We humans are endlessly interested in the idea of self-improvement. We buy books promising secrets to better sleep and focused minds. We log our every movement and morsel intake. And, every January, we make resolutions to fulfill the promises we failed to keep in the previous year.
While such efforts toward self-improvement are inherently good, the outcomes can be frustrating. Often, people fall short of their goals because they get sidetracked and let other areas of life take priority. But what's key to seeing that big new goal through to fruition is developing the right habits to support it.
Here are a few ways you can commit yourself to forming new and lasting habits and, ultimately, meeting those all-important self-improvement goals.
Set realistic expectations.
Unfortunately, habits don’t form overnight. Despite your enthusiasm at the beginning of a new "habit journey," it takes a significant amount of time before the habit becomes second nature and you've mastered incorporating it into your daily life.
For years the standard number associated with habits was 21 days. Unfortunately, that number has tripled in recent years, and now the standard is that a daily task or inclination does not become second-nature or habitual for 66 days. Rather than looking at that as a daunting or discouraging figure, you should think of it as a guide to help you through the building process.
When you're trying to add a new habit to your daily routine, you’re not just taking on a new task, you’re essentially changing years of thinking and behavioral patterns -- not an easy feat. So, if after two weeks of going to the gym in the morning, you still dread the idea of hopping on the elliptical, don’t despair.
Be kind to yourself and remember that change takes time. It’s also important to set realistic habit expectations: vowing to make it on to the pro golf circuit within a year is not as attainable as improving your handicap by three strokes.
Experts say that unrealistic goals are often the reason why people stop short. One of the reasons goals or resolutions don’t pan out is because they’re not realistic.
Make a schedule -- and stick to it.
Setting a schedule at the start of every week helps you hold yourself accountable. If you take the time to block out points in your day to focus on your new habit, you’ll be less likely to forget or simply skip over it. It’s dangerous, and most likely disappointing, to rely on willpower alone, especially at the beginning of a new challenge.
Find your flow.
Utilizing environment triggers can help you naturally meet your goals without too much resistance. A practice known as setting implementation intentions entails adding your newly formed habit to an existing part of your routine. This technique allows you to naturally insert your habit into your daily lifestyle, without upending everything else around it.
For example, rather than just telling yourself that you will start meditating every morning, find a way to fit your ten minutes of stillness into your existing routine. Using an implementation intention, you would instead say to yourself, “After I wash my face in the morning, I will sit down to meditate for ten minutes while my coffee brews.” You’re fitting your hoped-for habit between two pillars of your existing morning foundation. Using this habit-forming technique, you won’t be able to go from washing up to enjoying coffee without remembering your meditation intention.
Track your progress.
Writing is a powerful self-improvement tool, and tracking your habits with a journal is an effective method for maintaining motivation. It’s hard to objectively organize our thoughts and feelings based on memory alone. Journaling our progress also makes talking about your goals to peers, friends and family easier. When you have the support of your loved ones, developing habits becomes less of a burden.
You may have felt elated leaving an evening yoga class, but it gets harder to place that feeling the longer the time that passes. However, write about that feeling in the moment, using an app or old-school journal and you'll have proof of how good it feels to be fulfilling your goals day by day.
Forming good habits is a process, and not always a fun one. But keeping track of your daily efforts and successes will not only help you build confidence in yourself, but will serve as an extra motivating force on those days when your goals seem too difficult or out of reach.
You’re only human . . . and mistakes happen. Setbacks are a natural part of life. A minor slip-up does not mean that you have to throw all of your hard work out the window and start from scratch. Taking an all-or-nothing approach to forming new habits can actually be detrimental.
In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Philippa Lally reported research that found that making a few mistakes has no measurable impact on your long-term success. When a slip-up happens, it’s more productive to acknowledge it and understand why it happened and move on, than it is to berate yourself and give up.
Related: 25 Best Habits to Have in Life
That's another trick of forming a lifelong habit: Embrace your setbacks and then move on.