A habit is a behavior that’s repeated until it becomes automatic or done without any sense of awareness or motivation. If you’ve ever struggled with sticking to your training schedule, cooking your own meals regularly, or reading at night instead of watching Netflix, it’s probably because you haven’t been able to develop the behavior through habit formation.
How to build healthy habits?
The key is to gradually shift small actions from intentional to automatic processes by frequent repetition.
You may know by now that even though the definition seems pretty straight-forward, healthy habits aren’t formed very easily. So how exactly do you make controlled behaviors become internally guided actions?
There are a few proven strategies that will help you build your own health and goal-driven habits. Follow these steps in the order below and you’ll be on your way to a new habitually healthy lifestyle.
The 5 Tips for Building Healthy Habits
1. Know What You Want
The first step to building healthy habits is figuring out what habits you actually want to keep. To do that, you need to define your goals.
According to research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, goal setting is a behavior change technique that serves as a fundamental component of successful interventions.(1) Researchers agree that you must engage in goal setting to maximize behavioral changes.
Spend some time exploring what you want and need in your life at this very moment. Knowing this will allow you to move on to the next step — formulating a specific plan.
2. Make A Plan
Once you’ve pinpointed your goals, you’ll need to formulate a specific plan made up of realistic actions. Think about what small, sustainable steps you can take to build healthy habits and repeat consistently to achieve your goals.
A study published in the British Journal of General Practice suggests that a “small changes approach” is an effective behavior-changing strategy.(2)
Here are some examples of specific actions you can add to your daily routine and eventually they will become habitual:
- Leave time in the morning for mindfulness – starting your day feeling rushed will throw off your mood and may shift your routine. Saving time in the morning for reflection, gratitude, prayer or meditation will set the tone for a successful day.
- Sit down for a healthy breakfast – not everyone has the same appetite in the morning, so you can base your breakfast choices on your body’s needs. Generally, a breakfast rich in protein and healthy fats will provide energy and nourishment.
- Drink a full glass of water before leaving the house.
- Get some exercise during your lunch break.
- Have a snack in the late-afternoon – this is the time of day that many people begin to “crash,” so being prepared with a healthy snack to boost energy levels will help to reduce cravings.
- Prepare your own dinner – cooking meals at home more often will help to reduce calorie intake and give you control of how to fuel your body.
- Designate a time for exercise and be prepared – exercising at the same time every day will help make the action automatic.
- Read before bed – this will help your body unwind in the evening and support restful sleep.
- Get at least seven hours of sleep every night. Stick to the same sleep schedule, at least on weekdays.
- Have a plan to cope with stress. When things don’t go as planned, you may be tempted to break habits. How can you breathe through those moments?
3. Be Consistent
Research shows that mere repetition of a simple action causes it to become habitual, because it’s activated after contextual cues.(3)
In other words, when you repeat the same healthy habits after certain events, over time your brain will be ready for the behavior automatically.
For example, if you workout at home before eating breakfast every day, the automaticity of this behavior will increase over time. This means that engaging in this pre-breakfast activity consistently will allow your brain to automatically prepare for the workout, rather than relying on a decision to do it.
A great way to get started is to choose some habits you want to add to your morning routine, such as meditation, drinking a glass of water after you wake up, and giving yourself a certain amount of phone-free time to start your day.
How long does it take to form these kinds of good habits? Studies indicate that it takes about two months for behaviors to become automatic. So, clearly, consistency is key! Once your actions are performed consistently for about two months, they will become second nature.
4. Fight Through Setbacks
Setbacks can be expected any time you are working to achieve a goal. There will be days that you don’t follow your plan perfectly, you missed a workout, gave in to cravings, didn’t get enough sleep, and so on.
Researchers in London indicate that “missing the occasional opportunity to perform a behavior did not seriously impair the habit formation process.”(4)
The automaticity of a habit returns soon after the action is resumed.
Of course, the longer you go without performing these healthy habits, the harder it will be to re-make these behaviors. So it’s okay to have days here and there that aren’t as planned, but get back on track as soon as possible to keep the habit going.
5. Allow for Down Time
All work and no play makes healthy habits hard to keep. We want to work hard to stay healthy, but there needs to be some down time too. Allot a block of time every week that’s meant for relaxation and reflection. Remember to practice positivity and gratitude, and give back to your body for all that it does for you during the week.
This may involve taking a restorative yoga class, reading a book on the couch, or simply resting. Use it as a time to restore your body and mind for another week of wellness.
In a Nutshell
Small changes can make a big difference in how you feel in your daily life. Try the 5 steps above to integrate some healthy habits. In the process, you may notice that you’re not just building good habits, you’re also eliminating bad ones. Stay consistent and before you know it, your days will be brighter and your goals will come into focus.