How to Form Healthy Habits (& Keep Them)

Habit is a powerful force in the human brain, and changing our established patterns takes tremendous energy and willpower. But our future health — physical, emotional and financially —depends almost completely on our present habits. Our routines are like a streambed carved from solid rock by years of gentle wear, and changing them takes tremendous force. But it can be done, and there are techniques that make it easier. Whether you’re trying to take up exercise, quit smoking, set better boundaries with your family, or add a workout to your daily routine, these tips can help.

Fighting your nature

Quick, can you name three things you could be doing to improve your mental or physical health? Of course you can. No one in this modern world stays locked in bad habits due to lack of information. We don’t smoke, eat fast food, drink soda, live sedentary lives, or try to please everyone because we don’t know better. We do these things because we are hardwired to continue following our old routines. We do them because, as William James famously observed in 1890, all living things are “bundles of habits.” How can we fight against this aspect of our nature? 

Start with your cues

Recent research into the science of habit offers some insight. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business, breaks our habit cycle into three components: Cue, Routine and Reward. The Cue is the signal that sends you into your cycle. When you want to break a pattern, you must first identify your cues and take control of them. 

Do you crave fast food when you’re driving home from work, stressed and exhausted, and need something fast to fill you up? Do you light a cigarette every time you get into your car, or have a glass of wine? Decide to skip your workout in lieu of a snooze when your alarm goes off? Create new cues.  Set up your crock pot in the morning so a hot, tempting meal waits for you when you get off work. Leave cigarettes out of reach while driving so you can't light up.  Stack your workout clothes on top of your alarm clock to remind you of your commitment.

Develop new routines

At first it takes effort to put these new cues into place, but as you practice your new, healthier behavior, it will become your new routine. Think of that streambed worn into the rock. If you want to change its path, you’ll need to expend some energy building a dam, or scraping a new path in the rock. But eventually, once the stream is diverted, it will flow along the new path on its own. Speed up this process by being consistent with your new habit. Practice the new behavior often, and in the same way each time, so that it quickly becomes routine.

Experiment with rewards

What is the payoff from the old behavior? It may not be as simple as you think. Maybe you drink too much coffee because you are addicted to caffeine, or maybe it’s because getting another cup gives you an excuse to leave your desk for a few minutes and walk around. Invest some time in figuring out the true rewards of your old behavior, and find healthy ways to generate the same payoff. 

Humans are creatures of habit, without a doubt, and our days are filled with routines that can seem unbreakable. But it’s worth the effort to break out of unhealthy cycles. Our daily patterns determine our future. Today’s habits create tomorrow’s health and happiness. Forge better habits by taking control of your cue, routine, reward cycle and you will change your life.