How To Form A Healthy Habit And Keep It For Life

There are a million theories going around about how habits are formed. Some people believe that if a habit were to trigger the dopamine hormone center, we tend to follow through with that habit for longer. This often explains addictions, be it to sugar, nicotine or social media. There’s also the theory that habits last longer when they’re repeatedly done for three weeks. So whatever new habit you pick up, you need to keep at it for 21 days in order to make it a part of your life. This is applicable in case of habits that so not provide gratification instantly, such as beginning to run or going on a different diet. 

These are just the two most popular approaches- there are recommendations for breaking the cycle of unhealthy habits, for sticking to a plan and for essentially convincing your mind that something is worth doing repeatedly. How, then, do you choose a plan that works for you? 

The first step is to make a gradual change. The body reacts to revolution, but it responds to evolution. If you have the habit of eating sweets after food every day, you cannot just go cold-turkey on one day and hope to keep up with that forever. You need to switch from sweets to fruits first, and then make the cut. If we were to extend this analogy to your health goals, you need a plan that you can work on one step at a time. Since your body is unique, the health plan should provide recommendations that are unique to you, and then guide you on how to implement them. Essentially, what you have is an action plan that you can actually follow through with given your present conditions. 

In the second step, you have to consistently implement these changes. Some people work best alone, but most people find great benefit in having a coach work alongside them Therefore, a health plan and a coach complement each other in helping you achieve your goals. Let’s talk a bit more about building a habit. 

The Anatomy Of A Habit, Good Or Bad 

There is a reason so many people complain about being unable to stick to a habit. What they’re saying is that they’re unable to be consistent. Before we move on to consistency, what do you think makes a habit a habit? 

  • Habits are automatic. The feelings, thoughts and actions that form your habit are happening without you thinking about them all the time.
  • Your surroundings play a huge role in keeping or breaking a habit. Think of it as peer-pressure, reversed. If you surround yourself with people and situations that encourage a healthy lifestyle, you will be more inclined to follow it.
  • Habits are the brain’s short cuts to a problem. For example, the habit of typing fast is not something you think about all the time, or make decisions about. Hence, the process is speeded up.
  • Habits ultimately drive us to a feel-good factor. Healthy habits are harder to form as they don’t offer instant gratification.

Believe it or not, most habits stick only because they offer some reward at some point in time. If waking up early made you miserable for months on end, would you do it? Instead, as you wake up earlier and earlier each day, you begin to see the virtue of it (more time in hand, fresh air, quiet surroundings) and begin to wake up just to experience these rewards. Another important aspect of habits is that they involve very little thought. Once you begin waking up early on a consistent basis, you’re not thinking about doing it every day. It becomes second nature. This is the brain’s way of saving resources to think about actual problems and putting the mundane tasks in autopilot. 

Tricks To Trick The Brain, And Form A Great Habit In The Process 

Here are three important things to keep in mind, and the three ways to work around and with those aspects. 

  1. Since the brain is reward, or cue, driven, set a measurable goal that is outcome oriented. Some outcome oriented goals include working out for 30 minutes three times a week, or eating one home cooked meal every day, drinking 8 glasses of water every day, etc. Whatever it is that you set for yourself, keep a daily journal. Also, don’t wait months and years to celebrate that big goal. Celebrate every week and every step of the way. By doing this, you build will power. You only climb a few steps at a time, so the mountain doesn’t look as daunting.
  2. You don’t have to do everything that is recommended for you! If your plan says running five days a week and hitting the gym five days a week, choose what makes you happier, and is thus easy to follow already. Setting yourself a small goal and achieving that is always better than setting an impossible goal and failing at it. Begin by reviewing your recommendations list and choosing two or three goals that you can achieve with the current resources. Achieve them and then progress to the rest of the recommendations.
  3. Always plan for life’s unplanned demands. A work-trip, illness, family commitments, even festivals in the Indian context, can get in the way of your health goals. Indeed, anyone who has ever been home for Diwali knows the pains of fighting cravings afterwards. In such circumstances, our natural instinct is to take a break. “I’ll pause now and get back tomorrow, next week or later’ is what we tell ourselves. However, the very idea of a habit is that it is consistent. Do as much as you can- if you cannot run for thirty minutes, run for fifteen. If you cannot avoid the alcohol-fueled party, drink in moderation and with lots of water on the side. Likewise, if you’re attending a feat, eat all items in moderation and get back to your routine thereafter. 

Remember, all the work you’re doing is to train your brain to do it on autopilot at some point. Once you hit that mark, you’ll never have to work hard to keep doing something, nor will that habit feel like an uphill climb. Even in corporate setups where companies paid for their employees’ health plans, the lack of short-term incentive drove them away from exercise. So if you have made a new exercise habit, be sure to reward yourself amply. And remember, keep at it for at least 21 days!