How to Make or Break a Habit

This New Year's, creating a healthy new habit or breaking an unhealthy old one doesn't have to hinge on sheer willpower.  Clinical psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen suggests 5 steps to help you make a change for the better.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #142

New Year's always dawns with shiny-eyed optimism and bucketfuls of willpower.  We decide that this is the year we'll finally "just do it:" get in shape, get ahead, or get it together.  But two weeks in, we're starting to realize change is easier said than done. 

Before the swoosh, the original Nike was the winged Greek goddess of victory (for you trivia geeks, it's pronounced "knee-keh").  Who knows if the gods have a problem with abandoning resolutions, but regardless, we mere mortals can achieve victory over our bad habits.

Here are 5 tried and true steps to get you started.  Victory shall be yours!

Step #1: Reality Check  

Make sure this is something you actually want. Ask yourself: Why am I doing this?  If the answer starts with a hedge like, “Well, it would probably be good if I…,”  or “I should maybe…,” it may be time for a rethink.  

Also, for whom are you doing this?  If no one could see you and you were guaranteed not to get any recognition, gold stars, or pats on the back, would you still do it?  If you feel some misgivings rumbling in your gut, consider changing your goal to one that puts a smile on your face and butterflies (the good kind!) in your stomach.

Step #2: Make Your Task Specific

Oftentimes our goals are vague, like “Feel better,” or “Stop getting in my own way.” 

These vague ideas are hard to carry out. It's time to bring on the concrete mixer.  A concrete goal is something that you can either measure or observe.  “Lose weight” becomes “Be a size 10.”  “Feel better” becomes “Get 8 hours of sleep each night.”  “Socialize more” becomes “Join two community groups and stick with it.”

Step #3: Break it Down Into Ridiculously Small Steps

If you’re feeling anxious, reluctant, or intimidated by a task looming on the horizon, break it down into ridiculously small steps.  And by ridiculously small, I mean truly ridiculous.  You want to zoom in, way in.  Not only should you not be able to see the forest, you shouldn’t even be able to see a tree.   To extend the analogy, you should be focused only on one leaf or one branch.  Zooming in this far allows you to forget the rest of the task and keeps you from feeling overwhelmed.

For example, one of my patients—we’ll call him Jeff—has diabetes.  Last year he reluctantly committed to exercising 3 times a week because his doctor told him it was either that or some minor consequence like dying prematurely.  Hmm.   Despite the motivator of adding years to his life, it was overwhelming to go from being a couch potato to a gym bunny.  No wonder the remote had stayed in his hand for so long!  Whenever it was time to go to the gym, Jeff made excuses. It was too intimidating. 

But then he broke down the arduous task into bite-sized pieces......


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.