Forming healthy habits – or kicking unhealthy ones – is something that everyone struggles with at some point in their lives. I became interested in habits and behaviour change at a young age, wondering why it can be so difficult to do something that appears simple, or why we keep doing things that we don’t want to be doing. This was the catalyst for me to pursue my current career path. In 2019 I was interviewed for an article on healthy habits which featured in the January 2020 Waitrose Health Magazine. I thought I would elaborate on the points discussed in a series of short, practical articles based on my scientific knowledge and professional experience.
Before I begin, it’s worth knowing that as human beings we are designed to operate on autopilot a lot of the time. Most of what we do is based on some sort of habitual behaviour that we don’t have to think about. This is for efficiency reasons, and to save resources for the more complex activities we engage in as humans, i.e. anything that involves thinking and self-regulation! In order to create new habits, we have to overcome some of these old habitual behaviours. But this can be tricky, because we revert to them so easily. The tips below are designed with this in mind. By making small tweaks to our preexisting behaviours, we can alter our foundations to create bigger change later down the line, without using our limited energy.
Tip #1: Make it specific
When creating a habit, make it as specific an action as possible. This is so you know exactly what you are going to do, and whether you have achieved it or not. For example, “eat a healthy snack at lunchtime” is too vague an idea. Try “put a bunch of grapes in my lunchbox in the morning” instead. It’s also easier to imagine yourself doing something you have specifically clarified, which makes you more likely to do it.
Tip #2: Make it easy
Make sure this action is something you are 80% confident you could do right now. I know, it seems unexciting and potentially “too easy”. But for a lot of people it’s the most effective way to start for several reasons:
- It doesn’t require a high level of confidence. One of the strongest predictors of healthy behaviour is what psychologists call “self-efficacy”, which is your belief in your ability to execute the necessary actions to achieve something. Basically, we feel more motivated to do things we know we have a good shot at doing successfully, compared to those we don’t. (Of course, this is often different for the ambitious long-term goals, which often appear inspiring because they are challenging). But in the short-term we are more likely to do what we set out to do if we feel an element of competence, particularly as we navigate daily life.
- As a consequence of the above, we are more likely to be able to carry out this habit when we are tired, stressed or otherwise preoccupied. The reason is that it requires less cognitive control than something more complex and challenging. Big goals are more often achieved through lots of little changes, rather than a few big ones. Make small changes incrementally over time and you’ll make significant progress.
- It allows early success and progress. This is important for a lot of people, as long-term goals can seem a long way off, the discrepancy between “then and now” serving as a psychological barrier. Experiencing success makes us more likely to repeat the habit, and creates “mastery experience”, which is a key source of confidence. As you may see, this can lead to a snowballing effect.
- Finally, it is harder to make an excuse to avoid doing something easy, because there are simply fewer things that can get in the way.
Tip #3: create a solid reminder
From both personal and professional experience, one of the biggest barriers to getting habits off the ground is actually remembering to do them! For this reason, create a cue to remind yourself. This could be something like a phone reminder or Post-It note, or perhaps you decide to tag it onto another daily task.
Tip #4: build a foundation
Resist the urge to bite off more than you can chew. Practise perfecting this habit until it becomes second nature. Once this feels easy and automatic, then look to see how you can push it one step further or do something else. By building on automatic behaviours you are creating a robust foundation of habits that are less likely to cave to daily stressors.
Tip #5: Take note of your success
Finally, record your successes. Imagine where you’ll be in a few months time if you keep building on these actions. I like to keep a tally somewhere, such as a phone or notebook. Then there is concrete evidence of the changes you have been making. Even on days where you feel like you’ve taken a step backwards, you can still see that you are capable of making changes.