Powerful Steps in Creating Healthy Habits
Updated: Aug 12
Our daily lives contain hundreds of routine action steps. How you woke up this morning, poured your coffee, scrambled to get the kids ready for school, navigated traffic to get to work- all composed of a multitude of little actions we define as habits.
These are imbedded in routine, a system of life that makes the world go 'round. I love routine. While sprinkles of spontaneity add spice to life, building routines is ultimately the way we function as human beings. It starts in an area of the brain- the basal ganglia- that contributes to memory and pattern recognition. This is how we're able to take a behavior and develop a routine. Likewise, this is why it can be such a bear to deconstruct a bad habit and adopt new ones.
When I was researching this topic, I saw a wide range of claims saying it can take anywhere from 7 to 254 days to form or break a habit- not really helpful. Really it depends on personality, how deeply-rooted the habit is, and how you go about the process. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but here are a few key steps in creating healthy habits- breaking old and building new.
Start small to boost confidence
The 'go big or go home' philosophy works in some cases, but more likely it will only break down confidence when you face a new challenge or goal. Considering we base a lot of our decisions on personal experience, a past failure to hit the mark of a lofty goal is going to affect our mindset when we face new ones. It may ultimately discourage you from trying.
Not that you shouldn't have ambitious aims, but you could also try choosing a small habit to work on that's relatively easy to accomplish. This will boost confidence and remind you that you are capable of reining in the discipline needed to establish a new habit and reach a personal goal.
So you couldn't finish that half marathon you set out to do a couple years ago, but instead of ruminating on this and allowing it to deter you from running at all, sign up for a charity 5k and work out a plan to run a reasonable amount of time per week. Maybe your goal is to just put running shoes on everyday, and that's great! In short- it's okay to be nice to yourself sometimes and set goals you are confident you can reach.
Seek to replace old habits, don't just remove them
Part of the reason why breaking an old habit can be so stinkin' hard is because when one behavior pattern stops, there is a void that demands to be filled with a replacement behavior. Though it might be a bit of an extreme example, working with substance abuse clientele has taught me this better than anything else. We celebrate a desire for sobriety but without immediately stepping into a new routine and healthy replacement outlets, newly sober individuals are only setting themselves up for failure when a huge component of life is suddenly removed.
Bottom line: it's really really hard to simply STOP doing something your brain and body have grown accustomed to, even if it seems like a relatively simple behavior.
It's very hard to quit a habit cold-turkey, and I'm sure plenty of people (with more willpower than I) can do it successfully, but it doesn't hurt to game-plan in the meantime. Start thinking of a new, healthy habit you'd like to implement in place of an old habit you're hoping to kick.
Look through a positive lens
Instead of striving to break a habit, look to change it. One writer attests to an identity change when he shifted his thinking from "I want to stop eating bad food" to "I'm someone who eats a healthy diet and has a healthy lifestyle." He describes how he began a powerful internal transformation based on how he viewed his situation. Similarly, another individual shared the wording change from "I can't smoke" to "I don't smoke" for the sake of his health and wellbeing. What was once seen as a "sacrifice" became a free choice, "investment" in his future.
"You leave old habits behind by starting out with the thought, 'I release the need for this in my life.'" -Wayne Dyer
Creating an affirmation for yourself can also be an effective tool when instilling a new habit. Telling yourself "I have to get up at 5:45 tomorrow to get to work on time. I won't hit the snooze" can actually play a role in training your brain to construct a desirable habit. Saying, "I get to exercise as much as I can this week" is a lot more constructive than "I have to exercise a lot this week because I've been eating a ton of carbs."
Create habits that involve audio, visual, or physical cues
Some of us have experienced the unfortunate visceral reaction that occurs when a song you once used as your morning alarm clock plays in real life. I have several that now trigger instant panic. Sounds are powerful cues, especially when paired with a command from the brain. Psychology Today says, "Habits that have auditory and/or visual cues associated with them will be easier to create and maintain." The same goes for a physical cue, like having to put on your clothes in the morning or pack your lunch.
Just like a text alerts us to to check our phones with a chirp or squeak or ding- so we can use audio, visual, and physical cues paired with a habit we're hoping to develop. While I'm trying to wake up earlier to have quiet time, I could choose a unique alarm sound (or another to-be-ruined song), get up to get my coffee or use the bathroom for some physical action, and turn on a light so I'm less tempted to go back to sleep.
We've used this concept for sleep training our son. Almost without fail, as soon as we get his blanket, darken his room, and turn on the sound machine, in goes his little thumb. He's been conditioned to know that certain visual, audio, and physical cues mean sleepy time.
Do it-or something-everyday
We're not perfect-obviously- and this includes messing up by either resuming a habit we've worked hard to break or not sticking to one we've been establishing. The key is to not let the discouragement take over and slide into surrender. It takes a discipline requiring us to change our ways, something it's safe to say no human glides gracefully through without a few bumps in the road.
Whether you're trying to meditate daily, get your kids to school on time (or anywhere on time), read before bed, quit coffee- you don't necessarily "fail" if you were in the shower while meditating, only 3 minutes late, or had a couple sips of caffeine. The point is, habits can take awhile to form (or break) and you're still trying.
Keep working and celebrate your progress! Remind yourself that your seasons of life change, too, and what once seemed easy to maintain may not be feasible right now. It used to be a natural built-in part of the schedule to hit the gym everyday, but that's no longer a realistic habit for my life stage. Now, staying active a few days a week, which sometimes just means taking a long walk or stretching, is where I'm at. Doing morning devotions look a little different than my quiet times once did, but my goal is to do something everyday, even if that's listening to the Bible on the YouVersion app while doing dishes or reading a quick daily devotional. It's something, and that's good work.
Tools and helpful hints
Whatever your goals and aspirations are when it comes to habits, there are a TON of resources out there now to help you along.
If you're looking to clean up your diet, be a smart grocery shopper, or get better at meal planning, the NIH provides these resources and worksheets.
These apps mentioned in Inc. are designed to help you track your personal goals and habits. It can help you monitor productivity throughout the day as well.
When it comes to fitness and exercise habits, these tips from the Pacific Science Center might help you develop a more active lifestyle, no matter your life season.
If you're looking to integrate more scripture into your life or adopt a more consistent time in the Word, give a few of these suggestions a try.
Finally, if you're just looking for a little motivation, maybe a boost in the right direction, here's an article I stumbled upon, "30 One-Sentence Stories From People Who Have Built Better Habits."