Linking Actions to Situations Can Help Build Habits

When people are trying to build new habits, it can be challenging! And, when we fail to stick to our new habits, we can feel disappointed and beat ourselves up about it. But, there is one method that can make building new habits easier.

A new study has found that you can build habits more easily by making “if-then” plans instead of relying on willpower or motivation. If you link actions to a situation, you can create stimulus-response links that can make habits stick. Linking an activity to a situation makes it easier to remember. It’s like making a mental checklist.

For instance, you can decide that you want to start stretching more. Simply telling yourself you will begin stretching twice a day might seem easy — it doesn’t take a lot of time, and you don’t need equipment. But, it’s easy to forget and then it’s late in the day, you’re tired and you just want to go to bed. On the other hand, if you tell yourself, “When I feed the dog, I’ll stretch for ten minutes,” you’ll have the action built into your day to remind you and prompt you to exercise.

The practical advice is to link the intended behavior to situational cues that provide good opportunities to initiate them,” said Prof. Torsten Martiny-Huenger from UiT the Arctic Univ. of Norway. “Such if-then planning is not magic, and it will not lead to successfully implementing the intended behavior every time, but it will increase the likelihood of completing them.”  

We always appreciate practical advice for taking healthy steps. It can be so difficult to get started and even harder to make them stick! Research has found that it takes 66 days to make a habit that sticks. And, the more you dislike a habit, the longer it takes for it to become second nature. For example, drinking two extra glasses of water a day can be learned in no time. But, if you want to start doing jumping jacks in the morning despite not liking exercise, it will take longer. The good news is, missing a day doesn’t reset the counter to zero; you’ll still be working toward your goal at a steady pace. For challenging habits, it can take as long as 8.5 months to stick. That’s why finding tricks, like linking actions to situations, is so important. Anything that makes forming a habit easier is good!

Remember, forgive yourself if you slip up and forget to practice your new habit. Accidents happen. We’re all seeking improvement, not perfection and healthy habits take a long time to build and hone. For now, go feed the dog and stretch!  

Banner image: Prophsee Journals via Unsplash

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