Want to start working out more, eating healthier, or actually writing in your journal every night? Changing a behavior—or adopting a new one—can be hard. Plus, the idea that it takes a significant amount of time to form a habit can be daunting at first. “To get into doing something repeatedly, it’s about changing your mindset,” says Kevin Charles, a certified personal trainer and owner of Toronto’s F45 Training Leaside. “That can feel a bit overwhelming if you’re not sure how to approach it.”
There’s a widely held belief that if you want to form a habit, you need to allow 21 days for it to stick. This idea can be traced back to plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, M.D., who wrote a book that said it took patients 21 days to get used to their new faces. (Slightly different than working out, but the idea stuck.)
Research on forming habits isn’t so clear-cut, however. According to a study by University College London, repeated, consistent behavior was found to be key in adopting new behavior. However, the amount of time it took people to form a habit varied. For some, it took 18 days, whereas others needed 254 days before a behavior became automatic.
In other words, some people may need more time than others before an action becomes a routine. Regardless of how long it takes, there are some ways to ensure you successfully start—and maintain—a habit. According to Charles, step one is to start small.
1. Start small.
If you want to start working out more, for example, it likely wouldn’t be realistic to say you’ll hit the gym five days a week. Two times a week may be a more attainable goal at first. Starting small means you’re more likely to set a strong foundation for success.
“The first few days [of a new routine] might just be you adapting to the new lifestyle or the new habits that you’ve chosen to take on,” Charles explains. “Once you’ve gotten through that first little adaptation period, you move into an area where you’re like, ‘OK, I got this. I got through my first week and it wasn’t so bad.’”
That sense of accomplishment is important in forming a habit, says Peter Egeto, H.B.Sc., M.A. and Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at Ryerson University. If you aim too high right out the gate and fail, you may feel bad about yourself. “For someone who’s never worked out before, they can try going to the gym six times a week. But they’re going to burn themselves out, they’re going to be sore, and then they’re going to discourage themselves,” he says. “If you fail … it can create this sense of worthlessness.”
2. Set realistic, measurable, and specific goals.
One of the keys to building a habit is making measurable and specific goals for yourself along the way. While getting through the first week of a new habit is more about adapting, you should set benchmarks you want to hit in the following weeks.
“The reason specificity is important is because it helps you form a regular schedule or routine with measurable outcomes,” Egeto says. “If I say I just want to work out, it’s really vague and leaves me a lot of wiggle room to not go to the gym on certain days. But if I say, ‘I’m going to work out on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday,’ it’s realistic—I’m working out three times—and it’s specific.”
What’s important, Egeto notes, is that your goals are motivating and you eventually seek enjoyment from them. If you don’t like running but keep forcing yourself to hit the treadmill, you’re less likely to form a running habit. On the other hand, if you discover that swimming brings you joy, you are much more likely to make that part of your routine. “There’s lots of research that shows the various health benefits of exercise, but other research shows that if you don’t enjoy it, it actually reduces the health benefits even if it’s the same amount of work you put in,” Egeto says.
Focus on micro-goals.
Charles says that micro-goals are also super important, as they allow you to challenge yourself to try something you haven’t done before. Say, for instance, you really want to use 10-pound dumbbells, but you tend toward five pounds. Try using the heavier weights for one out of three sets of hammer curls. As you gain strength, you can progress to two out of three sets. “Give yourself a pat on the shoulder for an accomplishment if you haven’t done it before,” Charles says. “I find those little things really help in keeping you engaged and motivated.”
Egeto echoes this and explains that when people experience accomplishments, it reinforces their behavior. This helps create a pattern of behavior that can ultimately become a habit. “What that means is if you study for a test, for example, ideally you will do well and get a good grade,” he says. “A good grade is a positive outcome, and that positive outcome reinforces the behavior of studying so you can repeat it later on.”
3. Find a community.
For many people, group fitness classes and working out with a buddy are good motivators. If you’re getting into a new type of exercise, such as weight lifting, being part of that community can help you learn the ropes and keep you accountable. “When you’re working out in a group, it’s like sharing [your progress] with somebody else,” Charles says. “You’re sharing your journey.”
Even for those who prefer to work out at home, virtual communities can cheer you on. Charles says posting your status on Facebook or Instagram so others are aware of what you’re doing can create a sense of accountability. In other words, you’re more likely to keep up appearances when people are watching.
Plus, sharing workout tips or struggles with an online group can be a source of support. “I really think making it public and putting it out there and not … keeping it to yourself is a huge part of [success],” Charles says. “If you don’t tell anybody, it’s easy [to say] ‘I’m not going to do this today,’ and no one is there to keep you in check.”
How to Keep Yourself on Track
If you fall off the bandwagon, so to speak, don’t be discouraged or beat yourself up. Setbacks are part of the change.
Charles says a community is a helpful resource when you’re feeling discouraged or need support. “Maybe you’ve plateaued, so asking for help from either your peers or a trainer [can] get you on track,” he says. “It really helps to have other people involved.”
The important thing to keep in mind is that progress isn’t linear, and if you were sticking to a routine for months but then got sidetracked, you haven’t erased all the hard work you put in. “You have a setback—that happens,” Charles says. “But you can’t beat yourself up over that. Just reset, come back at it again, and go at it.”