On Building Good Habits (And Making Them Stick)

On Building Good Habits (And Making Them Stick)

Kerry Roberts

Today’s world can feel as chaotic as it is streamlined, making balance a *little* hard to come by.  Sometimes it can feel like we’re controlled by our packed schedules, the ding of our phone, the dog at the door, the kid with the piano lesson.  How much of our day is really in our control? Well, we have a number: Research has shown that over 45% of what we do in a day is controlled by habit, which is a pretty powerful number.  And it begs the question: how can we get an upper hand on our habits? In an effort to feel better in mind, body, and spirit, can we change our habits to serve our greater good? Caren Osten, a certified positive psychology life coach, gives us her take: 

Hi Caren! Thanks for joining us. First, could you talk a little about the nature of a habit? A habit is a behavior that we do with automaticity—we are going through the motions of performing an activity, like biting our nails or putting the potato chips in our mouth, for example, while on auto-pilot. We are often not even aware that we are doing the behavior. Many of our habits have been formed that way in our past, and it is only when we make a choice to try to change a habit that we begin to focus on it with a conscious awareness.

When a person wants to change some of their habits, how should they start? Habits are easy to continue because they are just that—habitual—and they don’t impose exertion on the brain since they are typically regular, or daily, activities we have acted on for a while, months and often years. But scientific research has confirmed that change is possible, and with an awareness of what triggers a behavior, we are able to respond differently and modify our habits, eventually creating new neural pathways in the brain. Some experts suggest paying attention to what triggers the behavior (sitting on the couch to watch a movie), and the habit (mindless munching). Once you have identified, and are mindful of when the trigger occurs, you can attempt to modify the behavior, perhaps considering healthier snacks or other ways to occupy your hands while binge-watching your favorite show (maybe that's why knitting is making a comeback?!) 

The phrase "healthy habits" can mean many different things, from cultivating positive relationships and setting personal boundaries to eating healthier and getting more sleep. Is there a certain area people should start in when trying to develop new or different habits? Everyone has their own unique set of habits and it’s really up to each individual to define the opportunities for better habits. Habit change is hard, and experts suggest working on one habit at a time. If you’d like to begin changing your relationship with technology, for example, perhaps make small changes each week to move toward a decreased dependence, such as putting your phone “to bed” in a room other than where you sleep, or leaving it behind when you walk your dog or exercise so you can be more mindful of your surroundings. Exercise, sleep and eating healthy are essential elements of good health and well-being, and there are many small steps you can take to improve your habits, such as meditating or doing a body scan to relax before bedtime, taking stairs rather than the elevator or biking rather than driving to work, and substituting sugar-filled drinks with water or herbal tea.

What tips do you have on how to stay motivated and encouraged while trying to build new habits? It’s a good idea to implement consistency when attempting to change a habit—performing the newer behavior at the same time each day, and every day. You may want to consider creating a challenge for yourself—such as a 30-day challenge which is said to be the approximate number of days when new habits begin to form. When working with my clients, we often agree on a challenge and they will report back about their progress. One client was aiming to become more social and friendly at work, so her challenge was to talk to at least one co-worker each day about something not having to do with work. She had to move out of her comfort zone to create this new behavior, and was ultimately happy with the outcome her new habit brought her.

 How do we measure success? When is a habit fully formed? It’s difficult to say when a habit is fully formed because research has shown that it can begin at 21 days and take up to a year—depending on the difficulty of the habit change. Consistency is key, and it’s also important to not beat yourself up if you have a set back. Treating ourselves with self-compassion, and giving ourselves permission to be human is important. Everyone struggles at some point with changing habits, so remember that you are not alone, and then take a moment to refocus your energies and begin again the next day.


Caren Osten is a certified positive psychology life coach and writer. She works with individuals and groups, who seek to cultivate greater positivity, clarity and calm as they navigate life's daily stresses, challenges and shifts. Caren leads workshops and speaks at conferences, businesses and organizations in which she shares the benefits, strategies and science of optimism, self-compassion, mindfulness, and resilience. A contributor to The New York Times, PsychologyToday.com, Mindful and other publications, Caren writes about health and wellbeing, travel and education. You can learn more about her work at www.carenosten.com