Article authored by Readout Health with editorial oversight from Chief Medical Officer, Naomi Parrella, M.D.
Even if you may not realize it, throughout your day, you’re busy performing a series of actions that determine aspects of your mood, success at work, relationships, and health. You brush your teeth twice a day. You may wear your bike helmet on your daily ride to the office. You may call your partner each day on the way home from work. Or maybe some mindlessly scroll social media in bed before sleep or find themselves eating too many cookies when feeling upset. It would seem logical that these actions are deliberate decisions you choose. But one habit researcher, Charles Duhigg, claims otherwise, suggesting that more than 40% of people’s daily actions aren’t decisions at all but are automatic habits.
As the list above shows, habits can be beneficial, or they can be harmful. Whichever habits make up your day, it’s important – and reassuring! – to know that you have the ultimate ability to steer your unhealthy habits around and replace them with ones that will much better serve you.
The efficient brain
There’s a good reason you’ve adopted the habits you’ve adopted. Your brain is always seeking to be as efficient as possible. This means looking for ways that require the least brain energy and physical effort so that it can dedicate its energy to the most critical tasks at hand. So, to minimize exertion, it will make routines into habits you’ll hardly have to think about. If you’ve ever arrived somewhere you’ve driven to many times before but can’t actually remember getting there, this idea should make sense. Making the familiar journey has become a habit, no longer requiring the attention it once did.
The automaticity of habits may potentially make changing habits more challenging, but it is certainly still very much possible. There’s so much you can do to stay empowered in your quest to adopt healthier habits. And that starts with your “why.”
What’s your “why”?
Every single habit starts with a “why.” Think about it. You automatically reach for those cookies when you’re in a slump. Why? Because the sugar rush you get from eating cookies gives you a momentary mental escape. You keep your room uncluttered. For what reason? Because you love the calm you feel when you’re in a tidy space. Each habit offers a “reward,” and each one motivates you to sustain it to keep those rewards coming.
When your goal is to quash unhealthful habits and take on more health-promoting ones, it’s essential to maintain a clear focus on your “why.” Why do you want to make a change? Maybe you’d like to start working out regularly to prevent heart disease, cancer, or dementia that’s affected someone you love. Maybe you want to stop staying up so late at night because you know how good it feels to feel rested the next day. Or maybe you simply want to improve your health so that you can travel often to visit your grandkids. Whatever the reason, make it specific and make it meaningful.
Empowering yourself to make a change
Recognizing the “why” of what’s driving your goal to improve a habit is a great first step. But even if you have a solid “why” in place, it’s not always easy to feel confident about your ability to change things around. This is especially true if your habit has been seemingly ingrained into your life for a long time. But here’s the good news: you do have the ability to create new habits. You are empowered to improve much of what determines your quality of life.
Being confident about your ability to improve your habits is not only a nice morale boost. Feeling empowered is actually a key ingredient for success. Research suggests that the more you believe in your ability to change for the better and the more you can take part in determining your goals and the solutions to your problems, the more likely you will succeed in making long-lasting changes. And other research shows that people who take the initiative to personally choose their target behavior goals experience better results because they have a sense of control and are more likely to maintain their motivation in the long run. Use your own personal values, rather than what you believe others value, to help determine the behaviors you aspire to achieve.
Now let’s dive a bit deeper into what exactly makes a habit, how habits are formed, and how you can successfully overcome the challenges that may be getting in your way.
How does a habit form?
Before you go all in attempting to kick a bad habit to the curb, it’s pretty helpful to first understand how your habit came to be in the first place.
When you first form a habit, you repeat a series of actions and associate them with a cue within your memory. A cue can be a location or time of day that automatically alerts your brain that it’s time to do the action. An example, let’s say the highlight of your week is Sunday morning, a time when you leisurely read over the paper while sipping a cup of coffee. This ritual has been in place for years, and you couldn’t imagine a Sunday morning without it. The cue, in this scenario, is Sunday morning. Whenever Sunday morning rolls around, without even thinking about it, you open up the paper, brew yourself a cup of coffee, sit at the table, and enjoy your quiet time. You’ve associated Sunday morning (cue) with reading the paper and sipping coffee (action).
The association between a cue and an action can be so strong that, given the right cue, you may even find yourself taking action you otherwise wouldn’t. For example, many people associate watching a movie with snacking on popcorn. If you can relate, what if you realize during a movie that the popcorn didn’t taste good? Would you still eat it? One study confirmed that many people would. It found that subjects who habitually ate popcorn during movies even consumed week-old popcorn while watching, even though they found it unappetizing. In fact, they ate just as much of the stale popcorn as they did the fresh.
The four stages of habit change
Even after understanding how underlying rewards, triggers, cues, and actions work to make up a habit, improving habits is not an overnight process. Experts have discovered that there are actually four distinct stages of making healthy changes. Let’s use a real-world example to see how the four stages could unfold.
- Contemplation. Not ready to make any changes, and maybe not even knowing how to start. But thinking about it and knowing it would be beneficial if something changes.
Example: Feeling tired all the time. Energy zapped, and it doesn’t feel good. You know you want to feel better and you know you have to do something, but don’t know how to start.
- Preparation. Ready to take the plunge. You have your goal in mind and plan to take the necessary action toward meeting it.
Example: You decide that getting more sleep is what will help you feel better. You learn about sleep hygiene and note what you’ll need to do to put yourself in the best position to get a good
- Action. You’re now acting on your plan to make changes and meet your goal.
Example: You buy comfortable bedding, keep your room at a cool temperature at night, and block out any noise and light. You power down your devices an hour before bedtime and spend that time winding down with relaxing stretches. You make sure to get in bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
- Maintenance. You’ve fully adjusted to your new changes, which are now a habit.
Example: Your new sleep routine is now just a regular part of your day. Have a late night? No problem. You know what to do to get back on track the next day.
Making healthy habits that last: breaking the old and adopting the new
Adopting healthier habits is key to achieving and maintaining well-being. But have you ever noticed that sometimes, making those habits stick for good isn’t so easy? Despite best intentions, many people struggle to sustain newfound healthy habits. It’s estimated that as many as 80% of New Year’s resolutions fall flat by February of each year. So, understanding how to not only adopt a healthy habit but making it last is essential.
Habits that stick around can best be achieved by using a two-pronged approach that involves breaking any existing unhealthy ones and replacing them with their healthier counterparts. Breaking old habits can be done by disrupting the cues that trigger your old behavior and modifying your environment.
To extinguish a familiar cue, add “friction” to the old way of doing things. Make it less easy to perform the habit. Want to avoid snacking at night? Stay out of the kitchen, keep the snacks out of the house, or place the snacks out of sight and out of reach, making it less likely to be “easy access.” Knowing you must make extra effort may be enough to quell the habit.
Changing your environment can also really help to break a bad habit. If your colleagues bring sweets to share and leave it in the breakroom, it can be hard to resist if it’s in plain sight every time someone goes into the breakroom. Ask if people would be agreeable to putting the shareable sweets in a cabinet out of sight. If people want it, they know where to find it. For everyone else, they can safely be in the breakroom without the visual temptation which gets harder to resist with each encounter. Another tip is to take advantage of major life changes, like a move or a new job, which can serve as new environments to adopt new habits.
When creating new habits, many people use the acronym SMART approach to set the right goals. Let’s say your desire is “to lose weight.” Here’s how SMART could be used to create the most effective goals.
Specific: A goal should be specific. Instead of “I want to lose weight,” you can decide, “I want to achieve 5 ACEs at least one time on my Biosense device this month.”
Measurable: A goal must be measurable. Measure your ACEs three times daily and sync your device with the Biosense App so you can regularly see your progress and also know when you have achieved your goal.
Attainable: Aim for small, attainable behavior changes. As you achieve these small goals, your confidence will grow as you pursue more changes. Start by measuring once daily. Or begin by tracking your carbs on your favorite food tracking app. See if you can get the carbs down. When you accomplish this, add on more small goals to keep advancing toward your final goal.
Relevant: Accomplishing your goal should be meaningful to you and improve your life significantly. Achieving 5 ACEs implies that your body is able to burn more fat that it is storing and can lead to health promoting weight loss. Maybe losing weight will decrease your risk for disease, boost your energy, or allow you to come off medications.
Timely. Your goal should follow a specific timeline. By when do you want to accomplish it? You can say, “My waistline will be smaller one month from now.”
How long does it take to form a new habit?
A popular belief when it comes to changing habits is that it takes around 21 days to ditch an old habit and replace it with a new one. But is this true? Not necessarily.
One study showed that when 96 subjects were asked to adopt a new exercise routine and new healthier eating and drinking regimens over 12 weeks, it took them an average of 66 days to establish these habits. Likewise, another study found that it took an average of 59 days for 192 subjects to solidify habits that linked new healthy behaviors with their daily routines, like drinking water while watching the news or stretching first thing in the morning.
Overcoming the barriers to changing habits
Resistance to change is a universal experience for most people. The default is that humans value staying in their comfort zones. They favor routine and predictability and a general state of equilibrium. To protect against the discomfort of change and uncertainty, people often cling to old behaviors and attitudes to feel in control – even when they want to change – and face barriers that make it challenging to succeed.
Common barriers that make it tougher to embrace new habits include denying there’s a problem, struggling to reach goals because of a lack of confidence, losing enthusiasm when there’s a lull in improvement, fearing taking risks and feeling resigned or hopeless about the situation. Barriers that can also get in the way of successful habit formation include lacking the basic know-how to make changes and lacking the time or monetary funds necessary.
Surmounting these hurdles may not be easy, but with proper planning, it is attainable.
Identify your own barriers. Look for any barriers that may be blocking you from reaching your goal. Recognize that you have the capacity to change. What would your life look like if you succeeded?
Make small daily changes. What specific behavior change would help you if you made the change? Make sure you set realistic expectations.
Follow a daily routine. Set benchmarks for yourself on the calendar, discuss your goals with a buddy who will keep you accountable, and decide how you will monitor your own progress.
Results. Which rewards are meaningful to you and will you give yourself for your successful behavior change?
Ask for support when you need it. Needing extra assistance when adopting healthy behavior change is not a sign of failure. Enlist the help of a coach, your friends, or your family to help maintain your motivation and keep your spirits up.
The bottom line
Breaking old habits that don’t serve you and adopting healthier ones in their place often isn’t easy. But it’s almost always worth it! Your daily habits add up to make a profound difference in your health and quality of life. Understanding why and how habits are formed, how to make good habits stick, and how to overcome barriers that get in the way will go a long way in helping you achieve the behaviors and outcomes you want. Always remember to be compassionate with yourself. It’s inevitable – life will fall out of sync sometimes. Even if you don’t do it all perfectly, that’s normal and okay. Keep listening to your body’s cues and let them guide you toward the behaviors that will help it feel its best. And always keep your “why” in clear focus to stay motivated and on the right path. With practice, your new habits will become a routine part of your life before you know it.