Cultivating good habits is hard. You need to decide what habits are “good” in the first place, make a plan for acting on them, and manage the guilt you have when you (inevitably) fall short of your aspirations. The trick in all this is to balance gentleness with discipline and think of each day as a chance to practice good habits, not “win” or “lose” a battle with bad ones.

1.Know Yourself (And Ask For Help!)

Make a list of habits or conditions that get in your way. Talk to a trusted friend or adult to help you look at this accurately. Do you sometimes feel too tired to focus? If so, what time of day is best or worst?  Do you get so anxious about an assignment that you simply need to start right away? What emotional state are you in when you’re most productive? Are the text alerts on your phone breaking your concentration? Is your bedroom too distracting? Do you keep finding yourself in the kitchen, looking for a snack? Write it all down. You’re collecting valuable data that will help your habit building process.

2.Breaks Are Vital

Remember that taking a break from what you’re “supposed” to be doing is itself a good habit because our brains just can’t focus for long stretches of time. The trick to beating procrastination is to pledge to begin your work at a certain time and for a certain number of minutes (say, 20) and promise yourself to follow through. Before you even begin, visualize yourself succeeding, books open and pen-in-hand. After those first twenty minutes, take a five-minute break, then work for another 20 minutes (you may want to invest in a physical timer so you don’t have to look at your phone). Keeping your work and relax-time separate ensures that you don’t exhaust yourself, or turn your whole study session into one looooong study break.

3. Don’t Shame, Contain

Instead of feeling bad about your time-wasting or unhealthy habits, get curious! Ask yourself what reward your brain is getting from the unwanted behavior, and how you can use it to motivate yourself?

Let’s say you tend to go on Instagram when you’re stressed and avoiding a difficult task, but often get sucked into stories and DMs for an hour or more, causing you to get to bed later than you’d like. (We’ve all been there). Instead of beating yourself up, ask yourself why Instagram feels good in that moment. Does the lack of text relax you? Do the beautiful pictures make you happy? Is it a chance to forget about your own challenges for a little while?

Now try using Instagram as a reward during one of your breaks. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes, and as you do so, imagine the timer going off and picture yourself stopping everything and going back to work. Now scroll through your feed to your heart’s content! When time is up, follow through on your visualization: close everything out and get back to work without any guilt–your brain needed a break, and you gave it one!

4.Replace, Don’t Erase

Let’s say you’ve been practicing using Instagram as a reward and have gotten pretty good at it. But, you feel like you want to do something different or more productive with your break. Go back to your list of what your brain likes about Instagram and make a list of activities that could give you the same benefits. Maybe you like to draw or paint or want to try one of those coloring books for adults. You could meditate if you want to calm down or do a mini-workout to boost your energy. Maybe color-coding your planner would let your brain relax and be creative while still working towards your goals.

5.Get Gritty And Stay Gritty!

While you’re working, know that there will be times when your mind wanders to things you’d rather be doing. You may feel hungry or restless or bored. When this happens, use the “So/Even So” method to move past it. Say, “So, I’m hungry and want a snack. Even so, I can keep working until the three minutes left on my timer are up.” This way you acknowledge your impulses without letting them take control of your behavior. Remember that your job is to negotiate between what you want to do in the short-term and what will benefit you in the long-run. Lasting discipline takes time and kindness. What’s more, you’ll find that the success you have in moderating internal conflicts or managing impulses feed your ability to do so in the future.

Do you or your teen have trouble managing time? Have helpful tricks and tools to share? We want to hear from you!