Forming Healthy Habits

Motivation is what gets you started: Habit is what keeps you going. by Jim RyanHave you noticed how difficult it is to form good habits while bad habits seem to come naturally? If we wanted to establish the habit of eating dessert every day, it would be easy! But establishing the habit of eating a salad every day requires a lot more energy and diligence.

A researcher at MIT has found that both positive and negative feedback aid in the development of habitual behavior. The more quickly that feedback follows the behavior, the more influence it has on developing the habit. Because the sensory rewards and the sugar high come almost immediately after consuming a sweet dessert it is easy to form an automatic habit of picking up a brownie. On the other hand – while a salad may taste good, it doesn’t have quite the immediate reward that a brownie has. Instead, the rewards of good health come much later, too late really for your brain to fully relate the two events.

In the same way, your long-term habit of working out every morning can be quickly derailed by spending  a few days sleeping in.  The immediate reward of those few relaxing days can quickly overshadow the health benefits you experience from exercising and it becomes harder and harder to drag yourself out of bed.

In my opinion it is probably this reward factor that primarily determines how long it may take to form a new habit. Research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology  reported that it took an average of 66 day for a desired habit to become automatic. The time varied from 18 days to 254 days depending on the person and the habit, but, in general, it takes considerably longer than the 21 – 30 days that popular wisdom has been claiming. The bottom line is that it often takes considerable energy sustained over several weeks or months to even begin to form a habit.

Therefore, the first requirement for forming a new habit is finding the proper motivation that will drive you to putting in the time and energy necessary to develop that habit. I talked some about this in an earlier post, What’s Your Motivation?  That motivation must be stronger than the desire for immediate gratification. Once the motivation has been found you need a system that will help you to remember to perform the desired action until it becomes a habit.  Personal experience in attempting to establish beneficial habits (successfully or unsuccessfully) seems to point to at least two important ingredients in this system. They are anchoring and  “place holders”.

Anchoring  – tie your new desired habit to a well-established routine in your schedule instead of making a general commitment to accomplish it sometime before the day is out.

I have found that the habits easiest to establish are those which can be anchored to another fixed, daily event. That event may be getting up in the morning, a particular meal (during or following),  arriving home after work, or even to an alarm set to go off every day. These kinds of habits are best performed every day. For example, when my alarm goes off in the morning (or after I have hit snooze once or twice) I change into my workout clothes, climb on the treadmill, and read my Bible while walking. That is now part of my routine every morning (see the discussion in “place-holders” for the variations on this theme.) If I only committed to walking three days a week it would be harder to even remember the commitment because some days I’m not expected to walk. I have also made a commitment to a more intense workout twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) when I get home from school, but I find that much harder to remember because all days are not treated the same. I almost forgot this past Thursday, but my husband was only too glad to remind me.  Just now I realized I could set my cell phone to go off at 4 pm on Mondays and Thursdays (which I have now done) so I will never forget again.

Place-holders –  no matter what, perform some small part of your commitment every day, even if you do not have the time or the resources to carry out the whole commitment.

Ideally I spend at least 20 minutes on the treadmill in the morning. However, there are days when I have hit “snooze” a few too many times or I have tasks to finish that I procrastinated on the night before – like making a healthy salad for my husband and me to pack in our lunches. I know I will not have time to do 20 minutes of walking. In the past, I would have just blown off the whole thing and, after doing that a couple of days in a row, would have lost any momentum on developing or maintaining the habit. Now, I have committed to doing at least part. Sometimes that means I’m on the treadmill for only 5 or 10 minutes. Sometimes it means all I do is put on my workout clothes before going to the kitchen to prepare our lunches, but I always maintain at least that part of the routine.  Because of this, I have kept to my treadmill commitment for months without faltering. I call this technique “place-holders” because they are small actions that keep that place marked in your schedule – reserved for your commitment.

So remember – anchor your desired habit to a specific time of day and then make sure you perform at least a fraction of that commitment every day.  Are you trying to run three miles every day? Do not condemn yourself if you only have time to run to the end of your driveway and back. Just do it; tomorrow is another day. Have you committed to reading 4 chapters of the Bible every day. Do not condemn yourself if you only have time to read a few verses. Just do it and maintain the momentum!

Here’s to new healthy habits springing up all over the world! What new habit are you committing to and what is your plan to accomplish it?

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  1. Hi RoseAnn,
    What you mention here is quite the truth. I have been an early riser and a fitness enthusiast for 2 decades now and I can relate to most of what you have said here.

    Indeed, it is easier to stick to a habit if we stay in touch with it rather than taking breaks from it. And it has been effortless for me to exercise because for all these years, that is the first thing I do in my morning. Once it is off my list, I dont have to worry about it for the rest of the day.

    Nice post, interesting read.


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