We often say things like: “I should exercise more” or “I wish I could eat better.” What do you actually need to form good habits to lead a healthier, happier and more productive life? Can you really change your life by forming good habits?
Why habits are important
Habits can be at the core of your success ― and your failures.
Humans are creatures of habit. Our brains love automating a sequence of steps to create routine ― it saves space for all the other important decision-making processes. We can have healthy habits, such as getting up at five to go for a run before work, or less-than-ideal habits like reaching for a drink to unwind or eating a packet of chips while watching TV.
Indulging once in a while is not going to have too much effect. But our brains are wired to want to repeat habits, particularly if there is a reward at the end of it such as a dopamine or endorphin surge. Repeated over and over, these routines have either a positive effect or adversely affect our health or wellbeing.
So it’s obviously important we form habits which better our lives, rather than ones with negative repercussions.
The science of habits
The process of habit forming ― good or bad ― can be broken down into different stages and repeated until it’s automated, forming a ‘habit loop’.
An example of the habit loop runs like this: you get out of bed (cue) and want to feel more awake (craving) so you drink a coffee (response) and you feel more alert (reward). Repeating this becomes habit ― you wake up and have a coffee.
Or it’s Wednesday evening (cue) and you want to de-stress (craving), so you go to a weekly yoga class (response) and you feel great after your class (reward). Initially it takes a little discipline and a few other cues to motivate you (such as setting an alarm on your phone), but soon Wednesday evening becomes yoga night.
How to build good habits
There are a few things you can do to really make a good habit stick and increase your chances of success.
- Get rid of excess options.
The fewer decisions you have to make, the easier it is. For example, choose five healthy dinner recipes. That way, you’ll be less tempted to grab takeaway and have to choose from only a few dinner options, rather than thousands.
- Use ‘if-then’ planning to remind yourself of your goals.
Think “if I haven’t finished my assessment before lunch, then I’ll make it my top priority when I return.” Or “if it’s 4pm, then I’ll take the kids for a walk by the river.” It’s essentially, if ‘X’ happens, then I’ll do ‘Y’. One study found over 90 percent of ‘if-then’ planners were still achieving their goal after several months.
- Identify and eliminate possible obstacles (or triggers if avoiding bad habits).
New habits are fragile things and for that reason, until they become ingrained, you’ll need to do as much as you can to help it along. Sleep in your workout clothes when you’ll be exercising first thing the next morning. Or stop smoking on vacation while many of the usual cues are gone.
- Don’t let a slip up derail you.
The road to forming good habits is not always smooth. If you eat that chocolate biscuit or miss a session at the gym, chalk it up to experience. Try to work out what caused the slip up, and start fresh tomorrow.
- Seek support.
Find others who can help you stick to your new habits, either by working with you, or holding you accountable. Exercise with a friend or join a running group.
- Replace a habit with another good
Substitute your afternoon binge with healthy snacks like a handful or nuts or rice crackers.
In the words of Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” So if you want to change your life, start by changing your habits.