Three scientifically proven ways to make a habit stick

As the year comes to a close, many of us start to plan lofty New Year’s resolutions. Next year, we tell ourselves, will be the year of eating healthier, sleeping more, and finally following through on that idea. But then these shiny new resolutions fall apart under the weight of logistics and the frustration over a lack of progress. We go back to stress snacking and getting five hours of sleep. That idea in the back of our heads stays an idea.

But there are everyday, scientifically-proven actions you can take to avoid this sad fate and make sure your resolution sticks into a habit.

Here’s how:

1) Break your plan down into manageable parts

You begin with making your resolution approachable instead of insurmountable. That happens when you break down your big-picture plans into manageable bites that will not overwhelm you and slow down your momentum. Management consultant Michelle Bryant firmly believes that any plan can be broken down into 10-minute increments, or else it should be delegated to someone else.

Tips blog Dumb Little Man suggests asking yourself “What are its component parts? What will be the real effort required?” Then you start with the easiest answer to complete from these questions. That way you get your momentum going quickly.

2) Use if-then planning

Reframing your plan into if-then statements helps you build one-time actions into a behavioral chain reaction that becomes a habit, studies have found. One study on habit formation suggested that “linking behaviors to work-day cues worked well due to their stability and predictability” The study’s participants who had the most success with their goals used the built-in rhythms of their workday to keep them accountable. They didn’t just have a goal, they had a realistic plan designed around their jobs. They worked out when they finished their jobs on Mondays. They would not eat breakfast until they arrived at work.

Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson argues that if-then thinking is effective because the language of contingencies is how our brains reason. “Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in ‘If X, then Y’ terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness,” she writes.

To put this into practice, make a point to integrate your plan into your existing routine. Instead of thinking, “I will start writing my ambitious novel today,” you add contextual cues of where and when you will write to make that statement into a fortified habit: “When I arrive home from work, I will write for an hour.” If it is 11 p.m., then I will power off my laptop and go to sleep.

3) Build the best environment for your new routine

If your everyday routine is not conducive to completing your new resolution, you need to change your environment until it becomes so. Part of tackling any new resolution is clearing your mind of any unhelpful distractions in your goal’s path.

In a series of five experiments, associate business professor Kathleen Vohs found that we have a limited amount of decisions we can make each day before we experience psychological “decision fatigue,” even if the choices are fun or small, even if we get unlimited time to make the decisions. To prevent decision fatigue over our resolutions, we need to decide what we care to think about and what we can automate and delegate.

This is why fitness experts suggest laying out your workout clothes the night before or even wearing these clothes to bed. That way, you’ve eliminated one more excuse as to why you cannot wake up early in the morning to exercise.

As actor Terry Crews advises people who want to build his exercise habit, “Treat the gym like a spa…Go to the gym, don’t even work out. Just GO. Because the habit of going to the gym is more important than the work out.”

We are creatures who thrive on the structure of a routine. When you are starting out a new resolution, making your goal part of your routine is more important to your goal’s success than the immediate results you may see. It’s how you turn a resolution in the back of your head into a habit you can see the results of every day.