How to Start (and Keep) a Healthy Habit

Whether you want to run a marathon or learn to play the guitar, here's how to set yourself up for success.
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Photograph: Richard Drury/Getty Images

It's that time of year. Everyone you know will soon be hitting the gym, smiling while eating broccoli, or crushing out a last cigarette. For some, that really will be the last cigarette and the gym really will become a new part of life, but if you're anything like most of us you've probably experienced the letdown—perhaps even self-loathing—of failing to stick to a New Year's resolution.

I can't promise that this will help—anyone who knows me personally would laugh hysterically at the idea of me guiding anyone toward successful habit formation—but there are some things you can do to set yourself up for success and make sure your resolutions become more than just that.

Forget About Goals. You Want Systems

The first and most important part of changing something in your life is to forget the resolutions and forget the goals. Think instead of creating a system that allows you to do what you want to do.

This advice is something I picked up from James Clear's book Atomic Habits ($12 on Amazon). If you find this article whets your appetite for a deeper dive into how you can create better habits, Clear's book is well worth a read. It has plenty of suggestions about how to set up systems that work for you and help build the habits you want.

That said, common sense can take you a long way. As WIRED associate editor Adrienne So says, “reduce friction wherever you can.” Make it easier to go for a run by keeping your shoes by the door. Make it easier to eat healthier by keeping fruit on the counter. Make it easier to read by keeping your eyes open. As So says: “It's easier to work out every day if you've prepped everything beforehand. Then you can run into the basement and do a 30-min Peloton strength video in 32 mins, instead of spending another 20 minutes looking for a clean sports bra.”

It also helps to be honest with yourself about yourself. For example, while some people might run downstairs and actually do a Peloton video, even that seemingly simple thing is enough friction that I'd never actually do it. This is why I do body weight exercises. My body is always there, ready to go. I don't have to go anywhere or find anything. I just start exercising. Which is to say, if you have to do the proverbial symbol of iron will, gritting your teeth and toughing it out, you're unlikely to turn it into a habit. That doesn't mean there won't be moments when whatever you're doing isn't be hard, but it shouldn't be hard to start.

Progress Incrementally

Gear senior editor Michael Calore suggests the app Couch to 5K to anyone who wants to build a running habit. It's a great app (stick with the personal trainer voices), and you know what it won't have you do? Run a 5K on the first day you use it.

This goes along with the previous suggestion to ditch the goals. It takes a while to develop the strength and stamina to run 5 kilometers. If you're going to be disappointed every time you don't run 5K, that's not going to make you want to keep running.

The far better, and more encouraging, plan is to run a little bit more today than you did yesterday. Do a little bit more than you did yesterday, even if it's only a tiny bit more. Read 21 pages instead of 20 pages, walk for 11 minutes instead of 10, and so on. Incremental progress is the goal.

Incremental progress is part of the reason I don't take days off from new habits and I recommend you don't either, at least for the first 90 days. Your body could benefit from rest days if your habit is exercise-related, but don't stop for the first 90 days. Depending on which study you want to cite, it takes anywhere between 60 to 243 days to build a new habit. I've had good luck with about 90, and strongly recommend you go at least that long on your first try.

On the internet of yore, there was an apocryphal story about Jerry Seinfeld supposedly giving advice to software developer and would-be comedian Brad Isaac. Isaac asked him if he had any tips on becoming a comic. Seinfeld's answer amounts to, well, build a habit of writing jokes.

That's fairly obvious, but Seinfeld had a technique. He reportedly told Isaac to get a big wall calendar and said every time he sat down and did the work, he should make a big X over that day. “After a few days, you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

Even if it's apocryphal, it's still excellent advice. It also sounds like something a Seinfeld character would say.

Try Reducing Friction Even More

One of the reasons we have trouble changing our habits is that we're highly emotionally invested in the habits we have. I like doing nothing in the morning. I don't want to read/workout/cook/etc. Overcoming this inertia and resistance to change is difficult, especially since this resistance is often not entirely conscious. 

This is partly why I have avoided suggestions about stopping habits you don't like (grab Clear's book if you're interested in stopping a bad habit; he has plenty of good advice on that score) and focused on creating new habits—there's generally less emotional baggage.

But what if you could reduce your emotional baggage? That way, you could stop focusing on specific habits and train your will instead. This is a common theme in older texts ranging from Catholic meditation guides to the New Thought Movement of the early 20th century. 

The will is like a muscle, and you need to build it up through strength training. I've seen countless versions of this exercise, but they all go something like this: Sit down in a chair facing a wall. Pick a spot on the wall. Get up out of chair and go touch the spot in the wall. Return to the chair and sit down again. Rinse and repeat. Most books tell you to start out doing this 10 times and work your way up from there.

The idea is to will yourself to do something, but something you have no emotional investment in. This builds up a fortitude of the will that you can then apply to things you are emotionally invested in.

Just Do It

In the end, Nike was actually right. As one of my writing professors used to say, to be a writer, you have to park your butt in a chair and actually write. To be a yogi, you have to do yoga. To run, you have to run. There's no easy way around it. You have to put on your grown-up pants and, ahem, just do it.

However, on the flip side of this, as Clear points out early on in Atomic Habits, the way to change who you are is to change what you do. “Each time you write a page, you are a writer. Each time you practice the violin, you are a musician. Each time you start a workout, you are an athlete.” Each time you just do it, you become it.

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