Keys to Successful Habit Change

Whether you are trying to create a new habit or replace an old one, you need two things: motivation and willpower. They are complementary and both necessary for change.

The first thing you should do before you begin is identify your why. You are much more likely to succeed when you have a strong goal in mind. The more compelling your goal, the more powerful your motivation will be.

When I started the violin, I wanted to be a professional violinist. I couldn’t imagine a life in which I wasn’t, or that anything would bring me as much fulfillment as being a musician (this is still true). That’s my why. It’s what kept me focused. Why do you want to lose weight? Is your health declining or do you just want to fit into those pants you bought that are a size too small? Either way, when you identify your why, your second question should be: is it enough to make you want to change?

Once you have identified what motivates you, you will need to exercise willpower. Willpower is a skill, and--like a muscle--it takes practice to make it stronger, and it gets weaker immediately after you exercise it. 

One strategy for developing willpower is to create a simple If-then plan. A plan will also give you habits to fall back on when you’re fatigued. To build a new habit, identify a trigger to signal that it’s time to begin your new action, as well as an immediate reward. For example: if I drive home from work on a Monday, then I will go to the gym (reward: endorphins). If it’s 7pm, then I will practice Spanish for 30 minutes (reward: a sense of accomplishment).

Changing a habit requires a similar process to beginning a new one. Identify the trigger for your old habit, as well as the reward you gained, and change only the action. For example: if I open the fridge, then I will  ̶e̶a̶t̶ ̶s̶o̶m̶e̶ ̶i̶c̶e̶ ̶c̶r̶e̶a̶m̶ eat some yogurt (reward: yum!). If I crave a cigarette, then I will h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶a̶ ̶c̶i̶g̶a̶r̶e̶t̶t̶e̶ have some coffee (reward: stimulation). The rewards and actions will be very personal, so give it some thought before you settle on your new plan.

Tips:

  • Choose one habit to create or change at a time.

  • Uncover a powerful reward for your new habit. What drives you? How closely related is it to your why?

  • For habit change, choose an action to substitute that gives you the same reward as the old one.

  • Observe your triggers for your old habit. What event, person, emotion, or environment creates a craving? How does it make you feel (tired, anxious, irritated, etc.)?

  • Mentally visualize running through your If-then plan. What sort of problems will you encounter and how will you overcome them?

  • Reaching a goal is the sum of a series of habits. Celebrate your victories!


Motivation is key in making your goals tangible, but alone it will not be enough to keep you on track. Without a plan, your progress will disintegrate as desire and willpower eventually diminish. As you strive to create new habits, you will find that both work together as a unit to create the perfect catalyst for change.