Wisdom//

How to Stick to a New Habit, Even When You’re Not Feeling Motivated

Simple Microsteps to help you stay consistent on your toughest days.

GaudiLab/ Shutterstock
GaudiLab/ Shutterstock

In a recent newsletterAtomic Habits author James Clear shared a helpful strategy for making new habits stick. The trick, he says, is to ask yourself: “What can I stick to on even my worst days?” Let’s say you want to start drinking more water. Instead of saying “I’m going to drink eight glasses of water every day” — which might be hard to stick to on a challenging day — you could say, “I’m going to have one glass of water before I drink my coffee in the morning.” 

We asked our Thrive community to share with us the Microsteps that have helped them jumpstart a new habit and stick with it, even when they’re not feeling motivated. Which of these tips will you try?

Do it first thing in the morning

“One Microstep that has helped me jumpstart a new habit is doing my gratitude ritual when I wake up in the morning. According to the Dalai Lama from The Book of Joy, gratitude is one of the eight pillars of joy that helps us ‘to catalog, celebrate and rejoice in each day and each moment before they slip through the vanishing hourglass of experience.’ I have found my tiny gratitude ritual to be a powerful practice that sets the tone for the day — so every morning, I pull out my Notes app on my phone and write down five things I am grateful for. It only takes two minutes and completely sets the tone.”

 —Joyce Bao, life coach and podcast host, CA

Put it on your calendar

“Calendarizing is a great first step in forming new habits. One big reason people don’t do the things they care about, like exercise, is time. So, make that your first Microstep: the act of carving out time and writing it down. It’s a mini move that makes your endeavor much more doable.” 

—Dena Lefkowitz, lawyer coach, Media, PA

Start with one minute

“Committing to just one minute of meditation per day is how I stick to the habit. So often, we fail at a new habit because we start too big and set unrealistic goals. However, when we lower the expectations, we elevate our chances of success. And when we feel successful and associate positive feelings with a behavior, one minute naturally turns into 15 or 30 without much effort.”

 —Charlotte Swire, yoga teacher, Manchester, U.K.

Set up your space the night before

“I’m a big believer in setting my day up for success by having a solid morning routine, including meditation, journaling, a gratitude practice, learning and then moving my body. To ensure I don’t hit snooze or choose to scroll through my phone instead, I get everything ready the night before: my journals, books, and my workout clothes. Everything is laid out and ready to go, plus it’s in my face, so I don’t really have a choice.”

 —Shannon Talbot, wellness coach, Toronto, ON, Canada

Use a checklist

“While a checklist sounds like a simple thing, it is a powerful way to capture compliance to Microsteps. Once, I was trying to adopt the habit of closing my work laptop at 5:00 p.m. every day to maintain balance, so I listed three items that were core to attain this habit. The first was to stop replying to any emails one hour before. The second was to shut down the laptop at 5:00 p.m. manually, and the third was not to open it afterwards. I posted a checklist of three items, and now, each day I tick off the item I completed. I highly recommend using familiar practices that we already follow as a mechanism to enforce new habits fully.”

 —Dr. Raman K. Attri, performance scientist, Singapore

Pick a time to get ready

“Every day at 6:30 p.m., I change into exercise clothing.  It takes two minutes to put on the right gear, and that simple habit serves as a nudge to take an evening walk, go for a run, stretch: whatever movement I feel I need that day. I learned this from friends who have this habit first thing in the morning. I find this successful in the evenings versus mindlessly watching TV after work.”

 —Donna Peters, MBA faculty and executive coach, Atlanta, GA

Move distractions to a different room

“I tried everything to get better sleep, until I finally realized the problem was using my phone as my alarm clock. Having it within easy reach meant I was grabbing it without thinking, and finding myself stuck in a scrolling loop. So I did two things: I bought a $10 alarm clock and I moved my phone charger to another room, where I let my phone charge overnight. Now, once I’m in bed, I can’t distract myself with endless feeds, and I usually wind up reading a few chapters of a book before nodding off at a reasonable hour. Not only do I get a decent amount of sleep, but I’m also more productive in the mornings because I’m not waking up and instantly checking my phone.”

—Angie Colee, coach and business strategist, Atlanta, GA

Make a verbal commitment

“One Microstep that helps me is making a verbal commitment to the task at hand. Sharing this goal aloud with another individual sets a tiny bit of pressure for you to work towards this. Your accountability partner can be a family member, spouse, friend, colleague, or therapist. When we share, we know someone will check in with how we are doing. We don’t want to disappoint, and therefore are more likely to achieve this. You can even post about your new habit on your social media and encourage others to check on you.”

—Dr. Tricia Wolanin, Psy.D. clinical psychologist and author, U.K.

Declutter your phone screen

“I found myself checking my phone too often to see if folks had contacted me, so I decided to move the placement of the app that I kept glancing at for notifications. It’s now on a left-swiped page all by itself, with no other apps. This little shift causes me to think for a split second before checking to see if I’ve been contacted, because in order to check the app, I have to go to a different screen on my phone. This moment-to-think-before-I-swipe has greatly reduced how often I check my phone.”

 —Christine M. Du Bois, anthropologist, Lansdowne, PA

Set a consistent time every night

“I have my phone set to turn off at a certain time every night so I can wind down and be prepared for sleep. Having an hour or so away from social media and emails calms my mind and my eyes and makes it easier to fall asleep.”

 —Laurie Jonas, blogger and author, Red Wing, MN

Make it accessible

“In order to start working out more regularly to support my mental health, I put up a pull-up bar next to the doorway to my kitchen. Every time I walk past it, I have to do a pull-up. So even on my most challenging days, I know I’ll do at least six pull-ups because I have to prepare three meals for my family. Doing one pull-up usually spurs me on to do more, so I usually end up doing a whole lot more than six throughout the day! Having my pull-up bar there is a constant reminder to move more, and it helps me stay consistent on the days I’m not in the mood.”

—Musa Francis, mental health coach, Oxfordshire, U.K.

Set realistic expectations

“One Microstep that helped me jump start a new healthy habit was setting aside manageable time expectations. My resolution for this year was to meditate. Instead of jumping in the deep end and attending hour-long meditation class every week, I dedicated five minutes each morning after my workout to ‘be mindful.’ That meant sitting in silence and concentrating on my inhales and exhales. Five minutes each morning was the perfect bite-sized time period to kick start my meditation practice.”

—Sammi Sontag, freelance marketing specialist and publicist, Brooklyn, N.Y.

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