But that's just an average. Some habits, such as drinking a bottle of water after lunch, turned out to be much stickier (it took 59 days on average) than doing 50 sit-ups each morning (91 days). Forging a new habit gets easier and easier as you gain momentum, Lally says. Eventually you'll stop counting the days… and just do it.

Remember, You're Not A Robot
Now, the nicest news. You're allowed to be human, Lally's study found. You can make an exception and sleep in. You can ditch your new routine and grab a margarita with your former roommate who's in town for the night. In other words, you can lapse here and there -- and still succeed in forming the habit (without going back to Day 1). Self-compassion is key here. (Forgiving yourself actually makes it more likely you'll reach a goal, found a study at Carleton University, while self-punishment resulted in further setbacks.) Simply pick up where you left off the day before -- and continue on your path to a habitual happily ever after.

Earlier on HuffPost:

7 Little Health Choices That Can Make A Big Difference
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  • Have A Savory Morning

    The American Heart Association recommends that women consume <a href=" " target="_blank"> no more than 100 calories (or about six teaspoons) a day of added sugar</a>. Seems doable, right? Except surveys have found that the average American consumes more than three times that amount -- 22.2 teaspoons of added sugar every day -- and we eat a significant amount of it before we're even lucid enough to put in our contact lenses. Healthy-seeming bran flakes and granola can top out at five teaspoons of sugar (milk adds another two), and a packet of instant oatmeal has around two to three teaspoons. <strong>Microchange:</strong> If you switch to an unsweetened breakfast of eggs (over easy with turkey bacon; scrambled with broccoli), you'll eat five to six times less sugar than if you simply drink your coffee black (although you can do that, too). Bonus: The extra protein might make you feel fuller longer, eliminating your craving for a 10 a.m. bear claw.

  • Vary Your Grains

    Two recent studies from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports confirmed potentially dangerous levels of cancer-causing arsenic in rice and rice products. Arsenic is found in soil and groundwater, and rice has been shown to naturally soak it up and store it more than other types of grains, fruits and vegetables do. Considering that people eat the equivalent of about 2 cups of cooked rice a week, according to the Centers for Disease Control, our risk of arsenic exposure is pretty high. The FDA stops short of recommending limiting rice consumption but <a href="" target="_blank">suggests</a> including alternative grains in our diet. <strong>Microchange:</strong> Try quinoa, barley, polenta, couscous and bulgur wheat, as well as that Indian recipe you stuck on your fridge months ago (aromatic rices like basmati and jasmine showed about half to one-eighth the level of arsenic as rice grown in the southern United States). When you do eat brown rice, be sure to treat it like pasta and rinse it in plenty of water.

  • Keep In Touch With Your Ob-Gyn

    Under new guidelines, <a href=" " target="_blank"> it is now recommended that women older than 30 get a Pap smear only every three years</a>. But a lot can happen in three years (who remembers what they were doing at this time in 2009?). Besides, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists still <a href=" " target="_blank"> suggests</a> <a href=" " target="_blank">visiting your ob-gyn every year</a> so she can do a pelvic, breast and abdominal exam; answer questions about STDs, birth control and age- and lifestyle-related concerns; and suggest diagnostic tests (cancer screenings, fertility testing, etc.). <strong>Microchange:</strong> Give up trying to remember whether or not you got a Pap smear three years ago and schedule a wellness exam every year on your birthday (that way, you'll never forget). Good news: Under the Affordable Care Act, <a href=" " target="_blank">annual wellness visits should be covered by insurance.</a>

  • Drink Your Tea Black

    The good news: Antioxidant-rich black tea has been shown in studies to significantly improve vascular function. The bad news (especially for Brits and those who sip like them): <a href="" target="_blank"> Adding milk to your tea basically cancels out those benefits</a>, found a study published in the European Heart Journal. The researchers speculated that the milk proteins bind with the tea's antioxidants, neutralizing their effects. <strong>Microchange:</strong> If you can't stomach Earl Grey black, try switching to green tea, which is traditionally taken plain, without milk or even sugar or honey.

  • Eat Your Reds

    No one has to remind you of the importance of green, leafy vegetables, but what about red, round fruit -- specifically, tomatoes? This star of Italian-American cuisine and a darling of home gardeners is off the charts in lycopene, an antioxidant compound that has been linked to a reduced risk for cancer, cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration. Recently, a study published in the journal <i>Neurology</i> <a href="" target="_blank"> suggested that high levels of lycopene in the blood may offer protection against strokes</a>. Finnish researchers followed more than 1,000 men ages 46 to 55 and found that those with the highest levels of lycopene were 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than those with the lowest levels. Interestingly, it may be easier for the body to absorb lycopene from cooked tomato products (especially those with a small amount of oil or fat) than from raw tomatoes. <strong>Microchange:</strong> Pizza Fridays!

  • Change Your Toothbrush Head When You Change Over Your Closet

    The American Dental Association recommends replacing the head of your electric toothbrush as often as you'd toss your old-fashioned manual toothbrush: every three months. But because the round bristles may not show physical wear as quickly or as obviously as the toothbrushes of your youth, you may forget to upgrade until the head is practically ready to spin off the handle. <strong>Mircochange:</strong> It's much easier to piggyback a new habit onto an old one than it is to create a new habit from scratch, explains New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in his book <i> <a href="" target="_blank">The Power of Habit</a></i>. So consider replacing your toothbrush head when, say, you’re updating your closet for the new season’s weather, filing expense reports or going through quarterly receipts.

  • Force Yourself To Do Laps Around The Office

    There are times -- dark, unsafe-feeling times; damp, rainy times -- when it's not worth parking in the Siberia spots of the parking lot to squeeze in a few more of the 10,000 daily steps we've all heard we should aim for. <strong>Microchange:</strong> Chances are, the most remote corner of your office remains safe and dry no matter what's going on outside, so adjust your computer settings to always send your documents to the printer there. If you're trying to save trees (another commendable habit), skip the printing and journey to a faraway bathroom instead.