The Psychology of Habit

How to Establish and Maintain Healthy Habits

A healthy diet and regular physical activity can be used to improve one’s quality of life and feeling of well-being…but we must take action to incorporate these healthy habits into our daily lives if we want to experience the positive results. Taking action to change unhealthy habits can be challenging, even for the most dedicated health and fitness enthusiasts, and turning a healthy change in behavior into a life-long habit can be even more difficult. Here, we review the concept of motivation and explore the psychology of successfully creating healthy habits.

In an article by psychologists from the Health Behaviour Research Centre at the University College of London,1 Gardner et al define habit as “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.” A simple example of this response, the authors say, is handwashing after using the toilet. In this case, handwashing is the habitual action that is triggered automatically by a specific context (going to the bathroom). This context-action formula for basic habit provides us with a productive way of framing our goals. Some examples of framing our goals with this formula include the following:

  • Instead of saying, “I am going to start running every day”, try, “After I wake up in the morning, I will run for 30 minutes.”
  • Instead of saying, “I will eat more fruits and vegetables every day”, try, “I will eat one banana when I eat breakfast and a bag of carrots when I eat lunch.”
    • Instead of saying, “I will meditate every day”,  try, “I will meditate for 10 minutes as soon as I get home from work.”

Gardner et al explain that a habit is formed once this context-action system is repeated enough to transfer the action from “conscious attention” and motivation to external context cues. This transfer is the key to creating any habit because the action will remain after motivation and interest have waned.

Gardner and his colleagues discuss a few outside studies to support their concept for forming healthy habits. One study they discuss reported a steady increase in self-reported
habit strength for an average of 66 days after participants chose a healthy habit in response to a once-daily time cue. Examples of some of these actions were eating fruit at breakfast and going for a walk after dinner. In addition, the researchers in charge of this study noted simpler habits (e.g., drinking water) became automatic more quickly than more complicated endeavors (e.g., doing 50 sit-ups).

With this in mind, setting simple goals when making healthy lifestyle changes might help these changes become more doable and less formidable. For example, say you’d like to start waking up at 5:00am every morning and hitting the gym before work. You currently get up at 7:00am and get ready for work without exercising at all. Immediately attempting to wake up two hours earlier AND exercise every day are big changes to your routine. So, you might FIRST try modifying your sleep schedule. For example, for the first habit modification in this process, tell yourself, “After putting on my pajamas, I am going to get in bed at 8:45pm.” And then, “After waking up at 5am, I will stretch for 20 minutes.” This will probably be more realistically achievable than broadly telling yourself that you will go to bed early, wake up early, and go to the gym every morning. After waking up early and stretching becomes automatic, try incorporating some bodyweight exercises or a short walk into your routine. When early morning activity becomes a well-established habit, adding a trip to the gym will probably come a lot more easily.

This system is specifically intended for the creation of new habits, not the breaking of old habits. Gardner and his colleagues note that habit breaking (e.g., “I will stop eating fried foods.”)
is a whole separate system of interrupting the automaticity that comes with a habit. However, forming positive habits can help us feel healthier and happier while we work on breaking the unhealthy ones.

To make the process of establishing a healthy habit easier, the authors created a healthy habit worksheet to help organize one’s plan and track one’s progress. You can find a copy of this worksheet on page 25.

In the book by Charles Duhigg titled The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the author recommends using a reward system to “trick our neurology” into accepting new patterns that we are trying to establish.2 For example, once you’ve filled out your goal sheet and have established your time cue (waking up) and your action (going to the gym), Duhigg suggests giving yourself a reward right after exercising to strengthen the habit. His example is a small piece of chocolate (the key word here is small; not a king-sized candy bar, which might undo your hard work at the gym). By treating yourself with a piece of chocolate, or another treat you genuinely enjoy, right after exercising, you can train your brain to associate something you like very much with something that you don’t like as much. This trick might help you to endure the first week or two of habit forming, which can be the most difficult time because you will likely still rely on external motivation. After the first week or two, Duhigg explains, your brain will start to learn that it enjoys the rush of endorphins that comes after exercise, and you might actually start to crave the physical activity without needing a chocolatey reward.

What if, after all of this planning, you find you just can’t escape your own excuses? I’m too tired at the end of the day to exercise; The gym is closed when I want to go, etc. These excuses, explains Dr. Cynthia L. Alexander, a psychologist and author of The Emotional

First Aid Kit: A Practical Guide to Life After Bariatric Surgery, should not be considered justifiable excuses, but obstacles around which one must work. If you get home from work and are too drained to work out, modify your game plan and create a morning workout habit. If your gym’s hours don’t mesh well with your schedule, buy some workout gear and create a small home gym. Alexander also beautifully addresses the classic excuse, “I don’t feel like it.” She provides an iron-clad argument for maintaining an exercise habit. We can all agree that exercise, even daily low-intensity exercise, is absolutely necessary for health maintenance. Alexander equates it to brushing your teeth. She says that whatever excuse you use to get out of exercise, replace “exercise” with “toothbrushing,” and you’ll realize how ridiculous your excuse really is. Case in point: “I don’t want to brush my teeth today because I’m too tired and I don’t feel like it.” (Gross!)

A healthy habit can take weeks to months to become habit, but “Don’t strive for perfection,” Dr. Alexander says. “If 9 times out of 10 you can do your workout [or other healthy habit], you’ll be just fine…[just] be accountable to yourself.”

SOURCES

  1. Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and

general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012 Dec; 62(605):664–666.

  • Duhigg, Charles. Big Think (site). How to Form a Good Habit. http://bigthink.com/videos/how-

to-form-a-good-habit-2. Accessed May 10, 2018.

  • Alexander CL. The Emotional First Aid Kit: A Practical Guide to Life After Bariatric Surgery. West

Chester, PA: Matrix Medical Communications; 2009. NHR

Latest Recipes

Sign up for NHR’s FREE E-Newsletter!

          • Receive notifications when a new issue of NHR is available
          • Get free recipes, tips on healthy living, and the latest health news
Email(Required)

Subscribe to NHR Print for only $18 a year!

Get unlimited access to content plus receive 6 eye-appealing, information-packed print issues of NHR delivered to your mailbox.