The problem with New Year’s resolutions and goals like ‘be more healthy’, ‘eat healthier’ or ‘get more exercise’ is that they just show the end goal, not the way there. A more effective way of reaching your goals is to instead focus on how you’ll get there, for example by establishing several good habits that, when combined, can create a lifestyle that’s more sustainable in the long term.
Habits, whether good or bad, occur in the same way – they’re automated behaviours or short cuts that the brain creates to save energy and brain power. When a certain sequence of behaviours is carried out in the same way enough times, the brain simply merges these behaviours into one unit, and then later, when we’re triggered by an external or internal factor, we carry out these behaviours without having to think about it.
All habits are made up of three things – triggers, behaviours, and rewards. For example, do you hit snooze every morning? Then the trigger is the alarm ringing, the behaviour is that you hit snooze, and the reward is that you get to sleep a bit longer. Do you always eat something sweet when you’re tired in the late afternoon? In this case, the trigger is the feeling of tiredness or that it’s 3PM, the behaviour is that you buy or eat the treat, and the reward is the dopamine kick you get from the sugar. These are just a couple of examples of habits that many of us have, and by breaking them down into their respective parts, we can understand how they are constructed and thereby gain clues as to how we can change our behaviour.
The first step towards changing a habit is being aware of it and how it works. What triggers the habit? Is it a certain time of day, a feeling, a place, other people, or something else? All habits have some form of trigger that signals the brain that it can now switch to autopilot. If you want to change a habit, it’s important to identify this factor.
All habits also contain include some form of reward – this is what made the brain think it was worth remembering this behaviour. In the end, the reward becomes part of the habit, but the reward is also an important tool for being able to change your habits. For example, you can use different forms of reward, to encourage a new behaviour that you want to become a habit, like eating a bit of dark chocolate after working out or taking a hot shower after a morning walk.
It’s very hard to completely get rid of a habit. They often hang around at the back of your mind, waiting to be activated as soon as the trigger appears. What we can do instead is to try to change the behaviour but keep the same signal and same reward. Take the example above, where the sugary treat is triggered by tiredness in the afternoon. The next time the trigger occurs – it’s 3PM and you feel tired and worn out – try another behaviour such as eating a piece of fruit or some nuts or taking a walk. Try it out and see what works – see what gives you the reward you’re looking for (feeling energised, in this case).
In some cases, you can even change the trigger or reward. For example, if you’re doing things on your phone before bedtime, you can leave the phone further away or in another room and pick up a good book instead.
To change behaviours or triggers, you need to create the right conditions for yourself. If you want to start going for walks, you need to make sure you have comfortable shoes and a warm jacket, and if you want to start eating better, you need to fill the fridge and cupboards with healthy ingredients. Another simple way is to prepare yourself for your trigger beforehand – for example, you can prepare healthy packed meals at the weekend that fit easily into your bag during the week, get your workout clothes ready the night before, or prepare the ingredients for your breakfast smoothie.
If you want to introduce a new habit, the morning is the optimal time to do so. In the mornings, our willpower is at its strongest since we haven’t had to make any decisions so far and we’re also free from distractions due to work, family, friends, etc. And it’s also advantageous from a purely biological perspective to implement new habits in the morning, since our cortisol levels are higher, which means we find it easier to learn things.
How long it takes to change a habit varies from person to person but, on average, it takes 66 days to establish a new habit. So, it’s important that you don’t give up too soon! It’s natural that people slip out of their new routines or don’t manage to do them now and again, the important thing is to start again and not give up because of individual failures. It can also be a good idea to think about why you want to introduce a new habit and also write down the reasons why you want to change your behaviour. These reasons can function as a reminder to keep going with your new habit and can also motivate you at times when you feel like giving up. In certain cases, they can even work as a reward!
Do you need inspiration? Here are our suggestions for healthy habits to start, as well as some tips on how to apply them in your daily life.
Lally et al. (2010) How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world
Gardner et al. (2012) Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice
Duhigg (2014) The Power of Habit