Habits are the secret sauce to a healthy life – or the recipe for an unhealthy one, depending on what's in question. Habits are tricky little creatures in that they're easy to build when they immediately reward us, but feel near impossible to start when the benefits aren’t instantly obvious.
Nearly everyone has a bad habit that needs breaking. Sometimes these habits are relatively harmless (say, biting your nails) but others, when broken, stand to greatly improve your quality of life.
Take smoking, for example; a habit that not only diminishes overall physical health but also dictates a person’s daily life schedule. Or comparing yourself to others on social media, which can diminish confidence and trigger feelings of low self-esteem.
It takes lots of time and effort to break undesirable habits – they're often built over years, and sometimes subconsciously. And it also takes mindful energy to build new, healthy habits to replace them. But your physical, emotional, and mental health are worth it! Here are tangible ways to build good habits in simple, effective steps.
1. Understand the difference between your good habits and bad habits
We talk about habits all the time: Daily habits, good habits, bad habits, strong habits, habits to quit. But what exactly makes a habit “good” or “bad”?
First, it’s important to distinguish between a goal and a habit. A goal is based on outcomes, such as “I want to make three new friends this year.” A habit is an action taken to reach that goal, like “I will volunteer every weekend to meet new people.”
In exact definition, a habit is a repetitive action or behavior, a routine. The difference between a good habit and a bad habit is whether or not it enhances or diminishes your life.
A good habit promotes a healthy goal that betters your life. A bad habit leads you further and further from your goals and what you want out of life.
To distinguish between a good habit or a bad habit, ask yourself the question, “If I do this every day for the next ten years, what will my life look like?”
Will you be happy? Sad? Independent? Healthy? Answering this question illuminates whether the behavior is overall beneficial (or not) by exaggerating the circumstances.
Habits are also hard to give up. If giving up a habit leads you closer to your overall goals, that means the habit is likely a bad one and one to replace with a healthier habit.
2. Choose what you want to change
The first step in building a good, healthy habit is choosing what you want to change. Considering your goals for your physical and mental health or your personal values is a great place to start. What habit, if done every day, will bring you closer to your desired outcomes?
Perhaps you already have something in mind that you would like to build into a habit. Ask yourself why: What is the goal behind this habit? What is this important to you? Finding the sole reason behind the habit will help you find the motivation to keep it going.
Other questions to ask yourself while searching for a good habit to build include:
What habit is easily added to your routine?
Having an accessible habit to start with will give you great practice at building habits – the more habits you build, the easier it becomes!
What impact will this habit have on others?
If this habit not only improves your life but the lives of those around you, finding a boost in motivation to keep it going might be pretty easy!
How realistic is incorporating this practice into my daily life?
Setting reasonable expectations for yourself will also help you stick with the habit.
3. Start small to lay a strong foundation for change
In order to promote follow-through, start with small habits to build upon that lead to a larger change. If you have a larger goal in mind, think about the components of that goal and figure out some smaller behaviors to make now that contribute to that larger goal in the future.
Here’s an example of a habit to build up to: “Exercise three times per week.” Depending on your starting line, this might be too large of a habit to jump into right away. Breaking down this habit into smaller, easily-accomplished ones takes you closer and closer without setting yourself up for failure.
Here are some smaller habits to build that all contribute to the larger desired habit:
- Wash your workout clothes once per week (so they’re always ready!)
- Always set your running shoes by the door for easy access as well as a visual cue
- Eat at the same time each day so that you’ll always have fuel for your workout
- Keep a daily journal of how your body feels - this brings your attention to your physical state and might add motivation to head over to your workout
Starting with these small-but-still-very-real habits makes building a larger habit more manageable (and less overwhelming!).
4. Connect new habits to usual routines
Incorporating the small, attainable habits into your daily life creates a new routine – and routine promotes the creation of your larger desired habit to reach your goals.
Making these changes (and doing them every day!) teaches your brain and body a new pattern of behavior.
Eventually, the goal is to have these behaviors become automatic so you don’t even have to expend energy to get yourself to do them.
One they become automatic, these associations will make it easy for you to do things like to start wiping down the bathroom counter every time you brush your teeth or wash your dishes after every meal – without even nagging yourself to do it!
These associations, repeated day after day, start to become automatic. And that's a huge part of the concept of the habit! Remember, a habit is something that is hard to give up, so if certain behaviors are suddenly part of your everyday life and happen without much thought, they are officially habits.
5. Reward and celebrate your success as you go
Building a new practice or a new routine takes time and patience, so don’t forget to reward your success! When you remember to practice your habit, congratulate yourself by adding in a little something nice for yourself as a reward.
For example, every time you clean the kitchen after your meal prep, give yourself five minutes of “hang out” time to do whatever you think of as a reward (watch dog videos, daydream about someone special, look at pictures of your latest vacation, etc.). These rewards can be highly personalized, so find something that you truly enjoy and attach that reward to your new routine!
It’s also important to reward yourself for your progress in creating the habit. How many days in a row, weeks in a row have you practiced this habit? Keep track of your progress and celebrate how far you’ve come!
6. If you're having trouble breaking bad habits, consider seeking outside help
Building a new habit can be very difficult – as can breaking old, less desirable habits. If you find yourself unable to break old habits or replace them with healthier habits, consider finding a therapist to help you make changes.
A therapist can help you identify where your past and present motivations are, and support your understanding of your roadblocks to success.
Having a therapist to speak to about your habit journey also lets you measure your success week-by-week and might help you feel more accountable over your progress. A therapist can also help you work through the emotions that come with building a new habit or breaking an old habit – feelings like frustration, disappointment (or alternatively self-esteem!).
Wherever you are with your habits, remember that the ultimate goal is to increase your well-being. Even a small amount of practice goes a long way - doing a little something is better than doing nothing! And remember, the road towards having good habits is one with ups and downs, so don’t stress too much if it becomes difficult. Ultimately, you are working towards a healthier, happier life - that’s something to celebrate no matter what.