How to change your habits

It’s common to aim for fast and drastic change, but the long term results stem from small steps on the way to what you truly value.

Wake up, shower, eat, brush teeth, repeat. Chances are that you aren't even conscious of your daily habits. Yet, these automatic actions accumulate to create the bigger picture of your health and wellness. It's common to aim for fast and drastic change, but the long-term results stem from small steps on the way to what you truly value.

What is a habit?

Think about the last time you put on your seatbelt without thinking about it? Or locked the door as you left without even noticing? Habits have been repeated enough times to become automatic. They are actions we do without consciously thinking about or being aware of (1). Habits are beneficial because they are mental "shortcuts" shaped by past experiences. Habits also become powerful enhancers or blockers for our lifestyle. And lifestyle change means that a routine is followed and habits are formed (2). So basically, your habits define your actions in life.

How to make habits stick  

Ingrained habits tend to follow a loop. Take snacking on chocolate at home, for example. The first step is a cue, such as seeing chocolate on the counter. This causes your brain to go on automatic mode, linking the habit. 

The second step is routine. This is the behavior and the action you take, such as taking a couple of pieces of chocolate and bringing them to the T.V. or workstation to eat. 

The last step is the reward. This can be an immediate or later reward, such as suppressing boredom and eating something sugary (3). 

When we get an immediate reward, habits are easier to pick up. In contrast, delayed rewards are more difficult to commit to. This is why it's more accessible to begin a habit such as snacking on chocolate versus a habit of going for a 30-minute morning run. However, longer-term habits tend to be more beneficial.

Clearly define what, why, when and where

One of the best ways to motivate behavior change is to be clear on your why. This goes beyond surface reasons. 

For example, say you want to start exercising. The fundamental reason may be because you think it's healthy. But your deep down why (value) may be because you want to stay healthy to be around to see your kids grow up. 

Think about what exactly it is that you want to change. Getting clear on the habit and how changing it will better support your values is essential. So, using the example of wanting to exercise, what kind of exercise will you do and how much? 

It's also helpful to understand where a habit came from. Once you identify your habit, think about why it began and what purpose it's serving you now. When do you typically do it? What about if there is a specific location you do this behavior? Finding those cues and eliminating them will make the habit easier to change. One study at Cornell found that women who kept cereal boxes on their kitchen counters were 20 pounds heavier on average than those who didn't. And people who kept soft drinks on their counter were between 24 to 26 pounds heavier than those who didn't.

On the other hand, those with fruit bowls on their counters weighed less than those who didn't - an average of 13 pounds less(4)! So, eliminating those visible cues on your counter that lead to eating high-sugar food and drinks could make a difference. And having a fruit bowl as a reminder could lead to healthier habits of having fruit for a snack.  

 

Time and location are also strong cues that can trigger a habit, so deciding when and where you will do a particular behavior can help it become a habit. A simple format you can use is filling in the following sentence in writing: 

“I will [Behavior] on [Date] at [Time] in [Place].” 

People who use this format are more likely to succeed in forming a new habit (5).

S.M.A.R.T. Goals 

Making a significant change that lasts can be tricky since it's easy to slip back into the comfort zone. To help prepare you for this, try using a method called S.M.A.R.T. goal setting. Make each of your goals:

  • Specific: be very descriptive about your goal or habit change. For instance, instead of "I will eat healthy," aim for "I will add fruits or vegetables to my meals every day."
  • Measurable: make the goal measurable, being able to keep track of. So you could say, "I will add one serving of fruit to breakfast and one to dinner every day."
  • Attainable: ask yourself if you can attain this goal considering your current lifestyle. For example, will you have time to shop for extra fruits and vegetables, and can you really add two per day, or is it best to start with one for now?
  • Realistic: Be realistic with yourself. If you don't have time to do your task or feel too daunting, you won't do it. Start small, then work your way up.
  • Trackable: write down your efforts or track them in a nutrition app to see how far you've come. Seeing your success will encourage you and keep you on the right track (6).

Habits make lifestyle change 

The term lifestyle change means that changes can be followed for a lifetime (2). Implementing these changes implies that a routine is followed and habits are formed. For instance, a healthy lifestyle includes regularly eating nutritious foods, getting frequent physical activity, and consistent sleep. It's the small habit changes that show big differences over time.

Not sure where to start? Download a nutrition app such as Lifesum. Happy habit-changing! 

All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice.

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All of the content and media on Lifesum is created and published for information purposes only. It is not intended to be used as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. Users should always consult with a doctor or other health care professional for medical advice. If you have or think you are at risk of developing an eating disorder, do not use the Lifesum app and seek immediate medical help.

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