How to Build Better Habits

By Susan David

Many of us have the desire to change our habits. Many fewer are able to parlay that desire into tangible change. Maybe that’s where you are.

There’s something in your life or behavior that you’d like to adjust, but you can’t understand why you’re not following through.

The first step is to ask yourself why exactly you want to change this habit.

Where is the motivation coming from? Did you read an article that made you feel ashamed of the amount of time you spend on your cell phone, your inactivity, or your penchant for procrastination? Is your spouse, your doctor, or your friend pushing you to make a change? Or is the desire for transformation coming from inside yourself?

Taking good advice is an important life skill, but successful change usually emerges from internal aspiration, not external pressure. Even when that pressure comes with the best of intentions, it can be hard to enact changes from the outside because they are not connected to our own values, but rather the value systems of others.

Goals that are driven by what other people want from us—or by the shame of not living up to their expectations—rarely lead to sustainable changes in habits. 


By asking yourself why you want to make a change, you’ll be able to figure out whether it’s a “have to” goal (something others are pressuring you to do) or a “want to” goal (something you want for yourself).

A “want to” goal will make you feel self-motivated. But a “have to” can become a “want to” if you find a way to connect it to your values. Perhaps you’ve failed to be inspired to hit the gym by a friend who is nagging you about joining them in running a half-marathon. Crossing the finish line at the end of a race is just not something you care about.

Maybe, though, it is important to you to stay healthy and mobile as your kids and grandkids grow up. Suddenly the same habit (exercise) becomes more enticing because it’s connected to your values, not someone else’s. (If you want to learn more about “want to” goals and “have to” goals, check out Emotional Agility.)

While we’re on the subject of habits, here’s a little warning about positive visualizations. Pop psychology books and articles often tout the power of visualizing your goals. If you imagine success, the theory goes, you’re more likely to attain it. 

As pleasant as this method sounds, research suggests that indulging in too much positive visualization can actually make you less likely to succeed. It’s almost like your brain gets tricked into feeling like you’ve already put in the effort and achieved the goal. Instead of inspiring you to move forward, the act of visualizing can actually dampen your motivation.

So how can we motivate ourselves?

The key here is balance. Think about the future that you want for yourself, and think through the process of getting there. Imagine how great you’ll feel when you achieve your goal, and consider the obstacles between here and there. Don’t settle for daydreaming. Make a plan, listing the steps that will take you where you want to be.

In short: Get realistic about what you’ll need to make the change. Chart out the specifics. Get excited for the journey.


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