UNC Health Talk

3 Ways To Make New Habits Stick

Did you start the New Year off with a lofty list of resolutions for self-improvement, only to find your motivation waning now? You’re not alone. Studies have shown that the vast majority of New Year’s resolutions fail.

Getting motivated to make a change is easy, but for many of us, staying motivated is really hard. We all have different reasons for wanting to make a change. Motivation might be extrinsic, which means it is inspired by outside forces, such as other people or events. Motivation also can be intrinsic, meaning your desire to make a change comes from within.

Psychologists say intrinsic motivation tends to be more compelling and helpful in achieving your goals. In other words, when you are pursuing a new habit because it’s something you want, you have a better chance of achieving it as opposed to doing it because someone else wants you to make that change. Or if you’re trying to change to impress someone else—for example, trying to lose 20 pounds before your high school reunion.

So how do we start healthy habits and make them stick? We talked to UNC Health licensed psychologist Christine M. Peat, PhD, to learn more.

1. Think about your why.

One of the most important steps in adopting a new habit is to think about why you want to make a change, Dr. Peat says.

“Thinking a little bit about what motivates you and why you’re making a change can really help sustain your motivation, even in more challenging times when you’re tempted to give up,” she says.

For example, if your goal is to get more sleep, there may be nights where what you want to do is crawl into bed with your mobile device, scroll through social media feeds or binge-watch your favorite shows way past your bedtime. When you feel tempted to do this, pause and remember why you started.

“Maybe you’re looking to improve your overall energy level and you know that when you have more sleep, you feel better, have more energy and are less irritable,” Dr. Peat says. “Keep your eye on those kinds of goals.”

You could even write your goals down to remind yourself when you’re tempted to forget them.

2. Find an accountability partner.

Find someone who can support your efforts and be there to encourage you, especially when you want to give up. It can be really helpful if your accountability partner shares the same goals as you.

“It helps to know you’re doing this together and you’re not alone,” Dr. Peat says. “There’s somebody else you can commiserate with about how challenging this can be, and maybe you can be each other’s cheerleaders in those moments when it feels really tough.”

Your accountability partner can be someone you know or in an online community.

“You can reach out through online support groups, Facebook groups, or maybe even more informally through just FaceTime calls with a loved one,” Dr. Peat says. “Having that support, and having those people in your life who are really in your corner, has proven to be a really crucial ingredient in all of this.”

3. Be realistic about your goals—and be kind to yourself.

It’s a very easy trap, especially at the beginning of the calendar year, to try to make drastic changes that are not sustainable.

“You might inadvertently set yourself up for failure because you’re biting off more than you can chew,” Dr. Peat says. “Keeping goals realistic, small and sustainable is usually the best way for folks to maintain the motivation overall.” You might even consider making goals using the SMART framework: Make your goals Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.

Also, just because it’s the new year doesn’t mean that you have to make any changes, including losing weight, Dr. Peat says.

“There are lots of other things that make you who you are,” Dr. Peat says. “Just because everyone else is talking about losing weight doesn’t mean that everybody has to be on a diet.”


Need a doctor? Find one near you.

Photo credit: ©Pacific Images LLC – gettyimages.com