How to Build Good Habits: Tips & Tricks

How to build good habits

2018 update: We still think this is a great discussion about how to build good habits, but you may also want to check out our post on how to stay fit in winter.

Readers, what are your tips on how to build good habits? Which healthy habits have you successfully started? Have you found that one healthy habit had a domino-type effect on other healthy habits (for example, getting to bed earlier)?

A few months ago, I started to get healthier by fitting exercise into my busy daygetting more sleep, and eating healthier. Although I bought a FitBit for points for my health insurance program several months earlier, I only recently started to use its tracking capabilities on a regular basis. I started by setting easy but meaningful goals, including how many days and minutes per week of activity. I made sure to enter all of my activities. To further motivate myself, I got a new bike. I started tracking my miles on two or three apps each day, as well as a legal pad, and set a goal of 100 miles per month. I also set reminders on my calendar. Looking back, I think it was about 4-6 weeks after I started that I realized that I was making exercise a priority and was consistently hitting my goals. I also felt healthier and my clothes fit a little better.

So let’s discuss some of the best tips on how to build good habits…

  • Think big but start small. For example, drink a few more ounces of water each day and add to that amount week over week. Determine a bedtime routine to help you wind down earlier. Walk a few extra steps or blocks on your commute or lunch break. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Start following a guided meditation app. Do squats or stand on one leg at a time while brushing your teeth, pumping gas, standing at the copy machine, you get the idea.
  • Be consistent. Whether you are a morning person or a night owl, figure out a time for you to start that healthy habit, then try to do it at the same time every day, at least for the first 30 days. (You may want to look into Seinfeld’s chain theory here to give yourself points for consistency — you can even track it via an app like Don’t Break the Chain or, ha, Kat’s old resolutions chart.)
  • Stack it with a habit you already have locked down. For example, do a few planks after every time you brush your teeth.
  • Set reminders. Create a recurring calendar event on your work and/or personal calendar that blocks out the specified time to do that healthy thing you want to do. Be sure to actually use that time to take steps toward the healthy habit (go for a walk, meal plan or meal prep, meditate, go to the gym, etc.).
  • Track your progress. Use a device, an app, a calendar, a printout, even a simple notepad to write down each date and what you did that day to reach your goal for a healthy habit. You will eventually see those small successes add up. If you want to take it an extra step, brag about your achievements to your workout buddies or friends in your social media group(s) who are also doing the same thing.
  • Don’t get discouraged. There are varying theories about how long it takes to start a habit because every new habit and every person is different. However, 30 days seems to be a reasonable amount of time to plan how you will meet your goals. At the same time, if you don’t get there by day 30, try to keep going until you do.

Readers, have you tried to build a good habit recently? Did you find setting a calendar reminder or tracking your progress to be encouraging? Did you need to stick to the same time every day? How long did it take for a habit to become a habit, was it within 30 days? What other tips would you have for starting and keeping a healthy habit?

Psst: we’ve talked about this before with regard to New Year resolutions, but hey, September is the new January, right?

Picture via to build healthy habits - image of a girl tying her sneaker

We rounded up the best tips out there for how to build good habits--even if you're busy AF. Chaining, stacking, tracking--which habit hack works best for you?


  1. Puddlejumper :

    Biggest tip I have is take data before you begin. Base your goals on real data not on just how you think you are doing.

    Also I have no shame in keeping a star chart for myself!

  2. workout at home! :

    My tip is this: if working out requires 2 hours of your day (because you have to drive/metro to a class or gym), you’re not going to keep it up. Workout at home if at possible. There are so many fantastic online videos now and all you need are dumbells and a mat (optional). Once I made this switch I am managing to work out 5 days a week. Beforehand, it was once a week if I was lucky.

    • Anonymous :

      Big 2nd, even if a gym IS close.

    • Yep. Also, treadmills and stationary bikes are horrid inventions. Run or bike outside.

      • I rate to run or bike outside. We have a stationary bike set up in-front of a TV that my husband I use regularly . Having equipment close in a controlled environment (no excuse if the weather is not perfect) has been the key for us. We have watched a lot of Hulu, Amazon Prime and Netflix on that bike.

        • Liquid Crystal :

          +1 exercising outside is nice, but for the weekday grind, I have more success in scheduling an hour long class that I have to attend and where there is a penalty for canceling a couple days a week and combining that with home workouts that don’t require me to think up a route and plan around the weather and all the rest of my day’s commitments

          So, for me, outside on the weekends, inside during the week to make it happen

        • I tend to only use a treadmill if I’m at a hotel in an unfamiliar area where I don’t know where it’s safe to run without getting hit by a car. I usually pull up something to watch on my phone while I’m doing it and I still hate it. Hate hate hate. I am willing to run outside in all sorts of inclement weather, up to and including sleet, over a treadmill.

          My level of hate for them is pretty extreme though, I will grant you. Also when I was looking for a house, being within a short distance of a very good running/biking trail was non-negotiable, so my access to a good place to run is better than many too.

          • Gail the Goldfish :

            Do you run at night? That’s my biggest reason for a treadmill-except for summer, I’m not home to exercise when it’s light out, and running at night just doesn’t seem safe to me, no matter how much reflective gear you’re wearing (and I won’t go on our trails at night, because then you get the “woman alone in isolated place” worry).

          • I usually run early in the morning, but yes I sometimes do at night, including on the bike trails in Houston. I have been accused of having an unusual lack of concern for my personal safety though.

            Why not just wear actual flashing lights instead of reflective gear if you want to run at night? LED lights can be clipped onto your clothing, and I’ve seen some that clip on to the back of your shoes too. Or you could wear a headlamp on the flashing setting. I see people doing this all over my neighborhood and believe me you cannot miss them. LED lights are super bright.

          • I also like to run/walk outside, weather permitting, but I live in a cold climate and I don’t like to run when the sidewalks are icy or snowy (like 5 months out of the year). I’m happy to use the treadmill at the gym then. I save my favorite podcasts to listen to when I’m exercising.

      • Thistledown :

        I love being outside, but 90% of the time there’s something that triggers my asthma. I have a mini trampoline (one with bungies instead of springs so it’s super quiet). It’s so much fun! Finding something that makes exercising fun has been hugely helpful.

      • I do both. I walk to work (over 5000 steps), then have a stairmaster and stationery bike in my spare bedroom/office that I use when I get home if I am not over 10000 steps. I can watch TV at the same time, or even review my breif’s for work and simaltaneusly bill additinal hours while sitting on the bike — that is why I perfer this to the stairmaster. I am already a head of my September billing’s, haveing 380 hours already, so I can take Sunday off. I hope the HIVE is enjoying the warm weather in NYC. YAY!!!!!

    • Anonymous :

      I agree. Swimming was a no-go for me for this reason. However, running requires so little equipment and time that it became the perfect solution.

  3. How does one plank WHILE brushing his or her teeth?

  4. I pay myself a dollar every time I work out or make my 10,000 step goal. I just bought myself a pair of diamond earrings with the money that I earned. It helps me keep track of my workouts and also gives me that extra motivation that I need to get up at 5 am to get to the gym. Also, while I have never been a class person, I recently decided to try out karate as a way to fit fitness in while hanging out with my son. My husband does it too — and so it ends up being a family fitness activity that everyone enjoys. It makes it a bit more motivating and I don’t feel the mom guilt that I used to feel about leaving in the evenings to work out (this was before I switched to the early morning workings).

  5. Paging Whole Life Challenge :

    On this front, someone mentioned a while back that she was setting up a Whole Life Challenge team for this site readers. Is there a team? I am signed up but not on a team currently.

  6. Sloan Sabbith :

    Read Better than Before. Seriously. It has great information about habits, the science and psychology behind habit building, and tips for what kind of person you are. I use star charts and keep pretty close track of data- for example, it gives me a ridiculous amount of satisfaction to color in a box on a calendar I made just for days I’ve been to pure barre, enough that I go to class to color in the box once in awhile. Same with building a streak of something- I walked 10K steps a day March 17-July 5 and you’d better believe I knew how many days I had a streak going.

    • Sloan Sabbith :

      Oh, my doctor also recommended StepBet this morning.

    • Thistledown :

      I love this book! I’m a rebel, so it helped me realize that a lot of the popular techniques would backfire for me. (I basically do the opposite of everything for a SMART goal and it’s infinitely more effective for me.)

    • If anyone has read Better than Bef0re and The Power of Habit, which would you suggest reading first? Or instead of the other?

  7. Charity Miles :

    I use the Charity Miles app when I walk, run, or bike outside. It’s not enough to be the sole motivation, but it makes me feel even better about the exercise I’m getting. The way it works is it donates money to charity based on your mileage; the money comes from ad revenue, not your pocket. It’s free and I’m not affiliated with it in any way, just have used it for years and love being able to do some good for the world while doing some good for myself (if that’s not too cheesy).

    One other tip: we are all busy, so sometimes the best habit to introduce is to stop doing something rather than adding something to the list. Or replace X with Y, so your to-do list doesn’t grow.

  8. Frozen Peach :

    The Ink & Volt planner has been game-changing for me in terms of forming new good habits. I rave about it all the time but that’s because it’s that great.

    • Ditto! So far this year I’ve used its monthly challenges to start daily writing (I’ve missed 2 days in 2017); daily meditation; and keeping a food log (via the LoseIt! app). I don’t always manage to be consistent with the things I’ve chosen to focus on for the month, but it’s definitely been better than it was before I started using that feature of the planners – and having had three things that “stuck” beyond that month has been pretty awesome.

  9. Anonymous BigLaw Associate :

    I have to be regimented and flexible at the same time. I tend to work out 3-6 days a week, depending on the week. You can’t realistically work out on a day where you have to bill 18 hours, so you have to let that go. But on a day where you have a normal work day and you just don’t “feel” like working out, I just force myself to do it.

    • DC Tailor :

      Totally feel you on this. It can be hard when the exercise routine runs into the reality of work sometimes, learning to forgive myself for the 3-day instead of 6-day workout weeks has been a slow process.

  10. These are all such great tips! agree that it’s key to start small. It’s so tempting to want to overhaul everything at once and do all the things, but that can be so overwhelming. Like you said, just start changing one thing at a time, a small change. Once you’ve got that locked in (and see the benefits it’s having), take it to the next level or add in another habit. And I’ve always found that having a really good “why” is important. Not just something vague like “I want to run a mile without stopping,” but something more specific or measurable like “I want to be able to run a mile without stopping so that I can keep up with my kids.”

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