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Five tips to make new habits stick

The New Year is an ideal time to pause, reflect and prepare for the year ahead. We’ve looked at the latest science around what it takes to build long-lasting healthier habits. Follow our tips and strategies to help you rewire your brain and make new habits that stick.

A red brick wall with the words 'build good habits' written on it in white  paint.

In this article

What are habits?

Most of our daily behaviours are made up of thousands of habits, many of which we do without thinking. For example, you may have a particular way of preparing your cup of tea or a ritual before you lock your front door – these are a series of tiny actions performed together to create the habit.

When considering our health goals, adding new things to our existing habits can be a more impactful way of making lasting lifestyle changes.

Why we can’t rely on willpower alone

motivation is what gets you started, habit is what keeps you going

We often think that building a healthier habit is about willpower or motivation to change. But what happens on those days when you’re stressed, tired, or distracted? You’re more likely to skip your gym workout or reach for something convenient or easy to eat.

Willpower and self-control are important pieces of the puzzle. However, they are not everything when it comes to building healthier habits. Most important is creating habits we do almost automatically without thinking about them. It means we use minimal brain activity and don’t have to waste energy trying to motivate ourselves to do something (which can get tiring and exhausting).


Making habits that stick

To make a habit stick in the long term, you need to rewire your brain to perform an action consistently.

Understand the science

Research on habit formation has shown that behaviour is likely to become habitual when it is frequently and consistently performed in the same context.1 For example, if you eat vegetables as a snack every day, at some point, eating vegetables in this way will become a habit.

The process of building or performing a habit can be divided into four simple steps:2

  1. Cue: the trigger in your brain to initiate a behaviour. It could be related to the time of day, a location or an activity you do.
  2. Craving: the desire to change your internal state. This is what motivates you to act.
  3. Response: the habit you perform, which could be a thought or action.
  4. Reward: what you will get out of it. The more satisfying or pleasurable, the better.

Over time, this loop becomes automatic, and a habit is born. The brain stops fully participating in decision-making. If we want to form new habits, we should make them obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.2

We are more likely to form new habits when we clear away the obstacles in our way and place obvious cues in our environment.2,3 Organising our home, kitchen cupboard, or work desk can significantly impact our environment. It could be as simple as having a fruit bowl visible on the bench, placing an appointment in your calendar for a lunchtime walk or having your gym bag packed and ready at the door.

With lifestyle changes, it may take a little longer to reap the reward; however, something that is instant is the way we feel. A 10-minute burst of movement, whether a walk or some yoga, can instantly impact our mood and stress levels.4

The 5 strategies

Here are 5 strategies to help get you off to the best start.

1. Let go of the ‘all-or-nothing’ mentality

Every little habit counts, and doing something is better than nothing.

Whether that’s extra sleep, a serving of vegetables or a 5-minute walk. In fact, our latest Physical activity and sedentary behaviour position statement demonstrates that any type and amount of movement counts because it helps to break up the time you may spend sitting.4

Once you’ve developed a habit of moving your body for five minutes each day, it’s also easier to go a little longer.

2. A change can be tiny

Small steps every day

We mean it when we talk about focusing on small changes that are easy to implement. Some of the tiniest changes can deliver big results. In fact, recent research from the University of New South Wales has shown even the smallest changes to diet, such as increasing our intake of whole grains by as little as 10g per day, can result in improved heart health outcomes.5

Habits may take some time to create, but they form faster when we do them more often, so start with something reasonable that is easy to do. You are more likely to stick with a food, sleep or exercise habit that you can easily perform every day, such as having a glass of water to start the day, going to bed 15 minutes earlier or parking further away from work.

If you consistently keep up these tiny habits and they become permanent, they can significantly impact your heart health. Once these become habits, you can explore more ways to build on your existing habits.

3. Habit stacking

Your routine is the foundation on which new habits can be built. Pairing a new habit with an existing one can help to make new habits stick and is referred to as ‘habit stacking’. This could be as simple as adding a new habit you’d like to create to your routine before bed or before you leave the house.

4. Focus on consistency, not intensity

The trick to creating habits that stick is to set the bar low. Anything you perform that is above and beyond is a bonus. Ideally, you want to create a habit that you can keep up even on your stressed and busy days. When you perform your habits on more challenging days, this helps to create consistency.

5. Track your habits

Habit tracker

Tracking your habits helps you to feel satisfied that you are working towards your health goals. This could be as simple as marking the days you complete a habit in your diary or on a wall calendar.

There are also plenty of Apps and digital ways to track your habits. These can be used to self-monitor and measure your progress and help you to celebrate any small wins.


Where to start

When creating a new habit, remember to think about making it obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.2  We all have different health goals and parts of our lifestyle that we can work on, so the key is to think about a small habit you want to form that is right for you.

Here are some tiny habits you could try for 2023:

  • Having a piece of fruit or a vegetable as a snack.
  • Putting your phone away at mealtimes.
  • Drinking a glass of water after every alcoholic drink.
  • Walking rather than driving your kids to school on a particular day.
  • Serving up half a plate of vegetables at dinner.
  • Adding a handful of nuts or seeds to your breakfast.
  • Planning a meat-free dinner every week.
  • Going to bed 15 minutes earlier.
  • 5 minutes of stretching before bed.
  • Starting the day with 10 minutes of mindfulness.


It’s a good idea to focus on what to do instead of what to remove and remember that just one new habit can protect your heart and benefit your long-term health.

A senior man and women are walking along a New Zealand beach. They have their backs to the camera as they walk away from us.
Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.


  1. Van der Weiden A et al. How to Form Good Habits? A Longitudinal Field Study on the Role of Self-Control in Habit Formation. Front Psychol. 2020 Mar 27;11:560.
  2. James Clear. How to start new habits that actually stick.
  3. Lucas Carden. Habit formation and change. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. Volume 20, 2018, 117-122.
  4. Heart Foundation (2021). Physical activity, sedentary behaviour and heart health.
  5. Bhandari et al. Long-term consumption of ten food groups and cardiovascular mortality: A systematic review and dose response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Advances in Nutrition. 2022.