Family, Kids & Relationships

Science-based ways to build and keep up good habits

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It’s great to have goals, or new year’s resolutions. But without good habits paving the way, those goals become harder, if not impossible, to reach.

Is there a healthy habit you want to have as part of your routine, but you just can’t figure out how to start it? Maybe it’s exercise, reading before bed, or making more homemade dinners instead of getting takeout.

Is there a good habit you’re trying to motivate your child to form, but they just won’t stick with it? Like eating a healthy breakfast before school, flossing their teeth, or cleaning up when they’re done playing?

What makes a habit (good, bad, or neutral) so powerful is that it is repeated so frequently that you don’t have to think about doing it — you simply do it. So how do you turn a desired behavior into a habit?

Follow these research-backed tips to form good habits, and stick with them — together as a family!

Write down a specific plan

Habits are formed based on cues in your environment, so you need to make a plan that specifies exactly when and where the desired behavior will be done. Write down your plan so that it feels more official.

Make the habit something simple, specific, and within your control. For example, “getting homework done earlier” is too broad and vague. The habit needs to be more specific — starting homework at 4:00, for example.

Piggyback on an existing habit

Research shows that when new habits are tied in with habits you already have, they’re more likely to stick. You’re more likely to remember to floss if you do it after brushing your teeth every night. Likewise, if your kid’s afternoon snack becomes a kickoff to homework time, it serves as a reminder of the new habit.

Pick your “fresh start” day

Find the best time to start your healthy habit. Motivation tends to be higher on days that mark a beginning of some sort, like New Year’s Day or your birthday. But you can use other markers too — like the first day of a week or month, when starting a new semester of school, or when getting new glasses.

This “fresh start” helps us separate in our minds the way things were before, and the way things are now. It helps you feel proud of the “new you.”

Chart your progress on your good habit

A simple chart or calendar can work wonders! Studies show that those who track their habits have much more success in sticking with new habits than those who don’t. All you need to do is take a blank calendar page — and for each day, add a star, heart, checkmark, or sticker when you did accomplish the goal. Likewise, put down an X or a different symbol when you don’t complete the habit for the day.

Everyone has days where they skip their new goal and slide back into old ways. Don’t be ashamed! When you see a visual representation of the days you did accomplish your daily goal, you’ll feel motivated to keep trying.

A chart will help you see patterns, too. For example, if you see that you’re regularly having trouble completing your desired routine on Mondays, you could edit your plan — shift it to a different day of the week, or come up with an extra fun motivator on Mondays.

Use rewards wisely

It’s OK to use rewards — in fact, when used wisely they can really help make a habit stick! A reward is something that makes you feel good about what you’re doing or what you just did. But the reward should be something that helps toward your overall goals.

For example, listening to your favorite music or podcast during your workout can motivate you to exercise and serve as a reward for exercising. Or, for each day that you exercise, put a dollar towards that new piece of workout clothing you want.

You can use your habit tracking chart to track your progress toward your reward! If time or money are big motivators, you could even use real calculations (write down how much money you saved by bringing your own coffee each day, and add it up — it can go toward something you’re saving up for).

Examples of effective and logical rewards to motivate kids could include:

  • Earning Sunday screen time for getting homework done on Saturday
  • Earning an extra book at bedtime for cleaning up by a certain time
  • Getting to choose a new toothbrush after a whole month of great brushing/flossing
  • Getting to ride a pogo stick from the bus stop on Fridays after a full week of getting ready on time

​​Find an accountability buddy for good habits

If you are performing the new healthy behavior with someone’s support, it can help keep you on track. Plus, it’s more fun when someone else can understand what you’re going through. Kids and parents might have very different goals, but they can still have side-by-side charts to check in and motivate each other.

While your family members can be each other’s accountability buddies, be sure to tell a friend outside of the family about it too. The more people you tell about your goals, the more committed you’ll feel — plus, they may be inspired to join you! You can even start a routine of texting each other a picture of your habit tracking chart each week.

When you surround yourself with people who are engaging in healthy habits, it reinforces your own motivation to perform the healthy habits too.

Have a backup plan

We all have days where we can’t stick to the ideal plan. Maybe your kid is home sick and you can’t get out for your daily walk, or you forgot to wash your blender so you didn’t have time for your morning smoothie.

If you expect some wrinkles in the plan, you don’t have to let one chaotic day or one bad week ruin your whole plan. Give yourself an easy way to make it up, such as doing a quicker indoor stair workout instead of a walk or run. Or give your kid the option to do an extra reading session on the weekend to make up for one they missed during the week.

Research shows that if you slip up, it’s easier to get back on track than it was to initially start the habit. So even if you skipped a few days or weeks, all of your work is not lost! Review or edit your plan, and pick another “fresh start” day to get back on track.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.