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The turning of the year is always an excellent time to set new goals and to take a fresh look at old ones. While some goals can be easy to accomplish, others require a long-term perspective that involves creating new habits in your lifestyle. Staying motivated over a longer period of time is much more difficult than easy one-off goals, as anyone who has ever tried to start an exercise program, learn to speak Italian or write a novel knows. These personal goals require sustained motivation, and that is best achieved by creating a new habit.

The trick to reaching any goal is to understand how your brain works, and to install healthy new habits that take advantage of your primal urges. Form a new habit instead of just writing your goal down on your to-do list, and you’ll be amazed at the up-tick in your motivation as well as your ability to see tasks through to the end. Whether you have set a brand new goal, or have an old to-do that has been dogging you, creating a new self-reinforcing habit can help you over the initial hump of getting started.

Habits work on a three-part loop. First there is a cue, next the habit itself, and finally comes the reward. This process is easy to see when bad habits are involved, such as smoking cigarettes:

Cue: Finishing the workday

Habit: Lighting up a cigarette

Reward: Brain flooded with dopamine, the feel-good chemical

Everyone has different cues, and everyone needs different rewards. All you have to do is figure out what cues your brain recognizes, and which rewards it wants – then you can create habits that help instead of harm you.

Step One: CUE

Discover which cues or triggers you can train your mind to recognize. Cues can be a certain time of day, an action or a sensory experience (such as a fragrance, food or sound). For Pavlov’s dogs, the cue was the sound of the bell. Make a list of cues that might work for you. For example, if you want to start exercising daily, your cue could be a time (8AM), an action (after morning stretches or meditation) or a sensory experience (after smelling a lavender sachet). Try out different cues to see which type works best for you.

Step Two: NEW HABIT

Immediately after your cue, you’ll want to exercise (or work on your book or study Italian). Start small – the beginning is always the most difficult. Exercise for five minutes, and then gradually increase the amount of time to your desired goal. It may sound silly to exercise or do anything else for just five minutes, but this is the way you can trick your brain into doing it longer later.

Step Three: REWARD

This is the most crucial step: immediately after you finish your exercise, reward yourself with something you love to do. Sit on the couch and read a magazine for 15 minutes, take a time-out for a hot shower, or indulge in some web surfing on your favorite sites. Over time, your mind will make the association between the work and the immediate reward, and you will come to connect working on your goal with the pleasurable actions that come later.

Further Reading: http://www.amazon.com/Power-Habit-What-Life-Business/dp/1400069289

Image: broterham