How to form and stick to healthy habits 

From the time you open your eyes in the morning to the time you put your heads on the pillow at night, you make thousands of decisions; everything from what you eat for breakfast, which pair of socks to wear, to what app to surf. You may be asking how our brains deal with the bombardment of decision fatigue? The answer is by forming habits.

“Habits help us to do the many hundreds of things we need and want to do in our lives. Because we can carry out a habit without having to think about it, it frees up our thought processes to work on other things,” says Dr. Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. for psychology today.

Habit-forming is essentially your brain’s way of switching into autopilot mode by automating certain behaviours. By forming habits, you efficiently store healthy and not-so-healthy behaviours that you perceive make your lives easier. For example, when you leave your house, do you have to remind yourself to lock the door? Or, do you pull the key out of your pocket, put it in the lock, turn the key and drop it back in your pocket, all without a reminder? The answer for most of us will be the latter.

Wouldn’t it be great to turn all of your healthy resolutions into habits without so much as batting an eyelid? Why is it so hard to consciously form good new habits? We thought we’d take a glimpse into the science of habit-forming. Here are helpful tips to help you form and stick to healthy habits and break the bad ones.

The Habit loop

Charles Duhigg, the author of the bestselling book “The Power of Habit,” introduced his readers to something called the “habit loop.” He explains that every habit can be broken down into three parts: 

The cue or the trigger signals your brain to determine what steps to take next. Cues can be an alarm clock ringing or even hunger pangs. Studies have shown that when you move through our habits, you display lower brain activity because our actions are automated.

The routine is the set of actions that you take to fulfill that habit. When your alarm rings, what is the first thing you do? Do you check your phone? Do you brush your teeth? Do you make yourself a cup of coffee?

The reward is that first sip of coffee, that minty fresh sensation of squeaky clean teeth or your first “like” of the day. Once you enjoy the reward, your brain activity picks back up once again, and you can move on with the rest of your day. It’s all very Pavlovian.

Make the new habit easy

When trying to form a new habit, it is important to make that habit as simple as possible. If you perceive this behaviour as difficult or too complicated, the chances are that you will put it off or forget about it all together. Habits are formed through repetition, so breaking down a big goal into smaller habits will make it easier to achieve. For example, If your goal is to have a clean house, but you find the endeavour so daunting that you keep putting it off, try starting with a task like hanging up your coat every day. Putting your coat away is easy to remember and simple to achieve; this will provide you with enough satisfaction to tackle more of your goal.

Attach a new habit to a non-negotiable

One way to help you stick to a new habit is by tacking it on to an established non-negotiable one. You know that brushing your teeth in the morning is a healthy habit that you most likely won’t break, so why not add on putting SPF to that routine? You know you make a cup of coffee in the mornings; why don’t you drink a glass of water as you wait for that coffee to brew?

Swap out a bad habit for a good one

As we discussed, forming habits becomes easier the less complicated and more rewarding they are. Unfortunately, some of our worst habits can be formed in this same way. Have you ever heard, “ sorry, that’s a bad habit of mine?” Just think of the times that you’ve ordered take-out not because you were hungry but because you were bored. RMIT neuroscientist Dr. Amy Reichelt explains, “The brain has a reward system that hardwires us to want to engage in behaviours that we find pleasurable – like eating tasty foods. When we eat junk foods, the reward circuits within our brains activate and release the chemical dopamine.” Dopamine is the feel-good chemical that our body naturally produces.

When trying to break bad habits like uber eats-ing a cheeseburger from bed, try to pay attention to the cue that triggered that habit. Were you actually hungry, were you anxious, were you bored? Now instead of ordering junk food, try swapping out that routine for a healthy one. When you get that trigger to order, go for a walk, eat something healthy that you have in the house or catch up with a friend.

Know why you are trying to establish this new habit

When attempting to form a new habit, it is important to understand the consequence and the reward behind it. Why is adopting this new behaviour beneficial to my life? Understanding why something is important to you and how not doing it will affect you will help make it a priority.

Enlist the help of a friend

If you are having a hard time sticking to a new habit, try asking a friend to join you in your journey. Studies have shown that having someone else hold you accountable will greatly increase your chances of achieving your goals. Instead of counting on yourself to do your daily workout solo, make a plan to work out with a friend at the same time every other day.

Acknowledge your accomplishments

This last point is perhaps the most important one; don’t forget to acknowledge your accomplishments. No matter how big or small, every win is worth celebrating. Do you remember what it was like getting a smiley face sticker on your math homework in school? How proud you felt and how motivated you were to get another one? As adults, you rarely get that kind of positive affirmation, so it is our job to reinforce ourselves positively. Something as simple as crossing off an item every time you complete a task can be incentive enough to keep going.