How to Make a Behavior a Habit

July 22, 2015
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle

We are constantly inundated by “advice” from our doctors, family, friends and even advertisements to make lifestyle changes to improve our health and well-being. This is all well and good but for many of us the mere thought of trying to make behavior changes, can be overwhelming and daunting. We often stop ourselves before we even start. If you happen to be one of the few who actually makes changes, you may struggle to keep it up over time.

So what’s the secret to making behavior changes? And for these changes to become habits?

1. It is important to identify what specific behaviors you want to implement, how you want to go about making these changes, and why making these behavior changes is important.

2. You want these behaviors to eventually become a habit. A habit is a behavior that is triggered automatically in response to a contextual cue.

Decades of psychological research has consistently shown that repetition of a behavior in a consistent context (cue) leads to the formation of a habit through a process known as associative learning. Eventually the context (cue) produces the behavior with little thought, effort, or need for conscious motivation.

Let’s take a look at a study that was done that illustrates how this works. Participants chose a health promoting behavior (e.g., eating a piece of fruit, drinking water, going for a walk, doing 5 stretching exercises) that was linked with a daily cue from their environment (e.g., right after breakfast, lunch or dinner, right after work). The researchers measured the habit strength of the behavior over time. They found that after 66 days the habit strength plateaued. So when you read articles that say it takes 66 days to develop a habit, they are often referring to this study. The researchers also reported that not doing the behavior on occasion did not seriously weaken the formation of a habit. They also reported that it was easier to form a habit with simple behaviors (e.g., drinking water) as opposed to more complex or involved behaviors (e.g., 5 stretching exercises). [Rothman AJ, Sheeran P, Wood W. Reflective and automatic processes in the initiation and maintenance of dietary change. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 2009; 38: S4-14].

What does this mean for you? If you want to make a change, repeat a behavior consistently in the same context. If you miss a day, don’t throw in the towel, but rather get right back to it the next day.

Other tips for making healthy changes:
1. Decide on a goal that you would like to achieve for your health.
2. Choose a simple behavior that you can do on a daily basis that will get you towards your goal.
3. Plan when and where you will do your chosen behavior. Be consistent. Choose a time and a place or a cue that you encounter every day of the week.
4. Every time you encounter that time and place or cue, do the behavior.
5. Put a check mark on the calendar each time you do the behavior. Also record how automatic the behavior felt.
6. It will get easier with time. Within 10 weeks, you should find you are doing it automatically without even having to think about it.
7. Congratulate yourself on having developed a healthy habit!