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4 steps for developing a new (healthy) habit

March 11, 2020

Trying to get into a regular schedule of anything new can be daunting. It’s especially difficult when the new habit is something that you have trouble motivating yourself to do. It may seem as if the healthy habits you wish you had, like regular exercise or daily meditation, will always be just out of your reach.

But think for a moment about some behaviors you engage in every day, that are already second nature to you: coffee or tea in the morning, perhaps, or an episode of TV in the evening. The routine you follow without thinking. Maybe there are some healthy habits you’ve already developed, like carrying a water bottle, or taking the stairs instead of catching an elevator. You don’t have to make a conscious choice or work up the motivation to do these things anymore; they’re just a normal part of your day. It may seem impossible, but you can intentionally get to this point with any behavior with just a little effort and strategy.

The following are a few steps you can follow to start creating healthier habits for yourself.

Take it part of your routine.

How often do you forget to brush your teeth before bed? Eat lunch? It doesn’t take much effort for us to do these things because they’re a part of our daily routine. This NPR article explains why habit and routine are such a powerful force in our lives. So the first step toward forming a new habit is to fit it into your existing routine.

When something naturally comes next in your routine, it’s nearly impossible to forget. So schedule in your walk, run, trip to the gym, or meditation session right before or after something else that you always do. You could go for a walk right after lunch, stop at the gym on the way home from work, or meditate just before going to bed each night (which has the added benefit of helping you get to sleep).

Create a behavioral cue.

This might sound intimidatingly clinical, but you’re probably familiar with the general principle. If you do two things at the same time, you start to associate those things together. For example, if you always have an oatmeal cookie when you drink tea, and then you have a cup of tea when you’re out at an event, you’re likely to have a craving for the cookie. Or if you listened to a particular song a lot in high school, hearing it again will probably bring back high school memories.

You may remember the concept of these behavioral associations from a psych 101 class lecture about Pavlov’s experiments in classical conditioning with dogs (if not, The Office also did a relatively good job of explaining it in this clip). As humans, we create these same sorts of associations all the time in our lives, effectively conditioning ourselves. You can use this psychological principle to your advantage by associating your new habit with either something you always do, or just something you really like to do. You could make a playlist of some of your favorite music, and always listen to it when you work out.

After a while, when you get a craving to listen to that playlist, it will become your cue to go on a run. Or if you like to run an essential oil diffuser so that your home smells like flowers, start meditating every time you set up the diffuser, so the action and the aroma will cue you to meditate. This can work for simpler things as well. If you forget to take your multivitamin in the morning, start taking it with your favorite fruit juice, so eventually when you get the urge to pour a glass of juice, you’ll also remember your vitamin.

Let go of rigidity.

You’ve almost certainly heard the phrase, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” This is an incredibly important concept for starting a new habit. A couple mistakes or lapses do not “ruin” the health benefits you’ve achieved so far, nor do they stop you from continuing. The rigid mentality that many people in western culture have around health is what leads us to think that adopting healthier practices is “too hard,” because we think if we can’t engage in these practices perfectly and without fail, there’s no point, so we quit.

If you forget to exercise or meditate one day and think, “I failed,” you’re likely to give up at that point. This isn’t about success or failure; it’s about feeling better in your body and mind. So instead of thinking in those terms, focus on the previous few days when you did remember, and give it another go tomorrow. Progress is not linear (for more reflection on that idea in a more specific mental health context, check out this article from PsychCentral). Maybe you’ll miss a couple of days, or even a week, but as long as you keep trying, you’re not “starting over,” you’re just continuing.

Set achievable goals.

Another common attitude toward health that often leads to quitting is that of setting extremely high goals which are either unrealistic or unsustainable. If you decide you need to run or meditate for 60 minutes every day, you may give up when you realize how difficult it is, or you might burn out by the end of a week due to the time and energy it takes to maintain that schedule.

Instead, start out by setting a soft goal. Five minutes of meditation per day is enough to have benefits on your mood and stress level (as evidenced by this piece from ThoughtCatalog), it’s not an intimidating length of time, and it’s probably relatively easy to fit in your schedule. The same is true of twenty minutes of exercise. Then, the more you achieve your goal each day, the more you will be motivated to keep going. It won’t be too long before you start surpassing and increasing your goals little by little.

Hopefully, you now feel as though developing a new healthy habit is well within your reach. Of course, it won’t always be easy. There may be days when you are too busy, too tired, or too preoccupied. When that happens, just take the next day as a renewed commitment, and remember how far you’ve come already. It can take anywhere from 18 days to 254 for the habit to become second nature, according to a study reported on in this article from the Guardian. Regardless where on that broad spectrum you will fall, the important point to remember is that eventually, if you keep it up, it will become second nature.


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