How to Create a Habit

Habits can be great.  Want to exercise regularly or drink more water or meditate or any number of good things? Creating a habit can help with any number of healthy behaviors allowing them to become automatic and easy.  The problem is actually creating the habit.  And I have some bad news: it’s not just a matter of repetition.



Why Repetition Alone Does Not Create a Habit

We’ve all heard it.  It takes 21 days to create a habit.  This would lead one to believe that if you force yourself to do something for 21 days, on the 22nd day it will magically become automatic.  This just isn’t the reality.  Case in point: my husband was exercising regularly in preparation for our wedding.  He wanted to look good as we would be looking back on this day for years to come.  He hated exercising.  After the wedding, he did not automatically continue exercising.  He no longer had that big goal and it was something he didn’t like doing, so he stopped doing it.

There needs to be more involved in creating habits than just repetition.  Going to the gym for the first 21 days of January does not mean that you will be going to the gym for the rest of the year.  In addition to repeating the behavior we want to absorb into our regular routine, we must also train our brain to make connections between our behavior, physical cues and how we feel.

Going From Repetition to Habit

In addition to repeating a behavior, there are some additional factors needed in creating a habit.  Let’s look at something that is a habit for pretty much everyone, brushing our teeth.  In the morning when we wake up, we go to the bathroom. Walking into the bathroom is the physical cue that it is time to brush our teeth.  We brush our teeth and then we get to taste the refreshing feeling of a minty clean mouth.

So let’s break this down. The first part of our tooth brushing routine relates to our location. By entering the bathroom we have the visual cue that we are where we need to be to brush our teeth. So when creating a new habit we need a physical or visual cue that it’s time to do that activity.

Maybe after you drop the kids off at school, you drive to work or back home and you take a few minutes to just sit in the car and be alone. This can be your cue to write out your to do list for the day. Or maybe you put your workout clothes out each evening with your workout DVD on top as your visual cue that it’s time to work out.

The next step is the actual activity or behavior that you want to make habitual. This is up to you depending on what habit you want to form.

The final step is super important. It is also often forgotten, so pay attention. After you complete the activity take a minute or two to really immerse yourself in the good feeling that you get. If the activity was working out, enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that you got it done and the energy you now have to start your day. If the activity was making your to do list, enjoy the feeling of purpose since you know what to do with your day and the decrease in stress because you have a plan for getting things done. Whatever it is really feel the benefit, the high of accomplishing your task. This is the part that gets you coming back.

Habits aren’t just repetition of an action. It is repeating the action because we know how good we feel when we finish and we wan that good feeling.

Do you have a behavior that you want to make a habit? Share it in the comments so we can all support each other through the process.



Author : Emily Bendler

Emily Bendler is a mom, wife, full-time insurance adjuster, professional dancer, dance teacher, graduate student, and founder of I Hope You Dance, Inc., a non-profit supporting youth dance. Read how Emily used her dance ambitions to become a time management maven using the about me link in the main menu. Feel free to send Emily a message using the contact page which can be found in the main menu under About Me.

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8 Comments on "How to Create a Habit"

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Sarah Althouse

I want to make meal planning (and other planning tools) a habit! I do it every now and then but often feel overwhelmed. I need to apply these tips!


I would love to make yoga more of a habit. At least the three days a week I work … waking up before work and practicing for a half an hour or so. I have the time, it’s just a matter of making myself start. But you have to start somewhere, right?


This all so true! I’ve heard the 21 day thing so many times and it’s definitely not true. Sure it gets you going, but it really takes more than days to get into a habit.

Shann Eva (@Shanneva)

I’ve also heard the 21 days to make a habit, but never believed it. I wanted to cut out soda from my diet, but still craved it after going three weeks. What finally worked for me was connecting those feelings like you mentioned. I felt terrible and had acid reflux when I drank it, and it went away when I stopped…so no more soda cravings for me. Now, I just need to drink plain water instead of ice tea all the time 😉