Establishing new habits is notoriously difficult. New science might make it just a little easier.

A study published in the journal Health Psychology has some dead simple advice for anyone hoping to finally make that new, healthy habit stick. Instead of trying to do whatever it is before bed, make your new habit the first thing you do when you get up in the morning.

The findings suggest that if you make this small change, the new habit will become automatic 50 days sooner than if you do the habit at night.

105 days versus 154 days.

To figure this out, scientists recruited a small group of 48 university students for a 90-day experiment. Each day the students were instructed to do a simple 15-second stretch. Half were told to do it first thing in the morning, while the other half were told to do it at night. The researchers then used an app to check up on whether the students remembered to stretch and how much thought had gone into carrying out the new habit. They also took a saliva sample from participants each morning to analyze the level of the hormone cortisol.

As you'd expect, the new routine became easier to remember over time for both groups. But remembering to stretch was easier more quickly for those who did it first thing. In fact, the researchers projected that it would take the morning stretchers 105 days for the stretching to become entirely automatic. For the night stretchers it would take 154 days.

Why habits are easier to form in the morning.

Why is it so much easier to make a new habit stick in the morning? This is a small study that can't definitively answer that question, but the research does offer some clues. Cortisol levels, it found, are highest in the morning, and this might offer a leg up to those looking to change their lives for the better. In fact, those participants with the highest levels of cortisol had the easier time making the new habit stick.

While you have a higher probability of success in the morning, the researchers don't suggest that doing something first thing is a magic bullet for establishing a new habit. While most of us have higher cortisol levels in the morning, different people's hormones rise and fall at different times, and medications like hormonal birth control pills and medical conditions like obesity can influence when an individual's levels are highest.  

It's also still a good idea to follow best practices for establishing a new habit -- like giving yourself a trigger and starting with small, winnable goals -- rather than relying on hormones or scheduling to magically get you to your goal.

"If you decide to start your day with a glass of water, use a cue -- a note on the kitchen table you'll see when you wake up, for example -- to remind you at the beginning," lead author Marion Fournier, a lecturer at the Université Nice Sophia Antipolis in France recommended to Time. "After a while, the cue won't be necessary."

Published on: Nov 8, 2017