Why is it often so difficult to start new healthy habits? Perhaps you ‘know’ that you need to begin to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink enough water, exercise, sleep more and manage your stress better, but many times all of those changes feel overwhelming and impossible to tackle. What you feel is REAL; it can be overwhelming. There is good news, however. There is a science behind creating a new habit and you can easily apply it to your favorite new healthy habit you want to adopt in order to create a solid and successful new habit.
Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.” (Jim Rohn)
What is a habit?
Habits can be defined as ‘actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance”. Think of habits that you already have. There is something that happens in the environment around you that triggers you to do some kind of action/behavior. Example: You get in the car (contextual cue) and you put on your seatbelt (action).
Most successful habits are made up of three components:
- The Cue/Trigger: Something in your external or internal world triggers you to take some kind of action
- The Action: Good habits have good actions; bad habits have ‘bad’ actions. You take an action.
- A Reward: Once you complete a good Action in response to a Cue; there is a Reward built into the Habit Loop. This reward could be external at first (like a Gold Star on your chart as a toddler, or a paid bonus of some kind as an adult) and will gradually become intrinsic; wired deep into the reward center of your brain. You feel good about accomplishing something.
The 21 Day Myth: There is a widespread myth that a new habit takes 21 days to become ingrained in us. That myth is something that grew out of an observational muse of a plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, in the 1950’s. Real science tells us that it takes an average of about 66 days (think 10 weeks) for an action to become habitual.
What Makes New Healthy Habits Stick?
In order to adopt new healthy habits, it’s important to understand the structure outlined above and put it to work for you. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, an expert on behavioral psychology says that people fail at new habits because they fail to understand how they are structured.
- Start with a Keystone Habit: An important factor in creating a new habit is to start off with a “Keystone Habit”. A Keystone Habit, according to Charles Duhigg is a type of supercharged habit that provides you with a lot more benefits than other types of habits. These Keystone Habits do 3 things:
- They fully comprise all 3 components of a successful Habit- the Cue, the Action and the Reward. In doing so they make you feel as though you accomplished something good (reward).
- This inner feeling of accomplishment begins to extend to other positive actions.
- This Keystone Habit becomes ingrained and sets off a chain of Action events (other good Habit seeds) as you feel more confident and give you the momentum to keep achieving more.
Research shows that Keystone Habits set off a chain reaction that helps to spur other patterns to develop within us. Think of a Keystone Habit as a solid platform to launch other good new habits.
Top Keystone Habit: Exercise! When you begin an exercise habit it actually has been shown to make you eat healthier foods. You start to feel good about your body and think more carefully about how you fuel and nourish it. Curiously, when you start to exercise, you also stop using credit cards as often; the good feelings about yourself spill over into creating new healthy habits about your finance. And the cycle spreads, like a pebble thrown into water, you begin a chain reaction for other new healthy habits to start and solidify.
- Noted Keystone Habits:
- Eating Family Dinners
- Writing Down What You Eat
- Making Your Bed Everyday
- Writing Down a Plan for the Day (To-do lists and Goals)
- Have a Routine for Your Day
- Start any Keystone Habit using the Habit structure format. Think about your daily routine and different external cues that the action will be tied to. For instance; if you want to start exercising, think about when the best time of the day that you can fit it in would be.
- Don’t set yourself up for failure – make sure it is attainable.The American Heart Association says we need 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. Divide that up. It could mean 30 minutes per day for 5 days. Break that down. Which days work best? What time of day works best with your work schedule and family obligations? Remember you can break it up- do 10 minutes 3 times per day and you hit your goal. If you were to decide on 10 minutes 3 times per day, tie it to an existing 3 times per day routine, like your meal times perhaps? Start small – perhaps start at breakfast with just 10 minutes for the first week, with the larger goal being 10 minutes 3 times a day after you master the breakfast routine. Write it into your Daily Plan (another Keystone Habit). Take the new action (exercise) every time you are about to eat a meal.
Small Changes Work:
Healthy Lifestyle Habits include exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep and stress management and trying to change and incorporate all these lifestyle changes can seem daunting at first.
A key strategy is to make the changes so small that you CAN’T FAIL.
That would mean taking that first 10-minute exercise stint before breakfast and turning it into a 3 minute routine on the Rolling Strong App. Just 3 minutes…One tiny change repeated consistently begets more change. It’s that simple.
- If you want to eat healthier and increase your fruits and vegetable intake: Break it down into doable components tied to an existing routine. That would look like planning to eat an apple with lunch and a handful of greens at dinner. Keep it small, make it easy and tie it to an existing routine so you get cued to remember to do it.
- If you want to increase your water intake: Think about your daily routine. Add a cup of water to drink at easily identifiable breaks in your day. Perhaps it would look like drinking a cup of water when you wake up; drinking a 16 oz bottle on the way into work in your car; another 16 oz bottle before lunch, and then again after work and again at dinner and you will be well on your way. Break it down further and just start with the morning routine of drinking a cup when you wake up.
As you master each routine you gain confidence and as you gain confidence you easily master more new healthy habits.
Use these guidelines to help you develop a new healthy habit: (Developed by Health Behaviour Research Centre, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, London) .
- Decide on the goal that you want to work on for your health.
- Think small and choose one small simple action that will help to get you to your goal daily
- Plan “the WHERE” and “the WHEN” you will do your new chosen action. Be consistent and specific- the day, the time, the place.
- Every time you are in that day/time/place – DO THE ACTION.
- Repeat, and repeat and repeat and in about 10 weeks you will find yourself doing it automatically (like your seat belt) without having to think about it.
- You now have a new habit- Congratulations!
Here is an example format:
Set Goal: My goal is to …….(ex: “I will eat more fruits and vegetables”)
Keep it a small step:
Make the Plan: (Day/Time/Place) (ex: “at lunch I will eat a piece of fruit”)
(When/Where: ______________ I will ______________)
Keep track! Write it down as you do it. Log it in your Rolling Strong App and review your food log. Make a mental note to yourself and rate how easy it was all week. Is it feeling more automatic? Did you do it without thinking about it? Write down how it makes you feel to have accomplished it.
By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach
Read our article 5 Healthy Lifestyle Habits That Can Add A Decade To Your Life to learn more.
Gardner, Benjamin, et al. “Making Health Habitual: the Psychology of ‘Habit-Formation’ and General Practice.” British Journal of General Practice, vol. 62, no. 605, 2012, pp. 664–666., doi:10.3399/bjgp12x659466.
Quora. “The Science Behind Adopting New Habits (And Making Them Stick).” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 13 Feb. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2018/02/13/the-science-behind-adopting-new-habits-and-making-them-stick/#30a0a56e43c7.
Benna, Steven. “8 Keystone Habits That Can Transform Your Life.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 6 Aug. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/keystone-habits-that-transform-your-life-2015-8#having-family-dinners-1.
Barker, Eric. “This Is How To Make Good Habits Stick: 6 Secrets From Research.” Observer, Observer, 17 June 2016, observer.com/2016/06/this-is-how-to-make-good-habits-stick-6-secrets-from-research/.
Adams, R.L. “5 Keystone Habits to Help Supercharge Your Success.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 4 Sept. 2016, www.huffpost.com/entry/6-keystone-habits-to-help_b_8063212.