How to Build Healthy Habits that Stick and Break Bad Ones.
Did you know that around 40% of our daily actions are actually habits? Despite habits being such a big part of our lives, many of us don’t actually spend much effort to optimize them. But we should.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says,
“The quality of our lives depends on the quality of our habits.”
Can you think of a healthy habit you want to start? Or perhaps a bad habit you want to break? Have you tried changing your habits before but it’s just too hard? No worries, this article will teach you what you need to know to feel empowered to optimize your habits.
Part 1: How to Build a New Habit
First, let’s talk about adding a new habit to your life. If you can’t think of any new habits you want to add to your life, consider this list of common new years resolutions that people have:
- Start exercising
- Start eating more vegetables and fruits
- Start meditating
- Start reading
- Start saving money
- Start spending more time with loved ones
Note that this list is goals, not habits. To turn any of these goals into habits, we need to add a frequency and time duration to each. For example, we can say “exercise for 10 minutes every day.”
Alright, hopefully you have a habit in mind that you want to build. That thought is a seed. We need to give that seed the proper nurture and care for it to grow and thrive.
If you want a habit to stick, there are 8 important things to take care of:
- Make it convenient so it’s not a hassle
- At the beginning, make it quick so you can’t say no
- After a while, make it just a little bit challenging so it’s not boring
- Have a memorable cue and use pairing
- Savor the good feeling
- Get a streak going
- Get accountability
- Optimize your environment
1.1 Make it convenient so it’s not a hassle
In our modern society, most people live busy lives, and it’s hard to find time to start a new habit. Habit experts all agree that convenience is one of the most important things to starting a new habit.
Let’s use exercise as an example. Even though people sign up for a gym membership, the obstacle of having to change into gym clothes, going to the gym, then showering afterwards…it’s just too inconvenient! If we want to start the habit of exercising, we’re much better off doing some exercises at home, doing some simple exercises that don’t require changing into gym clothes. I heard an example of someone putting a yoga mat right next to her bed so that when she wakes up in the morning, she literally rolls out of bed onto her yoga mat and starts doing some yoga. It’s hard to get more convenient than that!
Another example is eating more fruits and vegetables. Some people feel like washing, cutting, and cooking fruits and vegetables is a big hassle. If that’s the case, buying pre-cut fruits and vegetables that can be eaten right away is a great solution. Furthermore, keep these fruit and vegetable platters on the kitchen counter in clear sight rather than at the back of the fridge. That way, it’s convenient for you to eat some whenever you want, and you don’t need to go through the hassle of reaching into the back of your fridge to get them.
If you want to start saving money, you could get your bank to set up automatic transfers from your checking account to your savings account, or set up monthly deposits into a certain investment.
1.2 At the beginning, make it quick and easy so you can’t say no
One of the big reasons we don’t stick to a habit is because we start off too big. We might have high motivation at the beginning, but over the long-term, our motivation will vary due to certain days being more tiring than others. That’ why new habits need to start small. Habit researcher BJ Fogg literally named his book Tiny Habits, saying,
“The essence of Tiny Habits is to take a behavior you want, make it tiny, find where it fits naturally in your life, and nurture its growth.”
For example, when I wanted to start exercising, I felt like going to the gym for 3 hours a week was too time consuming. Later, I found this 5-minute kitchen workout from Dr. Rangan Chaterjee, and then I told myself to exercise for just 5 minutes a day. No matter how busy I was, I can’t really say I’m so busy that I don’t have 5 minutes. That helped me get the habit started.
If you want to start reading (or some other habit), you could start by just reading for 5–10 minutes a day, or whatever you feel is so small that you can’t say no to.
1.3 After a while, make it a little bit challenging so it’s not boring
In order for us to enjoy something and to feel like we’re improving, we need to set the difficulty level to be just a little bit challenging. If it’s too easy, we’ll get bored. If it’s too hard, we’ll get discouraged.
For example, I started exercising by doing at least 10 push-ups every day. Over the period of a month, I added more and more push-ups, until I felt like I was doing too many push-ups and it was getting boring. Then I decided to try one-handed push-ups. It was an exciting and fun challenge that took me another month to get good at. But if I had started with one-handed push ups, I probably would have quit after day 2.
For eating more fruits and vegetables, don’t feel like you need to go from eating 10% fruits and vegetables to 50% fruits and vegetables immediately. Big changes are often not sustainable because they just feel like too much of a shock. Make small, gradual, and natural increases. The exception to his rule would be if something drastic happened in your life that calls for a drastic change, such as finding out you got some major disease. But for most of us, small incremental changes are best.
1.4 Have a memorable cue and use pairing
In order to remember to do your new habit, you need to have a cue. The more memorable the cue, the more likely you’ll remember to do your habit.
For example, I put a dumbbell on my bathroom floor to remind myself to do some curls and push-ups before leaving the bathroom. I also put some fruit right on the kitchen counter so that whenever I pass by, I see the fruit and remember that I need to eat one today. To start my journaling habit, I put a journal and pen right on my bedside table.
Pairing means tagging the new habit you want onto an already existing habit that you already have. You could do that new habit before, during, or right after the existing habit. For example, I exercising by telling myself I need to do 5 minutes of exercise before I eat lunch. I also started meditating by telling myself to do 20 minutes of meditation right after waking up. I heard an example of someone counting gratitudes while waiting for the kettle to boil in the morning to prepare her morning tea/coffee.
Dr. Chaterjee and his wife agreed that in the morning, from when they’re making tea to until they finished drinking their tea, they would chat with each other and not be distracted by anything else. It only takes about 5 minutes or so, but he said it’s had a huge positive impact on their relationship.
1.5 Savor the good feeling
It’s very important that habits help us feel good afterwards, and that we savor that good feeling. The memory of that good feeling is what will make the habit stronger and long lasting. When we start a new habit, we should consciously look for positive changes.
For example, I noticed that after a week of doing push ups, I was able to go from 20 to 30. I savored the good feeling of making progress. After a week of doing one-handed push ups, I was able to go from 0 to 3. Again, I savored that good feeling. After eating more variety of fruits and vegetables for a while, I noticed my skin got better. By putting in effort to notice these changes and then savoring the good feeling, that got me excited and naturally wanted to keep going.
1.6 Get a streak going
The feeling of making progress is very satisfying, and it also builds our self-confidence as someone who is able to persevere. You can make a habit chart, or journal about your habit completion.
For example, I spent a few minutes a night journaling about my day every night, and I simply added “exercised” into my journal. When I noticed a big improvement in my ability, I’d also journal it down to savor the feeling.
You may have heard the common saying that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But research from University College London shows it actually takes on average 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.
While two months may seem like a long time, there’s some good news too. Firstly, it just re-emphasizes the need to make a new habit really convenient and quick. Second, if you haven’t found yourself doing the new habit automatically after 21 days yet, you don’t have to worry. It’s supposed to take longer. Third, the researchers found that making a mistake once or twice doesn’t impact the long-term habit formation as long as we get back on track quickly. In other words, it’s okay if you miss a day, just reflect on why you missed that day and then get back on track the next day.
1.7 Get accountability
Accountability means having someone we report our progress to or someone who does the habit with us. For example, you might get a personal trainer who’s waiting for you at the gym. Or you might join a book club that discusses a chapter every week. Since humans naturally are social creatures who care about the opinions of other humans, accountability can help us stick to a habit. Personally, I have a meditation buddy with whom I chat with once a week about how our meditation sessions went over the past week.
Accountability doesn’t even have to be human. A habit streak tracker is a form of accountability too. I remember doing a 21-day no complaint challenge, and from the beginning I knew I wanted to write a blog article on it to share with my friends, so that was a form of accountability too.
1.8 Optimize your environment
Humans are heavily influenced by our environment. In this context, environment includes our physical and mental environment, as well as the people we surround ourselves with.
Let’s take the example of eating healthier. For the physical environment, we should eliminate junk food from the house and replace them with healthy snacks. That way, treating ourselves to junk snacks isn’t even an option anymore. For our mental environment, we should eliminate reading about delicious junk food or unfollow people on social media who post delicious junk food. Instead, we can follow people who post delicious healthy food. For the people we surround ourselves with, we should avoid people (to the degree that we can) who eat unhealthily and spend more time with people who eat healthily. In fact, research shows that if your close friend becomes obese, the likelihood of you becoming obese increases by 57%! Surrounding ourselves with helpful people and environment cannot be overlooked.
Part 2: How to Break a Bad Habit
Now that we’ve talked about building a new habit, the next topic that we probably all need help with is breaking existing bad habits. If you can’t think of a bad habit you want to break, you can consider these common new year’s resolutions:
- Eat less junk food
- Drink less alcohol
- Watch less TV
- Quit smoking
- Play less video games
Where as good habits are like flowers that we want in our garden, bad habits are like weeds that we don’t want. Furthermore, just like how weeds tend to stubborn and persistent in their growth, bad habits tend to be deeply ingrained because we’ve been doing them for so long. Therefore, it’s important to treat ourselves with patience and kindness when facing a bad habit.
When it comes to overcoming bad habits, there are three key ideas to remember:
- It’s not about restricting ourselves to not do something, it’s not living true to who we truly want to be.
- Almost all bad habits are triggered by stress, so we need to find healthy ways to manage stress
- It’s not about blocking bad habits, but rather replacing them with a better habit that provides a similar reward.
2.1 It’s not about restricting ourselves to not do something, it’s not living true to who we truly want to be.
Let’s say you have a bad habit of smoking too much. Instead of telling yourself, “I need to quit smoking” or “I’m not allowed to smoke,” it’s better to frame it was “I chose to smoke less because I am I a caring father who doesn’t want to impose second hand smoke onto my family, and I want to set a good example for my children.”
If you eat a lot of junk food, you don’t need to think of it as “I need to stop eating junk food,” or “I can’t eat junk food anymore.” That just feels like you’re restricting yourself, which will make you feel unhappy, and then when you’re unhappy you’ll eat more junk food. Instead, frame it as, “I chose to live a healthy lifestyle so that I can set a good example for my family and grow old to see my grandchildren and not be a sick burden to my family.”
If you waste a lot of time on video games or TV, you don’t need to think of it as “I can’t play anymore.” Instead, think of it as, “I chose to spend my time in responsible and productive ways so that I can accomplish something meaningful in my life, and also to let my family not worry about me wasting my life away.”
When it comes to breaking bad habits, always think about the type of person you want to be, then choose to act the way that kind of person would act. This way, it’s not about restricting yourself, it’s about freeing yourself from being someone you don’t want to be.
2.2 Almost all bad habits are triggered by stress, so we need to find healthy ways to manage stress.
Whether it’s smoking, alcohol, video games, junk food, or TV, all bad habits give us a temporary burst of pleasure and make us feel bad in the long-term. On the other hand, good habits tend to feel like hard work in the short-term, but the good feeling persists long-term afterwards. Why would someone chose temporary pleasure with long-term suffering over short-term hard work with long-term gains? Stress.
When I was watching a documentary series called “Doctor in the House”, I noticed that the people used their bad habits as a way of coping with their uncomfortable emotional state. One of the woman said, “I have an emotional relationship with food”, meaning that she eats to help calm her stress. Another man said, “I’m not addicted to opioids, I’m addicted to being pain free.”
Personally, I remember in the past, whenever I got really stressed, I just wanted to go play some video games for a while. It was a way for me to distract myself temporarily and forget about my worries. The problem is, afterwards, I still have to deal with my problems, and the procrastination often made them worse.
Therefore, if we have bad habits, it’s highly possible that there’s some major stress in our lives that we’re suppressing, and we need to improve our stress management abilities and respond in healthy ways. This brings us to the next point.
2.3 It’s not about blocking a habit, it’s about replacing the behavior with a better behavior that provides a similar reward.
In Atomic Habits, James Clear explains that habits are actually a four-step loop: cue, craving, response, reward.
To give example, let’s use my video game habit. The cue is I got a big project that I don’t know how I’m going to do, which makes me stressed, so I crave emotional relief. My response is I play video games. The reward I get is that emotional relief.
In order to change this habit, I need to replace the response with a healthier action that provides a similar reward. I chose learning inspiring content as the new response, so whenever I get stressed, instead of turning to my game, I chose to either watch some inspirational YouTube videos or listen to useful podcasts. This action not only distracted me but also made me feel more energetic and motivated in life. I often found myself even taking notes because the information was so good that I wanted to write blog articles on them. The reward is similar to emotional relief from the games, but it is healthier and even more powerful.
To use the example of eating junk food, the cue might be stress, which causes a craving for that delicious junk food taste and texture. To change this habit, we need to replace the junk food with a healthier version of that food with similar taste and texture. If you can find healthy brands, great. If not, then go for home-made. For example, instead of eating packaged potato chips, we could make home baked potato chips that we know have much less oil and salt. Instead of eating a chocolate bar, we could eat homemade bars made from dates and cacao powder. That way the reward is similar, we don’t feel deprived, and it’s much healthier.
Now that we’ve covered starting new habits and replacing old ones, let’s talk about some other useful tips for habit change.
Part 3: Other Tips for Habit Change
In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin explains 21 different tips for habit change. Many of them have been covered by this article already, but here are some of her other tips that I found to be highly useful:
- Clean Slate
- Lightning Bolts
- Abstainer vs. Moderator
- The Four Tendencies
3.1 Clean Slate
When we get a fresh start in life, it’s often easier to let go of past habits and start new ones. Examples include a new year, a new school year, a new season, a birthday, a new job, a new relationship, or a new home. Take advantage of these new beginnings to start healthy habits and replace unhealthy ones.
3.2 Lightning Bolts
Lightning bolts refer to when we encounter some new idea or information that suddenly makes it easy to change a habit. It’s rare, but if it does happen, we should use it to our advantage.
For example, some people become vegan overnight after watching a certain documentary that really moved them (again, rare, but possible). In one of the Doctor in The House episodes, the family was able to suddenly switch their entire diet from junk food into healthier food because they found out the mother got Type 2 Diabetes, which she had been fearing for a long time. Personally, when I was sick with a skin illness, and then I found out dairy and eggs is likely related to it, it was easy for me to give them up even though I really enjoyed dairy and eggs prior.
The more clear we are on what exactly we are to do, the more likely we’ll follow through. For example, I heard B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, say that he created a habit where after he pees, he would do at least 2 push-ups. If he felt like doing more, he could, but he would do at least 2. That was extremely clear and specific.
Safeguards are about anticipating what might make you go off track and then creating an IF-THEN rule to prevent yourself from going off-track.
For example, let’s say you want to avoid junk food and eat healthier. You need to anticipate what might make you eat junk food. What if while hanging out with your friends, you pass by a café with lots of sweet snacks and drinks? You can create an IF-THEN rule “IF I end up at a café, THEN I will order a green tea instead of a sugary drink, and I will order their fruit platter instead of their sugary baked goods.” Then if the situation actually arises, you won’t be caught off guard.
Another example, “IF I am so busy that I forgot to do my 5 minutes of exercise today, THEN I will do 10 push-ups when I go write in my journal before bed.” Fortunately, this never happened to me, which shows that I did a good job setting up the habit.
3.5 Abstainer versus Moderator
When facing strong temptations, it’s easier for Abstainers to just abstain all together; it’s very hard for them to indulge in moderation. On the other hand, Moderators do better if they can indulge just a little bit; it’s very hard for them to abstain completely.
For example, when it comes to eating less junk snacks, an Abstainer would do better to just not eat any chocolate at all. Ever. If they eat a little piece of chocolate, they end up eating the entire chocolate bar. On the other hand, Moderators do better if they can eat a little piece of chocolate once in a while; they won’t feel the need to eat the whole bar. It’s useful to know which one you are.
3.6 The Four Tendencies
In her book, The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin explains that there are four personalities according to how people respond to outer expectations (from other people) and inner expectations (from yourself).
- Upholders — readily meet outer and inner expectations
- Questioners — readily meet inner expectations only
- Obligers — readily meet outer expectations only
- Rebels — resists outer and inner expectations
Each personality forms habits differently.
- Upholders form habits quite easily.
- Questioners must be very clear on why they want to do the habit, otherwise it won’t stick.
- Obligers must have outer accountability, such as someone they’re reporting to, someone to do the habit with, or someone they’re setting a role model for. If it’s only themselves that want to do something, they most likely won’t succeed.
- Rebels hate the idea of self-restriction, so the habit needs to align with their authentic self-expression. For example, rather than exercising because they “should” exercise, they would do it because it aligns with their identity of who they want to be.
The Four Tendencies is one of the most useful things I’ve ever learned, and I summarize it in depth in this article.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
— Will Durant
In modern society, we are all busy people with limited time and energy, working hard to improve our lives. When it comes to where we can spend our energy, optimizing our habits is one of those few things that could really make a drastic difference in our life. Most of us probably tried changing our habits in the past, but it didn’t stick because we didn’t do it well. Hopefully, from this article, you now realize why your past efforts didn’t work and what you can do differently this time to improve your habits!
Originally published at https://www.weeklywisdomblog.com on September 5, 2021