If you’ve ever set out to transform your fitness habits, you probably know that achieving consistency can be a terribly difficult feat — it’s always easy to find an excuse to stay in bed or retreat to the couch with a glass of wine.
But if humans are creatures of habit, why is it so hard to make the healthy habits stick?
For advice, we looked to masters of habit-forming who’ve made self-improvement their life’s work. Below are seven expert-backed tips that will turn any new practice into a permanent part of your life:
1. Create a personalized plan.
Design a fool-proof plan ahead of time instead of throwing yourself into a new endeavor unprepared.
Research shows it works: When University of Hertfordshire professor Richard Wiseman tracked 5,000 people who were attempting to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions, he found that those who did not have a plan had a harder time achieving their goals.
Want to workout more consistently? Set up a workout schedule or sign up for a weekly class. Want to eat healthy homemade meals instead of going out to lunch? Do meal prep the night before work. Whatever you come up with, make sure you create a personalized plan that makes sense for your lifestyle, according to Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives.
“We won’t make ourselves more creative and productive and healthy by copying other people’s habits, even the habits of geniuses,” Rubin wrote on her website. “We must know our own nature, and what habits serve us best.”
2. Focus on one goal at a time.
You may have a laundry list habits you want to change — eat less junk food, do yoga daily, go to bed early — but taking them on all at the same time may set you up for failure, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit.
“If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilizing,” Duhigg told the behavioral research blog Barking up the Wrong Tree. He suggests working on one habit a month instead.
It may seem daunting to change several habits in several months, but if the change is important to you, it will have a big impact on your life.
“It’s worth spending a month to change on behavior permanently,” Duhigg said. “You’re going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade.”
3. Remind yourself why you’re making a change.
According to behavioral scientist BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technology Lab, having motivation is a key factor when trying to effectively change your behavior.
To keep yourself motivated, ask yourself why you want to make a change in the first place. Thinking about your long-term goals and the results you will one day achieve will help you power through that 6 a.m. CrossFit session, especially when you feel like giving up.
“Make sure that what you’re trying to change is something YOU really want to do, not something you feel you SHOULD do,” Christine Whelan, a public sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Washington Post. “You’re much less likely to accomplish a change if you don’t want to do it, and it’s not in keeping with your values.”
4. But don’t rely on willpower alone.
Studies show that people who think they have the most willpower are the most likely to give in to temptation because they “fail to predict when, where and why they will give in,” according to The Willpower Instinct by psychologist Kelly McGonial.
Instead of relying on your willpower alone, consider all the obstacles you might run into and figure out how you can prevent them. After all, you’re only human, which means being prone to setbacks and mistakes.
5. Start a new habit during a vacation.
If you want to pick up a new habit (or kick a bad one) start when you’re out of your normal routine. According to Duhigg, forming a new habit while you’re on a trip is “one of the proven, most successful ways to do it” because you’re in an environment that’s totally different than the one you have at home.
“All your old cues and all your old rewards aren’t there anymore,” he told NPR. “You have this ability to form a new pattern and hopefully be able to carry it over into your life.”
6. Give in to peer pressure.
If you want to make a habit stick, make sure there are people to hold you accountable. Rubin suggests finding a support group or sharing your goals with your friends to help keep you on track.
“One of the best ways to build good habits and happiness effectively — also one of the most fun ways — is to join or start a habits group,” Rubin wrote on her website. “People in the group don’t have to be working on the same habits; it’s enough that they hold each other accountable.”
7. Make sure you’re happy.
According to Shawn Achor, former Harvard psychology lecturer and author of The Happiness Advantage, research shows that the brain is 31 percent more productive when it’s in a positive state than when it’s in a neutral or stressed state.
“Dopamine, which floods into your system when you’re positive, has two functions,” Achor said during a TED talk. “Not only does it make you happier, itturns on all of the learning centers in your brain allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way.”
When you take on a new challenge — like being more consistent with a new fitness routine — with a positive mindset, you’re more likely to be successful at it.
“If you cultivate happiness while in the midst of your struggles, work, at school, while unemployed or single, you increase your chances of attaining all the goals you are pursuing,” Achor wrote on Psychology Today.