We are all creatures with habits. We tend to wake up at the same time every day, brush our teeth, have breakfast and go to work, following the same everyday patterns.
So why is it so difficult to adopt new healthy habits?
Behavioral scientists who study habit formation say that many of us try to create healthy habits the wrong way. We make bold decisions to start exercising or lose weight, for example, without taking the necessary steps to set ourselves up for success.
Here are some research-backed tips for forming new healthy habits.
accumulate your habits. The best way to form a new habit is to link it to an existing habit, experts say. Look for patterns in your day and think about how you can use existing habits to create new, positive ones.
For many people, the morning routine is the strongest, so it’s a great time to add a new habit. A cup of coffee in the morning, for example, can create a great opportunity to start a new one-minute meditation practice. Or, while you brush your teeth, you can choose to do squats or stand on one foot to practice balance.
Many of us also fall into end-of-day patterns. Do you tend to curl up on the couch after work and turn on the TV? Maybe it’s a good time to do a daily yoga pose.
Start small. BJ Fogg, a Stanford University researcher and author of the book “Tiny Habits,” notes that major changes in behavior require a high level of motivation that often cannot be sustained.
He suggests starting with small habits to make the new habit as easy as possible at first. Taking a short daily walk, for example, can be the start of an exercise habit. Or putting an apple in your bag every day can lead to better eating habits.
In his personal life, Fogg wanted to get into the habit of doing daily push-ups. He started with just two push-ups a day, and to maintain the habit, he tied his push-ups to a daily habit: going to the bathroom. He started, after a trip to the bathroom, lowering and doing two push-ups. Now he is in the habit of doing 40 to 80 push-ups a day.
Do it everyday. British researchers studied how people acquire habits in the real world, asking participants to choose a simple habit they wished they had, like drinking water with lunch or taking a walk before dinner.
The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, showed that the time it took for the task to become automatic – a habit – ranged from 18 to 254 days. The average time was 66 days!
The lesson is that habits take a long time to form, but they form faster when you do them more often, so start with something reasonable that is really easy to practice.
You’re more likely to maintain an exercise habit if you do some small exercise — jumping jacks, a yoga pose, a brisk walk — every day, rather than trying to hit the gym three days a week. Once daily exercise becomes a habit, you can explore new, more intense forms of exercise.
Make it easy Habit researchers know that we are more likely to acquire new habits when we eliminate obstacles in the way.
Packing your gym clothes and leaving them at the door is an example of this. Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California, says she started sleeping in running clothes so it would be easier to get out of bed in the morning, put on her shoes and run. Choosing an exercise that doesn’t require you to leave the house — like sit-ups or jumping jacks — is another way to form an easy exercise habit.
Wood calls the forces that get in the way of good habits “friction.” In one study, researchers changed the timing of elevator doors so that workers had to wait nearly half a minute for the doors to close. (Usually they closed after 10 seconds.)
The delay was enough to convince many people that taking the stairs was easier than waiting for the elevator.
“This shows how sensitive we are to small frictions in our environment,” Wood said. “Just slowing the elevator down caused people to go up the stairs, and they continued even after the elevator returned to normal time.”
Wood notes that marketers are already experts at reducing friction by inducing us to spend more, for example, or order more food.
That’s why Amazon has a “one-click” button and fast food companies make it easy to order the “combos”. “We’re very influenced by the way things are organized around us in ways that marketers understand and explore, but people don’t explore and understand in their own lives,” she said.
give rewards to yourself. Rewards are an important part of habit formation. When we brush our teeth, the reward is immediate – a fresh, minty mouth. But some rewards — like weight loss or physical changes caused by exercise — take longer to appear.
That’s why it’s helpful to adopt some immediate rewards to help you form a habit. Listening to audiobooks while running, for example, or watching a favorite cooking show on the treadmill can help reinforce your exercise habit. Or plan an exercise date so the reward is spending time with a friend.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves