Skip to Main Content
Feature Article

Follow Five Tips to Make Changes That Last

Making a New Year’s resolution is easy but sticking to it can be challenging.  

Creating habits – whether it’s doing something new like eating healthy or exercising more or breaking a habit such as smoking or spending too much money –  takes commitment and patience.

“A big obstacle for many people when trying to change habits is that they are too hard on themselves if they don’t make quick progress reaching their goal or if they have a setback, which can lead to them to giving up,” said Devin Petersen, PhD, a psychologist with Samaritan Family Medicine Resident Clinic in Corvallis. “Making change is hard, that’s why it’s important to start small and focus on realistic ways of making a new habit a regular part of your routine.”

Habits are formed with repetition. Consider all the things you do every day without really thinking about it like brushing your teeth. The more you do something, the more it becomes part of your daily routine and the easier it is to do.

“This is the key to change  –  making something part of your routine so that it becomes automatic and not dependent on your willpower,” said Dr. Petersen. No matter what habit you are trying to change, you can’t expect yourself to miraculously stick to something new without first setting yourself up for success. 

The following five tips can help you establish new habits, break bad habits and keep you on the right track.

1. Start Small

Think about your goal and what you need to do to reach it. Then begin taking small steps to adopt that behavior as a regular part of your routine.

“Let’s say you want to commit to reaching your steps goal every day by adding a walk to your daily routine. You don’t need to start by hitting your goal right away; start small,” said Dr. Petersen. “Maybe the first week you just step outside every day after dinner or on a work break, the next week you walk down the street, then the following week you walk around the block, and so on. Start with something small that you can do it even on your hardest of days.”

Look out for anything that might cause friction, including how much time something takes or the amount of mental effort required.

Small steps are also important if you’re trying to break a bad habit.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, for example, you don’t necessarily have to quit cold turkey. You could start by reducing the total number of cigarettes you’re smoking each day. “By starting small you can work at being really consistent instead of trying to use willpower to accomplish your overall goal all at once,” said Dr. Petersen.

2. Know Your Cues

To be successful it helps to have clear and consistent cues, which are things that automatically trigger a behavior, such as the time of day, the people you’re with, how you’re feeling or your location.

“Using the example of reaching your steps goal every day, you might place your tennis shoes by your dishwasher, which would cue you to go for a walk after loading the dishwasher every morning,” said Dr. Petersen.

“If your goal is to practice self-care daily, your cue could be tucking your kids in bed, which prompts you to spend five minutes reading or practicing mindfulness,” added Dr. Petersen.

Cues tell your body when it’s time to do something and, over time, they help the behavior to become automatic and less reliant on your motivation. Cues are also important if you’re trying to break a bad habit.

“Let’s say you want to limit your alcohol intake. Think about the cues that lead you to have a drink. Is it the time of day? The people you are with? Maybe it’s just the stresses of a workday,” said Dr. Petersen.

Once you understand what your cues are for the habit you’re trying to break, you can try to remove or change the cues.

“For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking and you always want a cigarette when you’re having a cup of coffee, then you could eliminate the cue by switching to drinking to tea,” said Dr. Petersen.

If you want to cut back on something like smoking, drinking alcohol, or eating unhealthy foods, consider not keeping those things in your house. If you do keep them in your house place them in locations that are not visible or readily accessible.

3. Do Something You Enjoy

When making changes, try to do something you enjoy.

If you’re trying to exercise more, for example, do an activity that you love instead of one you only barely tolerate.

“If you love water or experience a lot of discomfort while walking, try swimming. If you really enjoyed bike riding as a kid, that might be great exercise for you,” said Dr. Petersen. “If you don’t like going to the gym, for example, that’s probably not the ideal way to ensure you will stick with an exercise program.”

4. Reward Yourself

If you’re starting a new habit, it is important to try to make the experience rewarding. If you cannot make the behavior you do rewarding, you can try rewarding yourself immediately afterwards.

“For example, you can only listen to a favorite podcast during or immediately after you’ve completed your workout,” said Dr. Petersen.

To break a bad habit, see if you can make it less rewarding. For example, setting your phone or TV to gray scale. You might also consider what alternative positive habits you are trying to build.   For example, if you want to spend less time on your phone, focus on what it is you can do with that freed up time. Maybe it’s spending more time with your family or focusing on a hobby.

5. Be Consistent

Even if you hit a setback, it is important to focus on consistency by stepping back to see how your system can be adjusted.

“Often setbacks occur when context changes,” said Dr. Petersen.

For example, perhaps you had a regular jogging routine after work but then the winter cold comes and it is more difficult for you to get outside. This is a great time to step back and adjust your routine.

“When people experience change or feel weak or vulnerable, automatic responses often override good intentions,” said Dr. Petersen. “Setbacks are normal and can be frustrating. It’s important to be patient with yourself and recognize a slip up is not a character flaw, but likely reflects a change to your context. You can then work to redesign your context for your habit.”

“With a good system in place, a commitment to make the change and repetition -- the behavior you’re after will eventually become automatic,” said Dr. Petersen.

Ready to build new habits or break an existing one? Dr. Petersen recommends reading “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, “Tiny Habits” by BJ Fogg, or talking with your primary care provider about meeting with a Behavioral Health Consultant.