The Common Mistake People Make When Starting a New Habit

If you're having trouble sticking with your New Year's resolution, you may want to rethink your strategy.

woman writing in planner

Stocksy/Luis Velasco

  • New Year's resolutions are well underway for 2023.
  • For many people, resolutions can fail—especially if they're too rigid or restrictive.
  • To help your chances of sticking to a new habit, try to be creative and flexible with your goals.

It’s a new year, which means you may already have a running list of resolutions, refreshes, and new habits you’ve started—or plan to start—in 2023. 

But consider the last time you tried to begin a new habit: Did you start out strong, doing everything perfectly the first week or two, but then life got in the way? You’re certainly not alone, and it may boil down to one overlooked mistake.

A Common Roadblock for New Habits

Habit-building is a long-term process and it’s nearly impossible to adopt a new practice perfectly right away—mistakes happen. But many people apply a perfectionist mindset to their new habits.

This rigid, self-critical approach can lead to habit burnout (when you do something intensely for a period of time, then give up), or abandoning a habit when you don’t get your desired outcome right away.

These high expectations and feelings of failure may be rooted in one common misconception: You can achieve anything new if you stick with it for 21 days straight. Whether it’s drinking more water or getting a certain number of steps in daily, modern marketing has tricked us into believing that we can “hack” our way into a new life quickly and efficiently.

But that's an unrealistic idea that's not backed by science. In fact, research suggests that it might take about two months to develop a new habit. This also varies based on the complexity of the habit, your own unconscious biases, and even other environmental factors, like the strength of your support system.

Nevertheless, habit-building doesn’t happen overnight—it requires consistency and resilience. Allowing room to make mistakes could make the habit much more sustainable, and even strengthen our creative perspective.

Get Creative With Your Habits Instead

First, it’s important to understand what a habit is, and how long-term habits are formed in our brains.

Technically speaking, a habit is an action triggered automatically by a contextual cue—like washing your hands after using the bathroom. The repetition of that action, after the context clue, forms a habit, and it can become so ingrained, it's unconscious.

In order to shift those unconscious, automatic “habits” we must develop new neural pathways in our brain.

Fortunately, modern neuroscience has found that our brains are flexible for pretty much our entire lives, as long as we continue exercising them. This is the basis for neuroplasticity—and creative thinking helps us strengthen that ability to create new connections.

"Creativity as related to positive emotions improves neural plasticity and opens the mind to a wider range of cognitive possibilities,” Lorne Schussel, PhD, professor at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute of Columbia University, told Health. “The creative mind can transcend negative emotional states and break us free from long standing maladaptive habits, patterns, and pathology.”

That’s where a potentially better solution for habit-forming comes in: honing your creative brain.

“Creativity and habit change are intricately intertwined," Jack McGourty, PhD, an adjunct business professor at Columbia University, told Health. "Creative thinking allows us to develop new and innovative ways to incorporate our habits into our lives, even when faced with challenges or distractions.”

How to Use Creativity to Form New Habits

No matter what habit you choose to take on, it’s likely going to be challenging at first—you’re literally building new pathways in your brain—but leveraging your creativity may be a great asset. Here are some strategies to help along the way.

Make time for creative flow

Practicing creativity for creativity's sake can help expand perspective on what’s possible. Taking even a few minutes daily for everyday creative behaviors—cooking, doodling, gardening, etc.—makes our brains more flexible in all parts of our lives, and has the capacity to shift our emotions into a more positive place.

This practice opens you up to new ways of doing things, and increases your perception of reality. Andrew Huberman, PhD, a Stanford neuroscientist, calls this “panoramic vision.” His research shows that widening our perspective, literally and figuratively, lowers stress; whereas having a narrow, perfectionist view of reality increases our fear response.

From there, your creative brain can truly be an asset for any habit you pursue.

“The creative process starts early in the habit formation process," said McGourty. "The essential function of creating a habit is simple. However, the decisions associated with the behavior you want to manifest are more challenging. It is within this challenge that being creative helps.” 

Be specific with your target habit

Consider the one habit you want to build. Do you want to start cooking more often? Exercise consistently? Make time for reading? Once you’ve defined this, “you want to be creative and ‘uncomfortably’ specific at this step," said McGourty. “Make this behavior as doable as possible.”

To do this, try to break your goal down into the smallest, most attainable steps possible. This is important because once our brain registers that we achieve a goal, no matter how big or small, we release dopamine and other neurotransmitters that provide us with powerful motivation. With each micro success, our brain creates new pathways.

Opting for shorter, more frequent habits — rather than lofty ones — may also be more sustainable. (Think: running 10 minutes weekly is likely more approachable than racing a full marathon once a year.) These less-daunting practices can be easier to tackle, maintain, and build upon.

Stay flexible

In order to sustain habits for the long term, it’s important to leave room to make mistakes, and realize that “challenges'' are expected. 

In fact, to truly get into a "creative flow," we must find the perfect mix of challenge and skill—feeling challenge is a sign that your creative brain is activated.

However, to help mitigate an overwhelming number of challenges, and set yourself up for success, “you want to apply your creative thinking to what internal or external cues tend to trigger existing behavior, or may be used to prompt a new set of actions,” said McGourtey. 

For instance, setting up a specific environment, like a corner of your home, dedicated to your creative practice can prompt you to stick with your new habit. Whereas, if you want to start reading before you go to bed, you could try keeping your phone in the other room, to minimize the urge for mindless scrolling. 

And if you start feeling bored or tired of a new habit, use it as a cue that your creative brain is craving something new, and consider tweaking your habit accordingly. “These changes may include a new schedule or a variation on the activity itself,” said McGourty. Boredom is the birthplace of creativity, after all. 

Ultimately, don’t let a new calendar year rush your process. Each and every step of your journey matters, and none of it needs to be perfect in order to keep going. Allow yourself to make mistakes, get flexible, flex your creativity, and practice patience. By taking a slower, sustainable approach to habit-building, you’re actually strengthening your creative brain.

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