How to Make or Break a Habit

This New Year's, creating a healthy new habit or breaking an unhealthy old one doesn't have to hinge on sheer willpower.  Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen suggests 5 steps to help you make a change for the better.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #142

So instead of flipping back to Bravo, he made one ridiculously small step after another.  His first step was to eat a banana.  Second was to find his gym clothes.  Third was to change his clothes.  Fourth was to find his car keys.   Fifth was to drive to the gym. He didn’t let himself think about the next step until he was done with the current step.  And banana by banana, Jeff got to the gym 3 times a week.

If you feel the least bit overwhelmed or resistant with each step, break it down further.  Make peeling the banana a separate step if you must.  Make tying each shoe two separate steps.  No one has to know but you.  (By the way, for some extra brainpower on this topic, Get-It-Done Guy has an excellent episode on breaking tasks down into small, easy chunks.)

Step #4: Make it Brainless

If it’s not convenient and easy, you’re not going to stick with the change.

If it’s not convenient and easy, you’re not going to stick with the change.  If you have a recurring goal, link it to something you do routinely already.  This often requires some change in your surroundings to include cues or reminders.  For example, if the goal is to remember to take an oft-forgotten medication, link it to brushing your teeth in the morning and put the bottle next to your toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.  

Changing your surroundings or routine to make things convenient may require some substantial inconvenience at the beginning.  For example, you may need to invest some time in changing your gym membership to a nearby location rather than the one by your old office.  But once everything is automated, linked, and convenient, your already-established habits will kick in and take over, like The Blob engulfing and assimilating your new goal (but in a good way).

Step #5: It Will Feel Wrong and Awkward at First

The first few times you do almost anything new, it’s not going to be particularly rewarding.  At your first Pilates class, you won’t know what equipment to fetch.  Your first book club meeting will be awkward.  During your attempt to write your children's book, you'll probably end up surfing on Facebook.  No matter what you try, you will probably be anxious.  Here’s where imperfection is encouraged.  Give yourself permission to get it wrong, screw it up, and do it badly.  Just keep showing up, fine-tuning your system, and see what happens.

So there we go.  Commit to a change, start out with 5 steps, achieve victory. 

Hey, maybe you are a god or goddess!


Just do it signbaby steps, and Nike images courtesy of Shutterstock.



All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.