Verified by: Dr. Mike Moreno
When thinking about how to build good habits, most people think about all of the bad habits they already have. From nail-biting to saying “um” or staying up too late watching TV, we all have habits we wish we didn't. Human beings form habits as a way of being more efficient. Habits allow us to act without too much thought or deliberation. Often, our habits are involuntary or subconscious. With that said, habits could be beneficial when making health/lifestyle changes in the long-term. So, how do we go about forming good habits?
Before we dive into that, we should differentiate between “habits” and “motivation” as these are often the top two things people focus on when making health and lifestyle changes. A habit is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary, whereas motivation is the “why” behind someone doing something. While motivation may come and go, habit building is often the most effective way to create long lasting change.
How to Build Good Habits
Now that we know what habits are and why they would be beneficial in making health/lifestyle changes, let’s talk about the how. Ideally, you would focus on building one good habit at a time before moving on to another. It usually takes anywhere from 4-6 weeks for something to become a habit. However, this can differ by individual and the type of habit you are trying to form.
Habits that have a higher reward value are going to be formed more quickly than more difficult habits. For example, let’s say you wanted to start practicing more gratitude and decided to say one thing you were grateful for while drinking your morning coffee. This is a low effort, enjoyable habit that wouldn’t likely take very long to form. In contrast, let’s say a new habit you’re trying to form is being asleep at 10pm and wake up at 5am, but you usually stay up until 1am. This new habit involves a total routine change and is most likely going to take much longer to form.
So, how do we go about building new habits? Habits are built through cues, repetition, and reinforcement, which can be both positive (rewards) and negative in nature. Understanding what each of these three building blocks of habit formation mean can help you to have the tools necessary to effectively build good habits. Let’s break this process down using an example. Let’s say you took a Vessel test that showed your cortisol levels were high and you are wanting to start incorporating a daily meditation practice to help bring those levels down. Go through each habit building-block to look at how you would go about forming this new daily meditation practice.
Cues are the context in which habit change occurs, and include reminders or signals to engage in a habit. These can include location, time of day, setting alarms/reminders on your phone, the presence of other people, or another action that precedes the habit you want to build. To ensure you have effective cues, it is often helpful to build an “implementation plan” ahead of time that incorporates the cues you will be able to utilize in building a new habit. In our example, the habit you want to form is a daily meditation.
Your implementation plan might be to meditate for 15 minutes in the morning in your living room right when you get back from the gym before starting work for the day. The cues in this example would be time of day (morning), another action preceding habit (coming home from the gym), and location (living room of your house). Once you have established this specific implementation plan, you are much more likely to start building a good habit.
One very helpful cue is something called “piggybacking.” This entails tying a new habit to an existing good habit you already have. In our example, the good habit you already have is going to the gym. Your new good habit you are trying to build is meditating. When you made the plan to meditate as soon as you got home from the gym, you “piggybacked” off of an existing good habit. Another example would be taking a new supplement when you usually take your probiotic, using moisturizer immediately after washing your face, or having a full glass of water following your usual morning coffee.
The second part of habit building is repetition. Research has shown that the simple repetition of an action can help lead to good habit formation. The key here is finding a way to repeat the intended action enough to lead to it becoming habitual. There are many useful tools to help remind you to perform the action you would like to become a habit. These include setting reminders on your phone, having an accountability partner, having calendar notifications set up, having a place or app to check it off your to-do list. In our example, you could set an alarm for the time you normally return home from the gym and once you have meditated, check it off your daily to-do list in a planner. Often, having a visual reminder helps people remember to engage in the habit regularly.
Reinforcement can be negative or positive in nature. People tend to want to repeat behaviors that produce positive results or avoid behaviors that result in something negative. In our meditation example, testing with Vessel weekly to track your cortisol levels is a form of reinforcement. This is because you might start to see your cortisol levels drop when you meditate daily. This will most likely encourage you to continue meditating daily.
Having rewards for the intended behavior is especially important as you are starting the process of habit formation. For example, let’s say you establish a reward system in which after you have meditated for five days in a row, you will get yourself a fun coffee from your favorite coffee shop. Or, say you really enjoy your morning coffee. So you set up your morning coffee as a reward only after you have completed your morning meditation. Having a reward to look forward to can often make up for the loss of enjoyable activities!
What's the Catch?
The problem many people run into with reinforcement is that they don’t create a specific enough reward or pay attention to the specific drawbacks of not engaging in intended behavior. For example, the reward “I can sleep in on the weekends if my cortisol levels decrease” is broad and most likely wouldn’t be specific enough to help you incorporate meditation into your daily routine. If you're not testing weekly with Vessel to see consistently high cortisol levels, you wouldn't experience negative reinforcement of lack of meditation.
The reinforcement of a habit will often be most effective when you start to notice benefits. After several days of practicing morning meditation, you may notice that you are feeling less jittery and anxious in general. Or you may notice that you are starting to sleep better. These noticeable improvements in your daily life will only serve to reinforce the habit you are trying to form. So be sure to check in periodically as you are forming a new habit. Make note of any positive changes you are noticing!
To Sum it All Up
Building a new habit can seem daunting at first. Using these habit building blocks will help give you the tools you need to make those changes! Just remember, you want to try to focus on one habit at a time and then build on it from there. Trying to change too much at one time can be overwhelming and result in you being unable to change anything. Be patient with yourself and tackle one new habit at a time!
Sydney McAvoy See all the author’s articles