How to Build Great Health Habits

Whether your goal this year is to head to the gym, eat more vegetables, or quit smoking, you’ll benefit from expert tips on how to accomplish these aspirations successfully. No matter what your goal is, it will start with building great health habits.

In the past, you may have heard that any habit can be learned if you have enough willpower and motivation. Yet, most people give up on forming new habits in the first few weeks of trying. Here’s the good news: it’s not you that’s the problem. Building new habits is challenging because we haven’t been taught the correct approach to success. 

Fortunately, recent research has shone new light on how people actually learn new health habits. Follow this collected advice to achieve your health aspirations: 

Give yourself at least two months

It was once widely reported that you only need 21 days to make a habit stick, and that teaching has remained widespread. In reality, this “fact” was based on a study of plastic surgery patients, who took approximately 21 days to get accustomed to their new look. That’s probably not the source you’d want to rely on for advice on habit-forming.

Instead, estimate conservatively and give yourself more time to adopt a new action. Recent data suggests people form habits after two months on average, with some taking over 250 days. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual and their environment. Expecting results far too quickly is one of the most common pitfalls in habit-forming. It leads to disappointment, then a lack of motivation to continue. Avoid this by lowering your expectations on time and being kind to yourself if you need to surpass initial estimates.

Create performance-based, not results-based goals

Particularly when it comes to health habits, it’s a better bet to set goals that are based on performance and not on results. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Performance-based: Work up to completing 150 sit-ups daily
  • Results-based: Develop a set of abs
  • Performance-based: Eat vegetarian dinners three times per week
  • Results-based: Lose weight

It’s much easier to control your performance than it is to control the results. By setting performance goals, you’re in the driver’s seat and your actions are directly tied to your goals. With results-based goals, there is an indirect relationship between your actions (your performance) and your goals, leading to a higher likelihood of disappointment. 

Break habits into small steps

healthy living

People often give up on new habits because they’re too broad, which makes them unreachable quickly. Break your habit into sub-steps, or milestones, and you’ll feel more accomplished throughout the process and less likely to lose motivation from disappointment. Each milestone should be measurable. Here’s an example of a performance-based habit with the first few milestones included:

Habit: I want to eat vegetarian dinners three times per week.

Milestones:

  1. I will research online for vegetarian recipes. By the end of week 1, I’ll have a list of my top ten recipes I want to try.
  2. In week 2, I will select one of my chosen recipes and go grocery shopping for the ingredients.
  3. Also in week 2, I will prepare my chosen recipe.
  4. Etcetera.

You can see that by breaking the habit into measurable, reasonable sub-goals, this individual is much more likely to meet the milestones and feel empowered by their success. Doing the work upfront to break down your habits will benefit you immensely in the long-term. You’ll feel much less overwhelmed in starting new routines.

Create a loop: prompt, habit, celebration

You’ve now broken your habit into milestones. What next? In Tiny Habits, BJ Fogg presents the key to forming any habit: following a loop of prompt, habit, celebration. To start a new habit, you need to have some sort of prompt to indicate that you should complete your habit. A prompt could be a phone alarm, or it could be something you already do as part of your routine, like brushing your teeth. 

Engaging in celebration immediately following completing a habit will provide a dopamine release to your brain, motivating you on a subconscious level to continue doing that habit in the future. A celebration should follow immediately after the habit in order for our brain to connect the dopamine release to the habit (note that this is why rewarding yourself with, for example, a pair of new shoes if you floss every day for two weeks doesn’t work that well! The reward is too far away from the time you actually completed the habit). 

In our vegetable example, one of the loops could be as follows:

Prompt: When I arrive at the market or grocery store…

Habit: …I will go to the vegetable aisle and select three types of vegetables for the week. 

Celebration: Think to yourself, “Great job!” or smile big. 

The celebration may seem weird at first but science shows small, positive gestures like this work at cementing habits in our mind. Another example? If you’re trying to add meditation to your routine, you could set the following loop:

Prompt: When I turn off my alarm in the morning…

Habit: …I will open my meditation app on my phone and complete a guided practice.

Celebration: Put your palms together in gratitude.

The same technique can be used for removing bad health habits. If your current habit is “After I put my dinner plate in the dishwasher…I then eat dessert,” you’ll need to change both the habit and add a celebration to successfully remove the bad habit. You might try replacing the dessert with a cup of sweet tea and celebrating your healthy choice with a pat on the back.

Find a friend

The great thing about creating a new health habit is that you can be sure many others are trying to do the same at the same time. Most everyone can benefit from a healthier lifestyle, so don’t be afraid to recruit others to your health goals. If you want to exercise more, ask your friends to try new workout classes with you or go for a run.

If you’re forming new habits with a buddy, you’re both able to hold each other accountable and much more likely to follow through on your commitments for fear of disappointing the other. 

Leverage technology for tracking

As you work through your milestones, you’ll want to be holding yourself accountable for reaching each step. The best way to do so is to have a concrete means of tracking your progress. A great method for doing so is by using technology, specifically websites or apps that are centered on health and can help you track key milestones.

Apps can also help provide a prompt and celebration as well. For example, they can send reminder notifications for you to go to the gym, and provide words of encouragement or in-app gifts when you complete your workout. There’s no reason not to leverage the benefits that technology offers when it’s so readily available, so take advantage.

Avoid the pitfalls

In addition to following the above advice, be aware of the common pitfalls that distract people from finishing their hobbies. They include putting too much emphasis on willpower, and not enough on establishing prompt, health habits, and celebration loops. Remember that learning a new habit is more about having the proper tools, environment, and ability to accomplish the habit than the motivation. Motivation is never consistent, so it shouldn’t be the sole thing you rely on.

You can apply these teachings to any habit you are trying to learn, even beyond health. And be open to change: you should continually experiment with your routines and milestones to find the right combination to lead to habit-forming success.

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