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.