Healthy Habits: The Key to Lifestyle Change
Approximately 8 Minutes Reading Time
Brief Article Overview
- Forming healthy habits is integral to creating real lifestyle change.
- The aim should be to create habits which are automatic and eventually require little to no conscious effort.
- How to create a healthy habit:
- Choose a desirable action which aligns with your goal.
- Attach this action to a contextual cue.
- Repeat until the action becomes second nature.
- Your immediate environment plays a vital role in forming new habits, and breaking old ones.
- Replacing actions whilst maintaining similar contextual cues is a useful way to change habits with little resistance.
- Keep it simple. Start with small, easily achievable steps and build from there.
Motivation is Overrated
What’s the difference between those who exercise regularly and those who don’t? Those who prepare healthy meals versus those order takeaways? Are some just more disciplined and motivated than others? Maybe. But this would only provide a partial explanation. They may look motivated, but really they’ve just figured out a way to incorporate healthy habits into their everyday life.
Admittedly, purposeful habit formation requires some initial effort and motivation. However, taking advantage of some human psychology, automaticity and healthy habits can be achieved and maintained with little effort.
“Traditional” Behaviour Change Advice
Traditional advice is advising clients what to change and explaining why they should do so. For example, ‘reduce your calorie intake’ because ‘a calorie deficit is required to lose weight’, or ‘increase protein intake’ because ‘it helps with satiety and improves body composition’.
In psychological terms, this advice relies on a consciously deliberative motivational process. According to Author and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman (2 & 10), these are known as ‘slow’ or ‘system 2’ processes.These are typically temporary because this conscious motivation dissipates over time (3).
Learning From Failure
As health and fitness practitioners, we are often trusted as a source of advice on ‘lifestyle’ (that is, behaviour) change. In our experience, giving ‘traditional’ behaviour change advice can often be difficult for clients to implement and often ineffective (1). From past observations, even when clients successfully initiate the recommended changes, the gains are often transient because few of the traditional behaviour change strategies have built-in mechanisms for maintenance.
Time for a New Approach?
Taking advantage of ‘automatic’ or ‘system 1’ processes may offer a more valuable and lasting approach to behaviour change. Yes, they may require more effort to initiate but as the need for continuous, conscious motivation reduces over time as automaticity kicks in.
Once a state of automaticity is reached, the habits become second nature and require little effort to maintain. As if one goes into ‘autopilot mode’, which is where a surprising amount of our time is spent. This here is the goal. Flow state.
The Elephant, The Rider and The Path
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, likes to explain the three constants of human psychology using the analogy of a rider, mounted on an elephant, walking a path. The rider represents the rational part of the brain, the elephant is the emotional part, and the path is space-time.
If the aim is to change the direction in which the elephant is walking (behaviour change), using “traditional” advice is like trying to steer the elephant off the path the elephant using the rider. The riders initial efforts can work temporarily, but eventually the elephant will force itself back to the original path, where it feels most comfortable (homeostasis).
The elephant has the strength to easily change direction but doesn’t have the capacity to see ahead and change course. It is content following the same path, even if the path leads to an undesired destination, such as off a cliff!
So, what is to be done? Well… fortunately, the rider does have the ability and foresight to ‘shape the path’. The elephant will walk the newly shaped path with little resistance.
In the context of creating healthy habits, the path represents our surrounding environment and contextual (space-time) cues; the identification and manipulation of these cues are key when it comes to creating and maintaining a “new path”.
Creating Habits That Stick
Within psychology, habits are defined as ‘actions that are triggered automatically in response to context cues that have been associated with their performance (4). For example, wiping your feet on the door mat (action) after entering the house from outdoors (contextual cue) or washing your hands (action) after using the toilet (contextual cue). So, the formula for creating lasting habits is fairly simple; repeat a chosen behaviour in the same context over and over, until it becomes second nature.
Step by Step
1. Select a desired action
- This action should align with your health and fitness goals.
- For example, if your goal is to eat more fruit and vegetables, the action will be ‘Eat a piece of fruit or vegetable of choice’.
2. Connect this action to a contextual cue
- A cue located within an existing daily routine provides a convenient and stable starting point. (3)
- Design your environment. Make the cue for the desired action obvious and visible.
- E.g ‘After lunch, in the work cafe’, have fruits and vegetables ready and available.
3. Repeat consistently
- Aim to perform the action as many days in a row, aim for consistency, but don’t worry too much about missing the odd day.
- Automaticity will reach full strength and plateau after 4 to 8 weeks! (5).
Congratulations, you’ve formed a healthy habit!
Rules for Healthy Habits
1. Make it Obvious
- Prepare your environment so that cues for new habit formation are explicit, visible and hard to miss.
2. Make it Attractive
- Create a ritual, do something you enjoy immediately before or after doing something difficult.
3. Buy In
- Be fully involved in the decision process, to ensure buy in.
- You need to believe the action is 1) Manageable and 2) Worthwhile.
4. Keep It Simple
- Reduce resistance as much as possible.
- The habit should feel ‘too easy’ to start.
- The correlation between successful habit formation and habit simplicity is extremely strong (6).
5. Make it Easy
- The Habit should feel ‘too easy’ at first.
- You’re confidence to implement the habit should be very high (9-10/10 rating).
- Use the 2 minute Rule; Downscale your habit so it can be done in 2 minutes or less.
6. Baby Steps!
- Break down your goals into manageable chunks.
- Once a manageable chunk is fully integrated, use it to stack other healthy habits on top of it.
The 3 Phases of Habit Formation
1. Initiation – The habit formation attempt begins; the new behaviour and contextual cues are identified and selected.
2. Learning – The selected behaviour is repeated in the chosen context to strengthen the context-behaviour association. Automaticity starts to develop.
3. Stability – Habit formation has fully developed and its strength has plateaued, it therefore persists over time with minimal effort or deliberation.
By nature, human beings are creatures of habit. Our physiological and psychological systems are driven to maintain homeostasis, this is how we cope with our chaotic environment, from which we can establish order. These mechanisms are fundamental and deeply rooted, which is both a blessing and a curse. Habits are easy to form, but very difficult to break, no matter how negatively they impact our lives, any addict can testify to this.
Rules for Breaking Old Habits
1. Make it Invisible – Reduce Exposure remove cues for bad habits.
2. Make it Unattractive – Reframe your mindset, highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habit.
3. Make it Difficult – Increase friction, increase the number of steps between you and your bad habit.
4. Make it Unsatisfying- Get an accountability partner (or Personal Trainer). Make the repercussions of the bad habit outweigh the good ones.
5. Replace the Bad for the Good – ‘Hijack’ the contextual cue and replace the original bad action with a new good one.
We think the key take home here is to keep initial changes simple, achievable and repeatable. We often overestimate our capacity for change. Creating ambitious goals is great, but a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Accumulating multiple healthy habits over a sustained period of time can have a surprisingly large impact on your health and fitness!
This is known as a ‘Small changes approach’. For example, slight adjustments to dietary intake can aid long-term weight management and small amounts of light physical activity are more beneficial than none (7). Once you’ve implemented a small habit into your life, you can use it as a foundation to stack other healthy habits on top of it. For example, going to the gym, could be accompanied with a healthy post-workout meal. Before you know it you’ve created a whole new healthy routine!
To ensure that your newly adopted healthy actions have permanence, they need to be applied to a specific context (time and/or place) and repeated consistently. So, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to choose one easy, healthy action, think about when and where you can perform it and see how long it takes to become automatic! There’s no time like the present, so get the ball rolling! Good luck and remember to enjoy the process.
Food for thought? If this has encouraged you to think about your health, fitness & wellbeing, why not click this link and fill out our enquiry form. We’d love to see how we can help you on your journey.
Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.
- Can general practitioners influence the nation’s health through a population approach to provision of lifestyle advice? Lawlor DA, Keen S, Neal RD (2000) Br J Gen Pract 50(455):455–459
- A perspective on judgment and choice. Kahneman D (2003) Am Psychol 58(9):697–720.
- Experiences of habit formation: a qualitative study. Lally P, Wardle J, Gardner B (2011) Psychol Health Med 16(4):484–48
- How do habits guide behavior? Perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life. Neal DT, Wood W, Labrecque JS, Lally P. J Exp Soc Psychol 2012; 48: 492–498.
- How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J (2010) Euro J Soc Psychol 40:998–1009.
- Healthy habits: Efficacy of simple advice on weight control based on a habit-formation model. Lally P, Chipperfield A, Wardle J (2008) Int J Obes 32(4):700–707.
- Can a small-changes approach help address the obesity epidemic? A report of the Joint Task Force of the American Society for Nutrition, Institute of Food Technologists, and International Food Information Council. Hill JO (2009)Am J Clin Nutr 89(2):477–484
- Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Benjamin Gardner, Phillippa Lally and Jane Wardle (2012) British Journal of General Practice; 62 (605): 664-666
- Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones (2018) by James Clear.
- Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Daniel Kahnemann.
- Repurposed from Atomic Habits by James Clear