Common wisdom would indicate that it’s tough to break old habits and even more challenging to form new ones. After all, about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. But as it turns out, there is a secret recipe—one that’s grounded in science—that can teach us how are habits formed. Our resident Medical Director Dr. Naueen Safdar shares what you need to know.

The three-phase process 

Every habit follows the same three-phase loop. First, you encounter a trigger that lets your brain know it’s time to go into automatic processing mode. Next, you engage in that automatic behavior. And finally, your brain receives a reward that further reinforces the habit. So the key, then, is to create a new loop for the pattern you want to build. You can do this with an intentional three-step process. 

Change your environment 

Habits are the brain’s way of getting through the tasks of daily living. Daily life is filled with numerous habits, from brushing your teeth to parking your car. This can make it more difficult, though not impossible, to intentionally develop new habits. If you can get away for a few days, many of your daily routines will change, creating a more open environment for building new patterns. 

Repeat the behavior frequently 

You won’t get far in building a new habit if you don’t repeat the behavior frequently. Remember, for an action to become a habit; it has to get to the point that it becomes an automatic response. If you want something to stick, do it over and over again. The more you practice, the more automatic the behavior will become. 

Give yourself time 

Many people are impatient, believing habits should develop over a few days. But the reality is that it can take weeks, or even months, to create an actual habit. The key is to stick with it while believing you can do it. 

You can think about this like learning to drive. Remember when you had to think about turning the wheel or pushing the accelerator? But over time, you got to the point where when you got in the car, your brain and body knew what to do. Now you can chat with your kids or listen to the radio while driving safely. But it took time to get to that point. 

In the end, forming a habit is not an inherently complex process. It simply requires an understanding of how habits operate, coupled with patience and the willingness to do the hard work of repeating the behavior repeatedly. Believe in yourself and believe in the goal you are trying to reach. 

You will mess up and even backslide a bit. That’s all part of the process. When that happens, show yourself the same kindness and grace you would extend to a friend or loved one. Forgive yourself and try again the next day. If you’re really having trouble, try breaking the behavior down into small, incremental goals. And be sure to reward yourself every step of the way.