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Do you suffer from the knowing-doing gap? If you’re human, the answer is a resounding yes. We know we should take better care of our bodies, reduce mental and emotional stress, and nurture important relationships, for example. But we often struggle to do the things that we know we should. We fail to create habits that would close the gap.

Why is that? How can we more closely align what we say we want and what we do? First, we need to better understand how habits work.

Next, review the answers to 5 frequently asked questions about starting a new habit. (Be sure to download 3 Simple Ways to Make Progress When You’ve Tried Everything, too, for some tools to help you choose a good habit to start.)

How do habits work?

James Clear, the author of the bestselling Atomic Habits, describes the four stages of a habit. He writes, “This four-step pattern is the backbone of every habit, and your brain runs through these steps in the same order each time.”

  1. Cue is the part of the habit loop that causes you to take some sort of action because of an internal or external trigger. For example, you see a waitress deliver desserts to the table next to you.
  2. Craving is the motivation behind every habit. Without some kind of desire, there is no reason to act. You crave the taste of eating something delicious.
  3. Response is the thought or action you take in response to the cue. You order a piece of cheesecake even though you promised yourself before going out to eat that you wouldn’t order dessert.
  4. Reward is satisfying the craving. In this case, the sugar in the cheesecake causes a flood of dopamine in your brain’s reward circuit and rewards the craving.

Clear adds, “Rewards are the end goal of every habit. The cue is about noticing the reward. The craving is about wanting the reward. The response is about obtaining the reward.”

1. How do I start a new habit?

Let’s say you want to start a new habit of running 3-5 days a week. You can to use the four stages as a framework for building the habit. Applying Clear’s stages could look like this:

  1. Cue: make it obvious. You wake up and see your running shoes by your bed.
  2. Craving: make it attractive. This is your favorite pair of shoes because they make you feel like a superhero when you wear them.
  3. Response: make it easy. Your running clothes are right next to your shoes.
  4. Reward: make it satisfying. Going for a run in your shoes satisfies the craving of wanting to feel strong and accomplished.

2. How long does it take to make a new habit?

You’ve likely heard or read that it takes 21 days to start and set a new habit. In fact, the research demonstrates it takes 66 days, but this timeframe varies depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.

3. Should I tell someone I’m starting a new habit?

YES! The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) studied accountability and found that you have a 65% likelihood of completing a goal if you share your commitment with someone. And if you have an accountability partner, you increase your chance of success by up to 95%.

4. What if I don’t have enough willpower?

You’ll rely on willpower less (and set yourself up for success) if you choose the right sized habit to create. If it’s too big, you will be overwhelmed (and set yourself up for failure).

One way to determine if the habit is sized correctly is to ask yourself if you can make progress towards it every day.

Let’s say you want to start a meditation practice so you commit to 10-15 minutes each morning before your family wakes up. Unfortunately, you were up with a sick child last night and no longer have the energy or time to meditate for 10 minutes.

While tempting, don’t give yourself a free pass to skip meditating just because your plans changed. Spend one minute focusing on your breath and gently pushing your thoughts away. Practicing your habit even for one minute strengthens the neural pathways in your brain. Once they are strong enough, the need for willpower no longer exists because you automatically act in the way you desire.

5. How do I know if it’s a good time to start?

Assess if you’re ready to start the habit you desire. 3 Simple Ways to Make Progress When You’ve Tried Everything will walk you through the stages of change and a process for evaluating the pros and cons of the habit you want to start. Download your FREE guide below.


Next, determine whether you can commit to forming the new habit for at least 30 days. 30 days is a strong start, but remember it will take about 66 days to set the habit.

Now, consider potential threats or obstacles to starting the habit. Do you have the mental, physical, and emotional energy needed to make space in your daily responsibilities for the new habit? Can you line up the resources and support you anticipate needing?

Wrapping It Up

Now that you better understand how habits work and have reviewed the answers to 5 frequently asked questions about starting a new habit, you have everything you need to close the knowing-doing gap so that you do what you say you want. Add in the tools included in 3 Simple Ways to Make Progress When You’ve Tried Everything, and you’ve set yourself up for success. You’ve got this!

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I’m Karen Clark Salinas, and it’s my mission to help women live their full purpose (work + family) without sacrificing wellbeing. I want to be the coach I wish I’d had when I was a working mom. Someone to help me get unstuck and live my life more intentionally. Marriage, motherhood, chronic illness, divorce, remarriage, and caring for aging loved ones contribute significantly to my story. I know for sure that, with my support, you can pursue your professional dreams while raising a happy and healthy family.

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