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7 Proven Steps to Forming Habits That Last

Here's how to keep your new habits going longer than one week.

Key points

  • Habit formation is the foundation for both rehabilitation and personal development.
  • Changing your motivation from "should" to "must" is key to lasting change.
  • Seven proven principles for change can help ensure lasting habit formation.
NBAD Creativity/Shutterstock
Source: NBAD Creativity/Shutterstock

Let’s face it: We have good intentions, but we are terrible at following through. This reality has led some to suggest that making resolutions to change is pointless. We are missing something when it comes to change and habit formation—too often, we select things we should change, not the things we must change.

Working in the pain rehabilitation field, I regularly see people struggle with habit formation. Sometimes patients do not realize that rehabilitation is all about what they do at home, not what they do in the therapy gym. If new exercises and stretches are only practiced in the therapy session and not at home, then rehab will never lead to healing and recovery.

Daily habits of strength training, stretching, endurance training, safe movement, sleep hygiene, breathing exercises, nutritional eating, and pacing all need to become a way of living for lasting change to occur in a patient’s life. Despite the challenges, many patients successfully accomplish this and much more. Finding the “must” for motivation is key.

Should or Must

What is the difference between those who try and fail and those who try, fail, and try again? Those who try and fail set personal goals for change that they feel they should set. They should lose weight, exercise, work fewer hours, read more, keep a journal, and be mindful. They have read the articles, heard the testimonials, and been warned by their doctors. Yes, they should change. Feeling that we should do something rarely results in lasting change.

On the other hand, picture a young mother of two small children. Imagine that she has been in a car accident leading to extensive injuries. She is now recovering from broken bones, multiple surgeries, and the loss of functioning in her legs and one arm. She could end up in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, be put on disability, and never regain her lost functioning. But she is a fighter—she’ll do whatever she can to keep that from happening.

As this determined woman faces rehabilitation, she does not look at her therapies as causing discomfort, even though they do. She looks at the discomfort of her therapies as evidence that something good is happening. More importantly, her motivation to change does not come from a feeling that she should change but that she must change. Her children need her, her husband needs her, and the life she wants to live is waiting for her on the other side of rehab.

When we have the mindset that suffering comes with change, and change is self-selected and personally important, we greatly increase the odds that lasting change will happen. Being clear about why we need to change and having effective strategies to follow are key to forming new habits that endure and shape your life.

Steps Toward Change

If you are interested in making changes in your life that will last, here are seven proven steps that will help you get to where you need to go in the next chapter of your life.

1. Reminders

Put physical reminders in obvious places you sit, stand, lie down, or walk. This means placing a sticky note on your bathroom mirror, your car dashboard, the refrigerator, and on your desk or computer. Add to that a reminder in your phone, even though this is less effective as we are now good at ignoring notifications on our phones.

2. Records

Track what you do. Don’t just track your new habit; track all your habits and routines. This can help you realize that much of your life is already habit-based and help you identify where time is being wasted—time that could be used for forming a new habit.

3. Rewards

If you keep your new habit for five or 10 days, plan to celebrate. Reward yourself with something simple that you enjoy.

4. Routines

Link your new habit to an existing habit. For example, if you start your day eating breakfast or taking a shower, add your new habit of stretching for five minutes to one of those existing daily activities. If you follow step two, you will see that you have many points in the day where you can add a new habit to an already existing one.

5. Relationships

One of the best things you can do is to change with someone else. Join with someone else who is also working on the same goal. Many people are engaged in self-improvement of some kind—all you need to do is ask. If that proves difficult, then tell as many people as possible you are starting a new habit and encourage them to ask you about your progress every week.

6. Reflecting

Be aware of what you are thinking and feeling throughout the day by keeping a one or two-word thought diary. Start by writing a note on your phone every 30 minutes using one or two words to describe your state of mind. When we fail to follow through on a new habit, and we will, it is because we are not aware of what we are thinking and feeling. We get caught up with the stress of the moment, go on autopilot, and end up standing in front of the open refrigerator door, not knowing how we got there. Awareness is the key to lasting change.

7. Restructuring

Make your home and workspace well suited to your habit change. If you are dieting, remove all unnecessary (non-diet-related) food from your home. This, by the way, is an excellent way to test if you have a “should” or “must” motivation for change. Those who must change want to get rid of temptation. Those who are motivated by “should” will see this as needless suffering.

Your efforts to change will have ups and downs, good days and bad, but it is the consistency of your behavior over time that matters. Your choices today will create your tomorrow—choose well!

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