Practice Makes Perfect: How to Create Healthy Habits—and Then Stick with Them
Part of the problem with making healthy choices is that we tend to get into the habit of making bad ones. We should eat more vegetables, but fast food chains are quick and cheap. We should exercise, but after a long day of work, binging tv becomes the go-to. We should smoke less, hydrate more, develop healthy sleep patterns—but getting ourselves in the habit of doing these things is easier said than done.
Making the choice to hit the gym once is easy but sustaining a lifestyle where that healthy choice becomes ingrained into your routine is where things start to get tricky. Luckily, there are ways not only to make healthy choices for ourselves, but to make those choices our defaults.
Having an end goal in mind helps give direction to plans for self-improvement. Saying, “I want to cook more for myself,” is a great place to start, but it’s too conceptual to work towards. You’re going to want something a bit more concrete.
Try, instead, something like, “I want to cook dinner for myself twice a week.” This is called a SMART goal—a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. With SMART goals, you can easily track the progress you’re making, and make adjustments in real time if you’re not hitting the benchmarks you want to be at. Knowing exactly what you’re working towards will provide impetus to stick to habits you may be reluctant to take up.
Even early on when forming a new habit, you’re going to spend a fair amount of your time on your new endeavor. Mark that time and effort down in a way that’s easy to visualize. Look at that marker every day. Now that you’ve invested so much of your own energy into forming this habit, you’ll likely be reluctant to break the progress you’ve made.
To get a better idea of how this strategy works in practical terms, take a look at Duolingo. The language app tracks your usage by providing you with practice streaks. Every day in a row you practice adds a day to the streak; in my experience, once I’ve gotten to a couple of weeks without break, it becomes agonizing to see my streak reset to zero, and I’ll do basically anything to keep it from happening.
Identify Your Bad Habits
Forming new, healthy habits is only half the battle. Breaking old, unhealthy habits that you’ve already been conditioned to can be every bit as difficult. The first step to making healthy choices is to identify what has been preventing you from doing so in the past.
Ease into a new healthy habit by focusing not on what you want to start doing, but rather on what you want to stop. For some of these habits, like smoking or staying up too late, the answer should be obvious, but habits like overeating or laziness can be more difficult to tackle. In those cases, don’t start with the end goal; instead of saying “I want to lose weight,” first focus on “no longer eating junk food,” etc.
Do What You Love—Or At Least, What You Like
Some things aren’t about the destination, but rather the journey to get there.
The creation of healthy habits isn’t one of those things.
Keep in mind that we want to be goal-oriented. There are many paths you can take to reach a health goal, and as long as you’re not doing damage to yourself or others, they’re all equally valid. Should everyone include exercise as part of their daily routine? Sure. But if you hate aerobics, try something else. Maybe weight-lifting or flexibility training is more your speed. You should eat a balanced diet, but that diet doesn’t have to include brussels sprouts if you truly can’t stomach them.
If you really hate doing something, you’re never going to be able to make a habit out of doing it. It will always be a chore to you. Get into the habit of doing something you enjoy a least a little bit and turning it into routine will naturally follow.
The Power of Imagination
Visualization is a powerful tool. The more you imagine yourself doing something, the more likely you will be to follow through on it. Practicing your new healthy habit mentally creates a commitment that will follow into reality.
While waiting for your lunch break, think about biting into an apple instead of having a smoke. Imagine yourself going to bed early and getting a full eight hours of sleep. Getting your brain on board with your new plan of healthy action is the first step to ensuring that your body follows suit.
Understand Your Reasons
Having specific goals to work towards will help you create habits that are actually attainable, but understanding your motivations for doing so will, not surprisingly, be the best motivator towards keeping them. It’s not enough to just want to make better choices; if you want new habits to stick, you need to understand why they’re important to you.
Is smoking a drain on your bank account? Is fitting into your wedding dress a reason why you want to lose weight? The motivation behind your healthy choices don’t have to be all that deep; as long as they’re meaningful to you, they’ll keep you on track.
Give It Time
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will a new habit. By definition, habits require focus and repetition to exist, so you know that this isn’t going to be something that happens for you instantaneously.
Be patient with yourself, and don’t give up if you fall into your bad habits again along the way. It may take a few tries for a habit to stick, but the rewards—a better, healthier you—are well worth it.