3 Tricks To Make Healthy Habits Stick
Do you have some healthy habits or behaviours that you’d like to start or to make stronger? Would you like to know some simple tricks to make habits stick, that don’t require masses of time, effort or willpower?
Our lives are largely a reflection of our habits. Our habits help define what and who we are. Our habits can determine how long we live, our health, our happiness levels throughout our life, how successful we are in various areas of our life, and how unsuccessful we are.
Today, we want to give you 3 strategies and techniques to be able to start any habits you want to, without relying purely on willpower. These tips will absolutely help you to move towards the results that you want after WLS and also to become the person that you want to be in order to live your best life possible.
What are habits?
Let’s start by getting clear on what we mean by the word ‘habit’. The definition of habit in The Cambridge English Dictionary is ‘something that you do often and regularly, sometimes without knowing that you are doing it’.
Some people might say that we’re born with a few habits, like our habit of breathing, and blinking – automatic habits that we do regularly. The rest of our habits are learned, acquired, developed, gained and lost throughout life. They are behaviour patterns that, once we’ve run them a few times, often then occur automatically.
We can have all types of habits. Habits that we love, that we appreciate, that empower us or make our lives better – for example, most of us have a daily habit of brushing our teeth twice. We may have a habit of kissing or hugging our loved ones hello and goodbye. We have habits with our manners – saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and all sorts of other learned and repeated behaviours. We can also have habits that we know aren’t good for us and that seem to sabotage our progress towards the results that we want – for example, the habit of procrastination, doing ‘overwhelm’, or snacking on a favourite treat even when we know we didn’t intend to.
We often tend to think of habits as whole behaviours whereas in fact, they have distinct phases. Charles Duhigg, an American journalist and author, coined the phrase ‘habit loop’ in 2012 in his book “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”. He identified 3 distinct phases – ‘cue’, ‘response’ and ‘reward’, and this framework has enabled people to drill down into the structure of habits and understand them at a deeper level.
James Clear, in his 2019 book “Atomic Habits“, took this model one step further and added another step, a ‘craving’ – so the loop went ‘cue’, ‘craving’, ‘response’ and ‘reward’. He argues that by taking action at one or more of the stages, we can truly influence the creation and ‘stickiness’ of our habits, and empower ourselves beyond a reliance on pure determination and willpower.
Briefly, the cue is the trigger – it comes in through one of your senses and tells your brain to begin a particular behaviour because there’s the anticipation of a reward. For our ancestors the rewards were things like food, water, and shelter. Nowadays, the rewards that we anticipate are things like pleasure, comfort, success, money, love, praise, or personal satisfaction. For example, a visual cue of seeing some chocolate ice cream, may trigger the next step, craving, as you anticipate the pleasurable experience of eating the ice cream. A kinesthetic cue of feeling cold air on the skin may trigger the craving for a jacket, as you anticipate the feeling of warmth. If your phone buzzes, that may trigger the action of checking your messages because you may be anticipating and craving the meeting of your need for information and connection.
The craving is the motivational force – without it we have no desire to do anything about the cue. It’s important to be aware that the craving is not for the habit itself, but the change in your emotional state that the habit will give you. Humans are emotional beings – everything we do is driven by the desire to move towards and access pleasurable emotions like love, happiness and peace, or move away from uncomfortable emotions like sadness, fear and anger. For example, we actually don’t crave cheese itself, we crave how cheese makes us feel. We don’t crave Netflix, we crave the feeling of entertainment, or distraction that it gives us.
The response is the actual habit, in the form of a thought or an action. I eat the ice cream, I brush my teeth, I make my bed, I tell myself I’m awesome, or not, I turn the light on, I check Facebook, I put my socks on, then my shoes, always right foot first etc. All those daily habits.
And the reward is the end goal – the changed emotional state, whether it’s pleasure, or cleanliness, or security, or distraction, or connection, or achievement, or success, or even anger, or fear.
If any of these 4 steps aren’t there, or aren’t strong enough, or you don’t have the ability to follow through on each step, then the behaviour will not become a habit.
- No cue means no habit starts.
- Too small a craving and there won’t be enough motivation to act.
- A complicated response makes it unlikely you’ll be able to repeat it.
- If the reward doesn’t satisfy the desire or craving, then you won’t want to bother doing it again.
Now, the first time that we make a mental request for some kind of action in response to a cue, this creates what is known as a ‘neural pathway’ in the brain. The more often we run the mental request, the stronger and the more automatic the ‘neural pathway’ becomes, and then the stronger the habit becomes. Over time, our behaviours and habits become hardwired into our brains, and we run these loops of behaviour without thinking.
So, how do we use this model to change our behaviours?
We can change our automatic behaviours by taking particular actions within the parts of the habit loop. There are many ways to do this (and we’d highly recommend that you read ‘Atomic Habits’, available on Amazon here for a comprehensive review of these). To get you started though, here are those 3 tricks to make habits stick:
Trick 1 focuses on the cue phase – we want to make it obvious. One way to do this is to do what is known as ‘habit stacking’. This is where you take a habit that you already have and that’s automatic, and stack the new desired habit on top. For example:
- After I shower in the morning, I will meditate for 5 minutes.
- As soon as I take off my shoes after work, I will spend 10 minutes learning French.
- After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will floss my teeth.
- When my alarm goes off in the morning, I will drink a glass of water.
- As I wait for the kettle to boil for my morning cup of tea, I will do 10 squats.
Trick 2 focuses on the craving phase – we want to make it attractive. One way we want to highlight is called ‘temptation bundling’, where you connect a habit to something you already love to do, to make it more attractive than it seems at the moment, because then you get to do one of your favourite things.
For example, you want to connect with your friend, but you need to exercise. Using temptation bundling, you could perhaps call a friend while you walk, or arrange to go walking with your friend.
Or you want to watch Netflix but have some washing to fold, so you combine the two, or fold the washing before you turn on Netflix.
Or you want to go on Facebook but are meant to be starting a water drinking habit, so you drink some water every time you log on to Facebook.
Finally, trick 3 focuses on the reward phase – we want to make it satisfying. Humans are simple creatures in many ways – we like to repeat, and are more likely to repeat a behaviour when we find that we have a satisfying experience. For most of our habits, the human brain isn’t set-up to help us to consider the costs and benefits, because it’s set-up for immediate gratification. The cost of your healthy habits are in the present and the benefits are in the future. The cost of your unhealthy habits are in the future and the benefits are in the present. For example, not doing a walk may feel more relaxing in the moment and the cost later on is the impact on my health, fitness and mood. Eating ice cream tastes good in the moment and the cost will be later on if I continue with making it a regular daily behaviour.
So, if you want to get a habit to stick, you need to figure out a way to give yourself an immediate reward. One technique you can use when the reward is long-term, is to set up a loyalty system for yourself. For example, imagine you want to give up alcohol, or ice cream. On its own there is no satisfaction in simply abstaining, but what if you transferred $10 or 25 to your holiday or me-time bank account every week you went without the ice cream or alcohol? You’d be immediately rewarding yourself for your new habit.
Another strategy is to use a habit tracker – either an online app or a spreadsheet, or some other visual cue like a food journal, activity log and so on, that reminds you to act and keep taking action. They’re motivating because you see the progress you’re making and don’t want the streak to stop, plus we all like ticking a box or putting an ‘X’ on the tracker to say ‘Done!’, and they are visual proof of the type of person you want to become and are getting closer to becoming.
So there you have it – 3 tricks to make healthy habits stick, that don’t require willpower! Give them a go with any behaviours you’d like to be doing more often, and see what impact they have on your life, and on who you become as a result.
Our habits help create our lives and our results. One tiny change to what you’re doing on a daily basis may not necessarily transform your life in that instant, but if you make one, and then another, and then another, all of those tiny changes will absolutely create transformation.