5 Strategies and Ways to Build Better Habits in the New Year


Knowing yourself is key to sticking to your habits.
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  • Bryan M. Kuderna is a certified financial planner, podcast host, and author of two finance books.
  • Kuderna says the best way to commit to new habits is to do them at the same time each day.
  • He also suggests setting targets, working backward, and using resources like apps to your advantage.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Bryan M. Kuderna, a 36-year-old personal-finance planner and author from New Jersey. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I’m a certified financial planner, podcast host, and author of two finance books. I’m also married with three kids and run marathons and compete in Ironman Triathlons in my spare time.

As a financial advisor, I tell my clients to commit to small changes, or habits, that eventually lead to big changes or achieving goals.

I ask them for a definitive goal in annual reviews, such as paying off student loans, starting a college-savings plan, or doubling retirement contributions. Then we pick one small daily or weekly habit to get us there.

I always say Rome wasn’t built in a day, so pick the one goal you’re dying to achieve or get underway this year. Then pick one new habit that will drive you there.

Here are five ways to make building those better habits more manageable.

1. Commit to forming habits by completing them at a certain time each day

I’ve always found that the earlier you do important things — before you have other excuses or distractions — the better. Even if you can’t do something early, do it at the same time every day.

To form a habit, you must commit to consistently doing it for at least two or three weeks. That way, you not only form the habit but also have a fair chance to assess whether you’re enjoying or benefiting from it.

I did this in my life by waking up 45 minutes earlier, at 5 a.m., to give myself time to read a book without distractions before my family wakes up. After the first three weeks, I knew it was a habit I wanted to continue.

I’ve been doing it for the past 18 months. It’s relaxing and has given me a lot of insights, as I’m reading a lot more now.

Establishing this dedicated “me time” offline has also been good for my productivity. Instead of waking up and immediately looking at my emails, I start my day on my own terms with the help of my new habit.

2. Set a target and work backward to reach it

One habit I encourage my clients to set is a 20% gross savings rate. That can sound intimidating, so I’ve found the best way to do this is to work backward. I got there by looking at expenses and later focusing on income.

I get my clients to set aside 20% of what they make in an account separate from the one they use for their main transactions. If a client can’t reach that 20% figure, they either have to make more money, or we have to work on outflows.

The best way I’ve found to do this is by looking at food expenses because they have the most meaningful monthly impact, but people tend to ignore them. If you cut out a streaming service, you may save $15 a month, but cutting down eating out three nights a week to one can mean saving $100 or more a week.

3. Use resources to stop procrastination

Since we spend so much time on our phones, we should be putting apps to work for us.

I suggest all my clients use an app called the Living Balance Sheet. It aggregates financial plans with their finances up to the minute.

I also use apps myself to improve productivity. As an author of two books and a weekly newsletter, I’ve found that using a voice-to-text app such as Dragon is a great way to get my ideas down when they come to me quickly.

This means that throughout the week, I’m constantly dictating ideas for my newsletter as I think of them. When it comes to sitting down to write it, I’ve already got the bullet points down that I can put into an email.

I no longer have writer’s block, and I can get the newsletter out at the same time each Monday.

4. Ensure your habits are enjoyable and fit into your life

Knowing yourself is the key to sticking to your habits. When building my exercise regimen around my kids and work, I realized that I needed to diversify how I worked out.

I work out with my wife or other exercise partners because I like the social aspect and accountability. I also do jujitsu, which allows me to be competitive. I find that the balance stops exercise from being boring.

When people ask me for my secret, I say don’t use my routine — find what works for you, or you’ll never sustain it. Decide what fits your personality, then try and commit to it at the right time of day for you. There’s no point in forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy because you’ll never keep it up.

5. Stop negotiating with yourself

Negotiating applies to any habit that you’re trying to build. You need to have something you like and look forward to in the habit, or you’ll talk your way out of it.

If you start waking up and snoozing your alarm before that workout, the habit isn’t going to stick in the long term.

Motivation is great, I was told once, but it’s temporary, while discipline always needs to be present. Everyone can use motivation from time to time — I’ll watch a Mike Tyson boxing video or listen to pump-up music at the gym — but it can’t be relied on. It’s just a nudge.

I think of discipline as part of who I am. I don’t get to weasel my way out of a workout or start spending and stop saving because of my temporary mood.

You shouldn’t make an enemy of your goals — there should be a way to make the things you care about work for you.



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