March 6, 2023
Improving Your Health By Focusing On Habits
By: Leigh Saner, MPH, NBC-HWC
You have probably heard someone say, “I am a creature of habit”. Maybe you’ve even said that yourself. Grabbing coffee first thing in the morning. Eating a bag of chips while watching your favorite TV series. Brushing your teeth before bed. Those are all habits. Things we do repeatedly, that often become so second nature that we don’t even realize we’re doing them.
There are habits that promote our health, like brushing our teeth, and there are other ones, like having too much caffeine or eating fast food, that we would like to change because they aren’t as beneficial for our well-being.
Habits are formed over time based on cues, or things that prompt us to take a specific action. This series of events, also known as habit loops, have three components; a trigger or cue, which is something that prompts us to take an action, the behavior, which is the actual habit, and the reward, which is what we receive from doing the behavior.
Waking up in the morning, feeling sluggish and heading into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, which then gives a boost of energy, is an example of a habit loop. The sluggish feeling is the cue that triggers the behavior of going into the kitchen to make coffee that then provides the reward of increased energy.
You might have noticed that habits can be difficult to break or change. However, experts have theorized that making small adjustments to specific habits can increase the likelihood of sustaining healthier behaviors.
How To Get Started
The key to adjusting habits and creating healthier ones is first developing an understanding of your regular routine and creating awareness around triggers that lead to unhealthy behaviors. Being mindful about those patterns can help you create an action plan to break those habit loops and create new ones.
For example, when you wake up in the morning, if you notice the first thing you do is make coffee to help wake you up, but you are trying to cut back on caffeine, consider replacing making coffee with going outside, or having breakfast. Replace the habit with something that aligns with the reward you are hoping to get from the behavior.
It can also be beneficial to reflect on what worked well for you in the past when implementing healthy habits. Use that success to help you develop strategies for how to tackle other ones.
Focus On One Step At A Time
We tend to want to take on the whole staircase when it comes to making change versus focusing on one step at a time. If there are a few changes you want to make, consider which one is most important to you, and also most realistic to work on in this season of your life. Taking a more granular approach can give you momentum and feel more attainable than trying to tackle everything all at once.
Track Your Progress
Once you’ve narrowed in on one specific habit you would like to focus on, experts recommend creating a system to track your progress. It can be as simple as writing down the habit in your calendar and checking it off when you’ve completed it for the day. Tracking progress can be an effective way to stay motivated as well as be a source of information and feedback.
It’s important to remember that any progress is progress. If you have a goal of walking your dog first thing every morning and it happens three days that week, that’s still three days. Don’t discount your progress. Consider each time you’ve done the behavior as building blocks towards reaching your overall goal.
Consider Stacking Your Habits
So often, when trying to form new habits, we put them into silos, thinking they need to be individual behaviors. By leveraging our existing success with other habits, we can be more efficient in our efforts to create new ones.
You can do this by stacking your habits. The author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, defines stacking habits as identifying an existing habit and stacking the newly desired habit on top of it. Stacking habits can be a successful tool in habit creation because our brain is already wired to follow a specific pattern. The more you do something, the stronger the connection between the brain and the behavior.
For example, if you want to implement a habit of reading for 15 minutes before going to bed, and your current bedtime routine is washing your face and brushing your teeth, you can stack the desired habit of reading a book for 15 minutes onto your already established routine of washing your face and brushing your teeth. By stacking a new habit onto an existing one, it’s easier to build momentum versus trying to create a brand new habit tied to a specific time or location.
Be Patient With Yourself
It takes time to create new habits or replace unhealthy ones. Whenever you are working through making a change to your routine, to your lifestyle, it requires patience. Things will happen that are out of your control and things may not go exactly as planned. Be patient with yourself and remember that this is your life and your timeline.
Go at your own pace, track your progress, create action steps that motivate you, bring you joy and are easy to implement into your current routine. Don’t work against what’s going well, rather use that as a strength to propel you forward to make sustainable changes.