How to Create a Habit: Your 5 Step Plan (with Bonus Worksheet)
I love this time of year. No, not the blazing hot last days of summer. Back-to-school season. Seeing families shop for clothes, lunch boxes and backpacks. Wandering aisle upon aisle of discounted school supplies. The sense of optimism and promise each new school year brings. I love it all.
When you live by the academic calendar, August for you is what January is for others: a beginning, a time for resolution and change. This is when professors and students alike take stock, vowing to create a new habit, or perhaps to break an old one.
This is especially true in the fall. Maybe students are just starting college, or maybe they’re returning after a long summer break. Either way, many of them begin the semester determined to do things right. They show up on the first day of class with new notebooks, binders and planners, set for success.
In my experience, nearly all of these students start to struggle within a few weeks. These students don’t lack motivation, they’re just trying to do too much at one time. They start to feel overwhelmed by all the changes they’re attempting. As a result, many students give up on their new habits within a month.
The Missing Piece of Habit Change
The missing piece for these students, and most of us who fail at habit creation, is a plan for change. It would be lovely if we could just make up our minds to change, but that isn’t how habits work. You have to create a habit, build it through repetition. Good habits don’t magically appear, no matter how many planners and discounted school supplies you buy.
This post describes how to create a habit in five steps. I write for students and families planning for college, but the process of habit change works for the same for everyone. I made a habit change worksheet to help you out; you can sign up for it at the bottom of this post. To get the most out of the worksheet, though, you need to know more about the five steps, so please read on.
How to Create a Habit in 5 Steps
Step 1: Focus on One Habit at a Time
A common mistake people, not just students, make when wanting to change is trying to do too much at once. Someone hoping to lose weight will decide to start an exercise routine, to eat more vegetables and to eliminate sugar from their diet – all at the same time. Similarly, a student wanting to get better grades will decide to start getting up at 7am, to study 5 hours a day, and to give up watching Netflix – all at the same time.
Logically we know that those are way too many changes to make at once, but we humans are prone to magical thinking. “Mind over matter” and all that. But relying on a bunch of changes to come together simultaneously through sheer will isn’t the best strategy for long terms success.
Instead, focus on one change at a time. If you want to free up more time in your mornings, then create a habit of going to sleep or getting up 30 minutes earlier. If you think you waste too much time on Netflix or social media, decide to cut back, using a timer if needed.
Just focus on building one habit at a time. Once you have that habit down pat, you can move to the next one on your list.
Step 2: Start with a Small Habit First
Another common mistake when it comes to creating new habits is believing a change has to be big to be significant. Small changes, when repeated over time, can lead to major results. Plenty of authors have crafted novels by following a daily 500-1,000 word writing habit.
If you’re used to frantically packing your backpack right before you leave for school, try packing it the night before instead. This is a small change that will only take a few minutes, bit it can have big impacts.
Taking time to pack your bag the night before makes it less likely you’ll forget something important. It will also help you feel more organized and prepared for the day.
As you start appreciating the feeling of being organized and prepared, you’ll look for other ways to bring that into your life. Next thing you know, you’ll be finishing homework and turning in the projects before the deadline. And it all started by creating one small, simple habit.
Step 3: Use a Habit Trigger
I’ve written before about the five triggers that help you create good habits. If you want to make sure your new habit sticks, tie it to one of these triggers.
One way to trigger a habit is to associate it with a particular place. Leaving your keys on a hook by the door is an example of a place-based habit.
Another way to trigger a habit is to assign it to a particular time. You may decide to go to the gym five days a week at 9am or to read your history book for an hour before dinner each night. These are both time-based habits.
This is also known as habit stacking, which means using one good habit to trigger another. Examples are taking your vitamins after breakfast every day and brushing your teeth after you shower.
Friends and family can have a positive or negative impact on our habits, so you have to be careful with this one. It will be hard to create a good habit (or break a bad one), if you’re around people who don’t share your outlook. So if your goal is to get better grades, try joining a study group. Leave binge watching with your friends for later.
You must be careful with this one too. Emotions usually have a negative effect on our habits. It’s really hard to create a good emotion-based habit, for reasons discussed in my post on habit triggers. About the best you can do here is to increase awareness of how certain emotions affect you, then build different, positive responses to those emotions. For instance, if you tend to stress eat, try journaling or meditation instead when you begin to feel stress.
Step 4: Be Specific in Your Intent
A third reason many people fail in their effort to create a new habit is that they are too vague about what they want to accomplish. Examples are when people vow to “eat less” or to “study more.” Those are good intentions, but they aren’t a plan.
If you’re struggling in chemistry class, you may vow to “study chemistry every day.” That’s a good goal, but it’s still pretty vague. In order to raise your chemistry grade, you need to create a strong statement of intent. This is a statement that clearly says what you will do and under what circumstances.
A strong statement of intent is “I will study chemistry for one hour after dinner every night.” This is better because it says clearly what you will do and what trigger you will use to help develop the habit (in this case, a time trigger).
Whatever your goal, whether to get better grades, be more organized or eat healthier, you must write a strong, specific statement of intent to create a new habit. You can see more examples of strong statements of intent in the directions for the habit change worksheet in my free resource library; to get the password, just fill out the form at the bottom of this post.
Step 5: Track Your Progress
Repetition is the key to making a habit stick, so you need to keep track of how often you perform the action or behavior. Expect to struggle a bit in the beginning. Change is hard, especially if you have to overcome a bad habit first. If you typically crash on the couch and scan social media for an hour when you get home from class, it will be hard to sit down and do your home work instead.
A great way to monitor your progress is with a habit tracker. This can be as simple as making a check mark on the calendar each day you perform your new habit. You can find lots of creative, artistic habit trackers online. There are also plenty of habit tracking apps, but you should only use these if you can use our phone without getting distracted.
The process of creating a new habit is fairly easy, just five steps. Actually following through on this process is what’s hard. The biggest obstacle to starting a new habit is inertia, the tendency to keep doing what we’ve always done, even if we know it isn’t working. You can help overcome inertia by doing two things.
First, develop a strong statement of intent around the new habit you wish to create, one that clearly spells out your goal. Second, keep track of your progress. The more you perform a habit, the more automatic it becomes. When you no longer rely on reminders like trackers, you’ll know you’ve fully formed your new habit.
Are you trying to create a new habit? Or break a bad one? What's working for you? Share your tips for creating good habits with us in the comments.