16 Good Habits That Will Improve Every Aspect of Your Life
Learn how to adopt smarter strategies to develop good habits, and you'll have a lifetime of peaceful, productive days ahead
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As much as we may love to think every day is a fresh adventure, much of our lives is composed of tiny, little habits that we do every single day. Some of those moments are intentional and productive, like flossing our teeth or staying hydrated. Other habits … not so much. It may feel like it’s easier for bad habits to stick than healthy ones, but as it turns out, there’s an art to building good habits. And one easy and popular way to do that is with a little trick called habit stacking.
“Take a behavior you do each day and attach a new desired behavior to it,” says Bonnie Carpenter, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia. “Your brain builds new neurons to support the behaviors we practice daily. The more you practice a habit, the stronger the connections can become.”
There are plenty of other ways to make building new habits easier too, and the more thought you put into how you can make that happen, the better off you’ll be. Ready to break bad habits and pick up some useful ones? With a little practice, you can undo unprofessional work habits, be more productive, set goals and even learn how to be happier.
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How are habits formed?
“A habit is a behavior or group of behaviors that are automatic,” says Carpenter. “They’re done with a minimum of conscious awareness, and they eventually become part of our neural pathways.” So basically, once you build a new habit, your brain will take the wheel from there.
There are differing opinions on how long it takes for a habit to form—or why some habits can be stickier than others—but the amount of time is different for different people. One thing experts do know for sure is that it doesn’t happen overnight. “Changing behaviors isn’t simple, and there is a bias that it is,” says executive coach and consultant Laurie Zorn.
What can help you form a new habit? “Becoming familiar with your habits and understanding the ones you would like to change—and the reason for these changes—will help you choose positive directions,” says Carpenter. Once you’ve identified those, that’s where you should put the effort in.
How long does it take to change a habit?
Don’t expect to build good habits overnight, or you may get discouraged. According to Carpenter, it takes about four to six weeks to create a new habit.
She says—and other experts agree—that there are three steps to habit formation:
- A cue that is a trigger for automatic action, like seeing your sneakers in front of your door so you put them on to go take a walk.
- Establishing a routine for this action, so doing it will eventually become automatic. So put those sneakers in front of your door at night before you go to sleep.
- A reward that helps your brain decide whether or not this behavior is worth repeating. For example, you might grab a fancy coffee at the end of your walk.
In order to form positive habits more quickly, “you need to understand these three steps and decide what changes you want to make,” Carpenter says.
Here are six areas of your life that you may want to improve with healthier habits, and the best ways to go about doing it.
Good time-management habits
Since no one has figured out how to generate more than 24 hours in a day, being more efficient with the time you have is crucial for good habit formation and productivity. “I work with a lot of clients who are trying to improve their time-management skills,” says Zorn. What trips people up varies, she says, but it’s often the underlying motivation or competing commitments that prevent people from being more effective with their time. Here are some time-management tips that can help you make better use of yours.
1. Do one thing at a time
There’s lots of buzz about multitasking, and while most of us do it, it’s not the best way to get things done. “Multitasking is not good for our habits,” says Zorn. “Doing more than one thing at once doesn’t create new neural pathways, because it creates confusion.” According to one recent study in the journal Nature, multitasking, particularly when it involves digital technology, actually leads to attention lapses. So trying to respond to emails and address pinging texts while learning a complex new project management system is not going to help you focus on any of those things very well.
Instead of bouncing around from one thing to the next like a ping-pong ball, stick with one task as long as you can (aka monotask). That concentrated block of time you spend on one thing will be a far more productive use of that time than trying to chip away at 20 different projects.
2. Work with the timing of your day
Most of us have both an ant and a grasshopper in our brains: one is a taskmaster, and the other wants to slack off. Pay attention to when each of these voices is speaking the loudest. If your ant wakes up with a huge and urgent to-do list, don’t ignore that. “Tell yourself, ‘I’m going to give the ant my attention now,'” Zorn says. Basically, use your time productively when your brain is most focused on getting things accomplished.
But if it’s your grasshopper that wakes up telling you that none of your tasks seem urgent, roll with that for a little bit and ease into your day more slowly. When that industrious ant perks up later on, that can be your go-time to get ‘er done.
3. Hang a “do not disturb” sign
If you don’t have a sign you can hang on a doorknob, a good old-fashioned Post-it note will do. So will a do-not-disturb alert on your office chat platform. But visual clues can help you stay focused—not to mention alert family members and officemates that you don’t want to be interrupted with chatter (even if it is fun gossip) that distracts you from managing your time well. Using the do not disturb on your iPhone can also free you of those highly distracting and nearly constant notification pings and beeps.
Good professional habits
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No one may know if your house looks like a tornado blew through it, but bad habits in the office are more likely to be on public display. Missed deadlines and being ill-prepared for meetings won’t go unnoticed like dust bunnies underneath the bed. To help build or maintain the professional reputation you want to convey, try these expert tips.
1. Break down your tasks into small steps
If you’re feeling overwhelmed about work deadlines, build in realistic steps and break them down to the smallest denominator. “The more you can break down tasks into small steps, the easier they will be to implement, and the stickier that habit will become,” says Zorn.
She recommends starting by figuring out what you can productively accomplish on a project in 20-minute intervals. “If that small step doesn’t work, the bigger one won’t,” says Zorn. Check in with yourself after that time and learn from it. “See what works and what doesn’t, and then you can adjust.”
2. Work smarter, not harder
Chances are, you spend a lot of time doing redundant work at your job. If you eat up a lot of time emailing different people essentially the same thing, save the message as a template that you can tweak, rather than composing something similar over and over again.
And in a similar vein, see if you can consolidate meetings—or even politely decline invites when your presence really isn’t necessary. You’ll have more time in your day to actually be productive.
Good goal-setting habits
Aside from knowing how to set goals (realistic goals, incremental accomplishments), it’s important to know why you’re setting them in the first place. When training a new habit, the “why” should be for yourself, says Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. “One of the most important factors in setting goals is the source of your motivation,” she explains. “You are more likely to stick to your goals when they are internally motivated rather than externally motivated.”
So whether your goal is finding a new dream job, saving for a vacation or building a solid exercise regimen, here are some ways you can help make those things happen.
1. Tackle a goal for the right reasons
You’ll be more likely to accomplish your goals if they stem from a healthy, authentic mindset. According to Wallin, if your goal is to develop better eating habits, for example, you will have a greater chance of success if your motivation is to feel healthier and more energetic (internally motivated), rather than to look good for your upcoming high school reunion (externally motivated).
2. Create a realistic plan
Any goal-setting plan should be realistic—and non-negotiable, except in the case of an emergency or crisis. “If your goal is to get regular exercise, set a plan for what activity you’ll do and how much time or distance you will cover each day,” says Wallin. Then, when it’s time to exercise, don’t bargain with yourself (“I’ll do it later”) or grumble about it (“I don’t really want to”). Just do it.
And treating yourself for that behavior will help you train your brain to stick with it. “A reward helps your brain decide whether or not this behavior or behaviors is worth repeating,” says Carpenter. What does that look like? Maybe you stop for coffee after your walk or gym session.
3. Have an action plan for slip-ups
Even the best-laid plans can go off the rails. Prepare for some discomfort when you’re trying to alter your behavior. “Whenever you try to change a habit, it doesn’t feel natural starting out,” says Wallin. “Forgive yourself, but don’t make excuses. Figure out what has been standing in your way, and then revise your plan to one that you can live with.” If you don’t have any answers about why you feel blocked, talking to a family member, friend or therapist can help give you a fresh perspective.
Good sleep habits
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Here’s a good-habits category you definitely should prioritize: Being well rested can give any healthy-habit formation a much-needed assist. Being chronically exhausted impacts our ability to make good decisions, after all.
Desperately wish you could get those precious seven to eight hours of zzzz’s every night? According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, here are some great places to start building good habits for better sleep.
1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule
Get up at the same time every day, preferably all seven days a week. A consistent sleep schedule helps solidify your body’s circadian rhythm, which is the internal clock that regulates your natural sleep-wake cycle. Yes, yes, we know that sleeping in on the weekends is fun, but feeling well rested and refreshed every day feels even better. To help train your body to stay on track, try a soft alarm clock that will help you gently ease into your new sleep routine.
Aim for seven to eight hours a night of quality slumber. If that number always seems to elude you, consider seeing a sleep specialist to rule out possible medical issues like sleep apnea.
2. Turn off devices at least 30 minutes before turning in
It may sound hard, but it’s worth it. According to the Sleep Foundation, the blue light emitted by glowing screens disrupts the natural production of melatonin, a hormone that aids sleep. To build better sleeping habits, trade your phone, tablet or TV for a paperback book or a candlelit bath. And while electronic devices are usually the villain in the light-at-night story, you should limit bright light exposure from lamps too. Try to use soft lighting as much as possible during the lead-up to bedtime.
3. Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy
Turning in before you’re actually tired is counterproductive. If you lay on your mattress every night staring at the ceiling not sleeping, you aren’t building a good habit of connecting your bedroom with quality sleep.
If you regularly don’t drift off after 20 minutes or so, get out of bed and go somewhere else relaxing. Do a quiet activity that doesn’t require a lot of light exposure. If you never have much luck falling asleep at your ideal bedtime, you may want to consider adjusting it.
Good organizational habits
We’d all love to be happier at home. One of the best ways to do that is to not be surrounded by clutter and unfinished projects that haunt you. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, on days people perform household activities, women spend an average of 2.7 hours on them and men spend 2.2 hours. Here’s how to help build good habits that can reduce that time.
1. Put away items immediately
Putting things off is most people’s superpower. But when it comes to keeping a clean and organized home, just not doing it can quickly spiral into an unlivable mess.
It may not sound like fun times, but fold and put the laundry away when it comes out of the dryer. Unpack your suitcase as soon as you come home from vacation. Move the holiday decorations back to the garage, basement or attic when the festivities are over. It’ll feel better to do it than it will to stare at these things that are taunting you for months.
2. Create a place for everything
If all the belongings in your home have a spot where they live—like shoes always go in an organizer in the back of the closet, or toys go into a bin or basket when they’re not in use—tidying up your home gets a whole lot quicker.
If you regularly have piles of things that have nowhere to go, it may be time to make some hard choices about what you really want to keep. Looking for other ideas to tidy up? Here are the organizing tips you’ll wish you knew all along.
Good self-care habits
Taking care of yourself is perhaps the very best habit to build, because it can help give you the strength and the bandwidth to make all kinds of positive change happen. Fortunately, consistently making self-care a priority really isn’t any different than adopting or changing any other kind of habit. “There must be motivation and understanding of cues, work at changing and understanding the routines, and having a reward,” says Carpenter. Whether you want to learn how to meditate, start a gratitude journal or read more inspirational books, here’s how to make that happen.
1. Schedule mini breaks throughout your day
Setting aside a little time for yourself throughout the day gives your overstuffed mind a break. Use those moments to start the habit of taking care of yourself—not just to pack a school lunch or pay the bills. Take a break to put on a sheet mask, moisturize your scaly heels and elbows, or do a few calming yoga poses. These small moments of joy will soon become new good habits—and help cultivate a more positive attitude.
2. Learn how to say no
Saying yes to everything can be a tough habit to break for most of us. But learning how to draw a line in the sand is one of the best things you can do for yourself. When you’re not agreeing to help everyone else with their problems and issues, you carve out a big chunk of time for yourself. What a concept!
If you worry that you’ll disappoint people, don’t. Your time is just as valuable as everyone else’s, and learning how to set boundaries will free up your days to be healthy, happy and, yes, filled with better habits.
3. Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
As we’ve already established, sleep is the very best kind of self-care. Make a wind-down plan a routine part of your regular habit of non-negotiables. Before you know it, the hour or so before bedtime will soon become one of your favorite parts of the day.
Must-haves for creating good habits
- Bonnie Carpenter, EdD, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia
- Laurie Zorn, executive coach and consultant
- Nature: “Memory failure predicted by attention lapsing and media multitasking”
- Pauline Wallin, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine
- Sleep Foundation: “Technology in the Bedroom”
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: “American Time Use Survey—2021 Results”