How to Form Healthy Habits Reach Your Wellness Goals With These Practical Tips
- Category Mental Health
In our previous article about habits, we talked about what habits are, as well as why and how they are beneficial to our exercise goals in particular. But how do we go about intentionally forming habits that serve us well and changing the ones that don’t? This article will explore the more practical side of habit formation with some helpful tips at the end to help get us where we want to be.
How to form a habit
Knowing that habits can be used to our advantage, how do we form a habit? The first step is to identify a goal that you are interested in practicing or working toward for an extended period (Cigna, 2021). These can be simple goals or more complex goals that will require the formation of multiple habits either simultaneously or building upon one another. To establish an example, let’s say that you are an aspiring writer and want to finish your first novel.
The next step is to choose a simple action that will move you toward that goal so that you have a process or a daily goal that you can work toward that larger goal (Cigna, 2021). In the writing example, maybe you decide you want to write for 15 minutes every day. This is enough to get some work done, but not so much that you overwhelm yourself with the quantity.
The third step is to plan the environmental cues that you will learn to associate with this action (Cigna, 2021). Some people might plan to work on it at the same time, in the same location, or with the same things around them each time they work on that goal. For example, knowing you work best first thing in the morning, maybe you get out of bed and get to work on your novel from a cozy spot in your living room. These cues can also be more ambiguous, like when you are in a particular mood, for example.
The final step is arguably the most simple, but also one of the more difficult: to be consistent (Cigna, 2021). Pair this behavior with the environmental cue(s) every single time in order to establish a strong association, therefore strengthening the habit. Over time, you will not even need to think about it or need significant motivation in order to enact the habit — you’ll just do it.
When the habit has reached the point of being a strong habit, you can start to change things up. Maybe you lengthen how long you work to 30 minutes per day, or switch up the location every now and then to a coffee shop. By this point, the habit should be strong enough that you can keep going despite these changes.
Finally, many people wonder how long it takes to form a habit. They want to know how many times they have to do the same thing over and over in order for it to be considered habitual. Unfortunately, there is not a specific number of days or trials that has been identified, as it varies based on the person, the task itself, and any number of other factors.
Studies have shown a range anywhere from 40 to 90 days to establish a solid habit, but some people/tasks take more or less. Regardless of how long it takes, we typically see that there is initially a period where a person quickly increases the strength of the habit, but that speed of habit formation gradually decelerates until we reach a plateau. This means that it initially takes a lot of effort in order to maintain the behavior, but then over time will become automatic. That is the period where the strong habit has formed (Rebar et al., 2020).
While we are certainly interested in how to start a good habit, there are also things that we do habitually that we may want to reduce or stop altogether. Unfortunately, once a habit has formed, it is pretty difficult to change it. In fact, many psychologists believe that we don’t even break or get rid of old habits, but rather create new ones. We change our lives by adding in healthier or less risky habits rather than taking away old undesirable ones. Eventually, if we form a new habit that is incompatible with the old, undesirable one, it will replace that original habit (Cigna, 2021).
An important component of this habit replacement is changing the context or the environmental cues associated with the undesirable habit. The process of changing the context disrupts our ability to do the old habit and brings them into intentional control. In this intentional space, we can form new habits that are aligned with what we want (Neal et al., 2006). In other words, if you are trying to break a habit, it can be helpful to change how you interact with the people, places, and things associated with that habit.
A lot of times in a therapeutic setting, I am helping people who hope to change their behaviors to identify what their environmental cues are for certain habits. For example, one person I worked with identified that they would only smoke when stressed (which happened to be frequent) and would only do it in a particular location. So, we strengthened other coping mechanisms and reduced their access to that old location. Then, when they were stressed, they were unable to go to their typical location and instead went to a new space to do their alternate, more desirable behavior.
We have already presented you with a step-by-step “how to” for forming habits. However, apart from this, here are a few tips that can help you to intentionally form habits that serve you well.
- Early rewards: We know that rewards early on in the habit formation process strengthen the actual habitual behavior over time (Lee & Yoon, 2019). We also know that intrinsic rewards (positive feelings when accomplishing a task) are the strongest type of reward. Therefore, it can be helpful to use this early reward system intentionally and to your advantage. When forming a habit, try to sit down and reflect or journal about what benefits you are getting from the activity. This will help you to stay consistent in the habit over time. Pair this with extrinsic rewards by allowing yourself to indulge in things that you enjoy (going out with friends, shopping trip, etc.) when you have accomplished a certain number of tasks (for example, after 14 consecutive days of working out). Similarly, you can engage in what is called temptation bundling, or linking an action that you want to do with something you need to do. For example, pair something you like or want to do (watch television or listen to a podcast) with something you feel you need to start a habit for (exercise). This will help make the experience more rewarding early on and last longer.
- Habit stacking: For particularly complex behaviors or for longer self-care routines, it can be helpful to start small and build up to a more complex habit rather than jumping straight into something complicated. This can happen two ways. First, you can form one habit and then add another habit afterward. For example, build the habit of doing 10 minutes of meditation. Once that is a strong habit, you will add drinking 8 ounces of water to the end of the meditation habit. Then, you will add gratitude journaling to the end. Over time, you will stack these habits until they become associated with one another and part of a larger self-care routine. On the other hand, you can break a more complex habit into its component parts and stack them in order to acquire the more complex behavior. For example, let’s say you are trying to form a habit of being able to consistently perform a complex movement like a handstand. You will break this movement down into its component parts (building shoulder strength, practicing other inversions, box assisted handstand, wall handstand, etc.) and master each part and stack until you are able to do the more complex behavior. This can help you to form the habit even before you are physically capable of doing the complex behavior.
- Ambiguous cues: Research suggests that we should use environmental cues that are more ambiguous in order to promote generalization of the behavior (Rebar et al., 2020). If we only work out first thing in the morning, what happens when something pops up all week that prevents us from working out first thing? If we are more flexible with our environmental cues, then we can maintain behaviors even when that cue is disrupted. For example, rather than using a particular time of day as your environmental cue, use a particular mood, abstract situation, or routine as your cue instead.
However, as a warning, be careful and intentional about what those environmental cues are, as sometimes these ambiguous cues are what promotes and maintains problematic behaviors like compulsive exercise or disordered eating. For example, if the cue for my workout is when I am “feeling fat” and that is stemming from body dissatisfaction or cognitive distortions, we are likely to exercise compulsively because we feel that way all the time.
- Self-regulation: If you are someone who struggles with self-regulation (flexibly managing and regulating your behaviors and emotions), then habit formation is for you. Of course, I would still recommend working on your self-regulation skills, but generally, habits allow you to fall back on behaviors that align with your goals and values when you struggle to make that happen through other means.
Because habits make up so much of our daily behaviors, it is important to reflect upon the way they impact our experiences. What habits do you wish to form or replace? What has been helpful in this process for you? We would love it if you would share your own tips with us in the comments below!
Cigna. (2021). The psychology of habitual behaviors.
Kaushal, N., Rhodes, R. E., Meldrum, J. T., & Spence, J. C (2017). The role of habit in different phases of exercise. The British Journal of Health Psychology, 22, 429-448.
Lee, Y. & Yoon, Y. (2019). Exploring the formation of exercise habits with the latent growth model. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 126(5), 843-861.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Quinn, J. M. (2006). Habits - A repeat performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(4), 198-202.
Rebar, A., Gardner, B., & Verplanken, B. (2020). Habit in exercise behavior. In G. Tenenbaum & R. C. Eklund (Eds.), Handbook of Sport Psychology (pp. 986-998). John Wiley & Sons Inc.