A habit is a practice you repeat so regularly that it can be hard to change. This could be biting your nails when you’re worried, picking up a bottle of wine whenever you pass the liquor store or cracking open a bag of chips while watching TV at the end of the day.

When your brain recognizes a pattern, such as a connection between action and satisfaction, it files that information away neatly in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. This is also where we develop emotions and memories, but it’s not where conscious decisions are made — that’s the prefrontal cortex. This may be what makes habits so hard to break. They come from a brain region that’s out of your conscious control, so you’re barely aware you’re doing them, if at all. Here are some science-backed techniques that can help make your habit-hacking more likely to succeed:

Say your goal out loud
Positive affirmations, saying your goals out loud to yourself, can actually make you more likely to do them, and it may help increase your sense of self-worth too.

Swap a new habit for an old one
Instead of going cold turkey, it’s far more effective to start replacing or adjusting small parts of the habituated action. If you always sit down with your glass of Scotch at 6 p.m., for instance, keep the time and the glassware, but swap out alcohol for mineral water.

Aim small
There’s nothing wrong with big, audacious goals, of course. But there need to be smaller, bite-sized achievements along the way. Accomplishing even a tiny goal can offer enough of a dopamine kick to reinforce behaviour and boost you to the next step.

Add on to an existing routine
Take a habit you already practice and add on one little positive thing to your routine, like doing calf raises while you brush your teeth. If you take a snack break at 11 a.m. every day, why not walk around the block at the same time.

Banish the all-or-nothing mentality
Remember, anything is better than nothing. Would working out in the gym for an hour every day, 5 days a week be ideal? Maybe. But making that your only definition of success only makes getting active that much more intimidating. Everybody can find 15 minutes in their day and once you’ve developed the habit of moving for 15 minutes a day, it’s far easier to go a little longer. 

Create a plan that plays to your strengths
If you’re a visual or spatial person, build new habits around the format that works best for you. If you want to take up meditating, for instance, and the audio apps aren’t working for you, seek out a program with visual guidance instead. If your goal is to read a book a week, but you’re having trouble sitting still and focusing on your novel, download the audiobook and “read” while you stroll your neighbourhood.

Change your language
Metacognition is thinking about the way we think, including how we use language. If the way you talk about exercise is, “I hate it, it’s hard, it hurts,” then you’re probably not going to crave that experience. Reframing it as something positive that makes you feel powerful and happy is going to help compel you to get moving. Even if you don’t believe it at first, “faking it till you make it” may wire neurons together to eventually create the genuine reaction you were forcing at first. Smiling even when you don’t mean it can actually make you happy, at least to a small degree, according to research.

Visualize success
Visualization is an incredible tool for reaching your goals. Studies show that whether you’re thinking about running or actually running, similar neurons are firing in your brain — and creating those feel-good pathways with visualization can help motivate you to get up and get going.

Set up the right cues in your environment
Environmental pressures can be more powerful than simply willing yourself to achieve a goal. In other words, change your environment to change your habits. So if you want create a new habit like, “Be more mindful,” instead of trying to achieve it with sheer willpower, create a tangible cue to link it to. For instance, you could leave a pen and gratitude journal on your bedside table. Then, every night before you go to bed, you’ll see it, pick it up, and write down what you’re grateful for. You may be more likely to maintain this habit when you’re prompted by seeing the journal compared with just having the goal in mind.

Give yourself a break
Whether you’re trying to build a new positive habit or shake an old habit you don’t like, patience is vital. Be kind to yourself as you try to break a pattern. Falling back into a habit doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Instead of thinking of yourself as a failure, reframe setbacks as, ‘I didn’t succeed that time, but I can still try again. Consistency will come with practice, and so will success.

Five part framework for creating positive habits
Use this five-part framework to set goals that you can actually stick to:

  • Discover. Make sure you understand why your goal matters to you. 
  • Diagnose. Identifying friction points or roadblocks and removing them is important. Create boundaries that will help keep you on track.
  • Prescribe. Figure out your ideal game plan and personalize it to your interests and skills. Want to move more but hate to run? Dance or swim instead.
  • Practice. As they say, done is better than perfect. Don’t get stuck in an “all-or-nothing” mindset for creating new habits. You’re not a failure if you aren’t exercising for an hour each day. Instead, take baby steps. Be flexible and forgiving with yourself. It’s not about being perfect — it’s about doing it.
  • Pause. Reflecting on your efforts and results builds new links in the brain.