How to Build Healthy Habits
By Sweta Bothra, Lead Therapist at InnerHour, a Mental Health Platform
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Our daily habits influence our lives in a large way. They determine how we think, behave and interact with others. In fact, according to researchers, our habits account for almost 40% of our behaviour every day.
Building healthy habits can help us achieve our goals, improve our relationships, and live a happier and healthier life. Before we talk about how to build healthy habits, let’s understand how habits are formed in the first place.
The 3 R’s of Habit Formation
Every habit starts off with a three-part psychological pattern referred to as the habit loop.
A reminder is any cue that triggers your brain to start a behaviour. The reminder puts your brain in automatic mode and informs the brain about which habit to use. You may have an internal or external reminder; an internal reminder could be a need like hunger, which triggers you to eat. An external reminder could be a note that you’ve stuck on your study table or your door.
Often, our environment acts as a reminder for us. Interestingly, this happens both consciously and subconsciously. The example of the note is one of a conscious reminder. Here, we are actively reminding ourselves to perform a particular task. Alternatively, there are subconscious reminders as well — for instance, using smaller plates can actually lead to us eating smaller portions of food.
The next part is the routine. This involves responding to the reminder. It is the actual habit that you perform and can be a thought or an action. How likely you are to respond to a reminder is based on many factors — how motivated you are, the perceived effort of doing the task, the potential reward and your ability to actually perform the activity. All these factors may be considered insignificant depending on the reward that you think you will get from completing the activity. Many times, even if you aren’t motivated to develop a habit, you may still do it as it may be rewarding. Other times, you may feel motivated to build a new habit even if it does not seem to provide any benefits.
This is the last step in habit formation. While the reminder helps you become aware of a reward, and the routine helps you work towards your reward, this is the step where you actually receive the reward. Rewards may be tangible or intangible. Tangible rewards could include medals, certificates, money, or prizes. Intangible rewards include good health, status, social approval and acceptance.
Getting a reward helps you feel satisfied or content, at least temporarily. Rewards also teach you what actions are worth doing. Your brain learns that behaviours which give you larger rewards are better than behaviours which give you lesser or no rewards. You chase pleasure and avoid disappointment and pain.
This is the process of how we develop habits. But this raises the question — how long does it take? We’ve all heard that “it takes 21 days to build a new habit.” Unfortunately, this isn’t true.
The Truth About the 21-day Rule
The 21-day rule says that continuously performing an action for 21 days can turn it into a habit. It’s important to understand where this idea comes from. A plastic surgeon named Maxwell Mantz, in the 1950s, found that his patients, on average, took around 21 days to adjust their mental image and come to terms with the surgical changes he had made — whether it was a facial surgery or an amputation. Over the years, this observation trickled down and became the oversimplified statement that we know today.
The truth is it takes a lot longer than 21 days for something to become a habit. Studies have found that it can take a person anywhere between 18 to 264 days to develop a habit — 66 days on average. How long it takes for an activity to become a habit also depends on the complexity of the behaviour.
Consider the start of the new year. For the first 10 days of January, you may find yourself still using the previous year whenever you write the date. However, in about two weeks you start to write the year correctly. Remembering the year you are in is a fairly simple activity. Compare this to your new year’s resolution of exercising every day. For the first 10 days of January, you may actually work out every day. However, after a few days, you may no longer be interested. After all, exercising can be fairly complicated and requires a lot of effort.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t use the 21-day rule. The idea of doing something consistently is something worth thinking about — use this rule by committing to working towards your habit every day for 21 days. On the 22nd day, it may get a little easier. And if it doesn’t, that’s alright. Remind yourself that it takes time to build a habit and the important thing is to not give up. Follow these do’s and don’ts to make forming new habits easier for you.
The Do’s and Don’ts of Forming New Habits
Do: Start simple
You can’t change your life overnight. Try to find one aspect of your life that you would like to work on. Break it down into smaller goals and pick a habit that will help you achieve this goal. Once you feel comfortable with this habit, you can slowly try to move to the next level.
For example: If you want to be more financially stable, you can have a smaller goal of saving more money and can start a habit of putting aside a small sum of money every week. After a few months, you can increase the amount you are putting aside on a weekly basis.
Don’t: Set unrealistic expectations
Once you start working on a habit you want to form, you may feel confident and excited about it. You might even find it easy to get started with the basics. As a result, you may start setting many goals for yourself that may be not realistic in keeping with your ability or resources. It’s crucial to set expectations and goals that are realistic and feasible. Be mindful of your current state and resources when you decide to set a goal for a habit.
For example: If you are trying to study a new field, you may find it easy to learn the basics of the topic. You may get excited and then try to master the field overnight. This may be too much for you – it would be better if you took your time to understand the field in depth.
Do: Be patient with yourself
Remember that building a habit will take time. Progress doesn’t take place overnight. It’s also not linear. You may have weeks where you are able to practise your habit every day and then weeks where you are unable to work on it at all. Be patient with yourself, and cut yourself slack if you face setbacks along the way.
For example: As you start learning how to play an instrument, in the first week, you may practise every day for an hour. However, other things may come up and you may find yourself swamped with work and responsibilities the next week. Tell yourself that these things happen and resume practising when you have the time.
Don’t: Let mistakes hold you back
Even experts and professionals make mistakes from time-to-time. It is important to realise that errors and mistakes are opportunities to grow, not excuses to quit. Everyone makes mistakes sometimes and this does not make you less capable of developing a habit. When you find that you’re being too harsh or critical with yourself, pause and take a step back. Identify what can be done better and give it another shot.
For example: If you are trying to cook your own meals every day, you might try new recipes in the process. If you find that a certain dish didn’t turn out so well, it doesn’t mean you call it quits and refuse to cook any longer. Figure out where you went wrong, and try a different recipe. When you feel more confident, you can come back to this recipe and try it again.
Do: Create a trigger
Creating a trigger can help you remember the habit you are trying to build. A trigger primes your brain for action and makes it easier for you to follow through on the action by making the action or behaviour seem less effortful.
For example: If you are trying to exercise more regularly, you can keep your sports shoes near the door to remind yourself to go running. Or you could find a gym on your way to work. Every time you drive to and from work, seeing the gym will remind you to go in and work out.
Don’t: Rely solely on motivation
The truth about creating a new habit is that you may not feel motivated about it every day. That’s why it is not sustainable to rely only on your intrinsic motivation or temporary desire to stay consistent over time. You need to find ways to make your habit a part of your existing life.
For example: If you want to form a habit to be more productive, you cannot just expect to motivate yourself to avoid distractions. Your brain finds the distractions more pleasurable than the work you may be struggling to do. In such cases, you can rely on external help. Work in a separate room, ask people to help you stay focussed and install website blockers on your computer or phone to block websites which take up too much time.
Do: Reward yourself
As you start to reach milestones in building your habit successfully, give yourself small rewards. This is an important part of the habit formation process as mentioned earlier — rewards can help you stay on track.
For example: If you want to form a habit to be more assertive, you can reward yourself when you successfully put up boundaries or stand up for yourself. Your reward can be based on your likes and preferences, but some small rewards include watching your favourite movie, buying yourself a new book or treating yourself to your favourite meal.
Don’t: Punish yourself
While it is important to reward your progress, it is also important that you don’t punish yourself when you aren’t making any progress. Try to understand what are some factors blocking your progress and find a way to overcome these obstacles.
For example: If you want to improve your sleep, but find yourself staying up until 2 am every night, don’t be harsh with yourself — remember that it’s important to understand why this is happening. Maybe you are having too much coffee in the evening and this impairs your sleep. Try to cut back on the caffeine and see if it helps.
These are just a few strategies that can help you form new habits. Every person is different and the strategies which work for one person may not work for others. You can try different things to keep yourself on track while building new habits. For instance, you can find an accountability partner or take rest days or “cheat” days. Explore what works for you, don’t give up and keep going.
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