How To Develop Better Habits

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Popular Goals and New Year’s resolutions that require new habits

New Year is one of the most popular time to set goals.  The challenge is, to achieve a goal you usually have to change habits, and that is often the hardest bit.

Let me guess the sort of things you want to achieve,  could it be one of the following:

  1. Exercise more
  2. Eat healthier
  3. Save money
  4. Lose weight
  5. Reduce stress
  6. Stick to a budget
  7. Get more sleep
  8. Spend more time with family
  9. Learn a new skill
  10. Travel more

Actually I am no clairvoyant, these 10 items are from a survey conducted by YouGov in 2018, and the list is very similar to studies on goals set by people in many other years.

The question is, if we are setting the same goals every year, is that because we are not achieving them? If so, why is that?

Even if you did not set yourself a strict New Year resolution in one of these areas it is likely that one or more of these goals would be something you would like to do at some point this year or next.  Just because you did not set yourself an aim at the beginning of January does not mean you cannot do it now.

Maybe you have not set a specific objective because you are worried you may not achieve it.  Failure can be very disheartening. If we understand why change is difficult than you can be less hard on yourself.  Goals need to be realistic among other things (see SMART goals).

Goals and habits

It’s all good and well having a lofty goal but we all know how hard it is to achieve – particularly when it means changing a habit. This means the goal is not just a one-off action; what we are trying to do is create multiple actions that compound and reinforce improvement over time.

Don’t worry if you are struggling to do this.  If you have not managed to keep your goals thus far, you are in good company.  Business Insider polled over 1000 people and found that 80% of people were failing to keep their New Year’s resolutions by February (2019).

This is a shame as resolutions are generally about creating new (and hopefully better) habits.  Arguably, 9 out of 10 of the list above are primarily about modifying behaviours. And habits generally take longer than a month to be embedded.

Phillippa Lally conducted a 12 week study on changing behaviour and found that on average it took more like two months (or 66 days to be more exact) for a new activity to become a habit.  This is longer than the 21 days popularised by Maxwell Maltz (1960) or the 30 days advocated by Marc Reklau (2014).

How do you effectively create a new habit?

Well first, given the evidence above, you need to give yourself an appropriate amount of time to embed your new behaviour.  A couple of months being a good benchmark.

The next thing is identifying the habit loop that exists and how to modify it.  Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit (2013), shows that we need to identify the cue (the stimulus), the routine (our action or behaviour) and the reward (the payoff).  Once we understand the cues to behaviours we can experiment with rewards to instil new routines.

This behaviour loop is actually a decision-making cycle. The thing is that as the behaviour becomes deeply embedded it becomes a habit – an intuitive or automatic response – rather than a conscious choice.

For example, I tend to get a little hungry mid-morning and mid-afternoon.  I often want a snack.  When the blood sugar is low it is very easy to grab something unhealthy to eat at this point – a sweet biscuit, chocolate bar or similar would be my thing. But I know this is not good for me, therefore I have tried other replacement snacks.  I have experimented with various options, and some things just don’t hit the spot, but I have found that I have a real thing for hummus.  I know hummus is nothing like a chocolate digestive but it turns out that if there is some hummus around, especially with a carrot or some sweet pepper, then there is a good chance I can avoid a sugary snack.  It does not always work but I have nudged that behaviour in the right direction.  I still find it hard to resist biscuits laid out at a meeting or someone else’s house but no one is perfect!

The trick is finding the reward mechanism that works for you with the habit you want to modify.

Exercising more and learning more

Last year I had set out to run an ultra-marathon in the summer so I knew I needed to do more exercise. I also wanted to read more, as I love learning. The trouble was these goals were effectively competing with one another.  With the demands of work and being a parent, time was limited.  I was also finding that my time to read was generally just before bed and then I was too tired to properly absorb new material.

It was at that point that one of my coaching clients introduced me to audio books via the Audible service (a subsidiary of Amazon).  I already listened to a good number of podcasts so I knew it was achievable to listen and learn while doing light exercise or routine tasks.  With this knowledge in hand I signed up for a free trial to give it a go.

The free trial is for 30 days (after that you pay £7.99/month but can cancel anytime) and by the end of the trial period I knew it was for me.  I had already managed to get through two good books that it would have otherwise taken me at least a month to read each one.  The added bonus was that most of the time I had been listening I had also either been doing exercise or commuting.

It actually helped me to amend some other habits too.  I was enjoying listening so much that I started giving myself more time between meetings in London so I could walk, rather than use public transport, and get some more exercise, listening and thinking time in.  You could argue that I saved money and reduced stress as well, so inadvertently I was tending to some other popular resolutions!

Achieving the goal with better behaviours

Suffice to say by the end of the year I had completed my 100km ultra marathon (the CCC race in Alps) and listened to over 12 great non-fiction books (some I listen to twice in that time) that have all helped me in my work and life this year.  It has worked so well that I have signed up for a new race this year and continued my Audible subscription.

So yes, this has become something of a shameless plug for Audible but I really can recommend it, especially if your goals are similar to mine.  You can click on the link here for a free trial and see for yourself:

Audiobook Life Hack

By the way, one little life hack I have also earned this year is to listen to my podcasts and audiobooks at 1.5X speed.  This means that you can still hear everything clearly but you can get through a lot more material in the time you have available.  Give it a try!

In my next post I will share some of the great books I have listened to over the past year. Hopefully you will enjoy them too!

If you would like access to some bonus content and get updates then please do sign up for my email list.


Ballard, J (2018) YouGov,

Bruek, H (2019) Business Insider,

Duhigg, C (2013) The Power of Habit, London: Random House

Lally, P (2009) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world, European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 40, Issue 6

Maltz, M (1960; updated 2015) Psycho-Cybernetics, New York: Penguin Random House

Reklau, M (2014) 30 Days, Barcelona: Marc Reklau

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