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How to Form and Keep Good Habits

November 07, 2017

How to Form and Keep Good Habits

Sasha de Beausset, B.A., M.Sc.

       We all want to be healthier, work out more, have better relationships and be more organized in our general life. Who doesn't?! Achieving all of these things comes down to forming habits. Habits can go both ways: they can promote healthy, positive behaviors and an overall positive outlook on life (“good” habits); or they can cause your health and wellbeing to decline and generally deteriorate  (“bad” habits). While it might not make immediate sense to you, both good and bad habits are formed in the same ways. We create a habit when what we perceive as a reward results from repeated individual actions. Often, these rewards occur subconsciously.

Forming good + bad habits are based upon how you reward yourself while creating those habits.

       For example, if your roommate tells you that you have the bad habit of tapping your foot repeatedly when you are reading at your desk, you might not think that you are receiving a reward for doing so. However, reading or studying may make you anxious or stressed, which results in an extra flow of adrenaline through your body. Tapping your foot every time you study helps to release some of that extra energy generated by adrenaline so that you can focus on your studying. The completion of the task through the redirection of energy is your "reward"!

       In short, rewards are key to forming and keeping good habits. If you don’t believe me, check out this video.

Healthy short term rewards help form good long term habits

       The problem when the rewards linked to particular habits that we want to form (burning fat, improving overall health, spending more time with friends and family, etc.) are too long-term for us to form a habit around. One session at the gym won't give you a six pack, as we all know! As a result, we end up procrastinating and making choices that will give us immediate rewards (hunger satisfaction, getting some extra rest), over those that may cause more discomfort that reward in the short-term.

So how can we form good habits? Here are 5 steps to get there:

  1. Define Your Desired Habit as a SMART Goal

       What do you want to achieve by forming the good habit? Think of the formation of the good habit as a goal before the ultimate goal; after all that is why they say it is the getting there that is the hardest part. Once you have formed the good habit and you have kept with it, you are more than halfway there.

SMART stands for:

  • Specific: What exactly is the habit you want to form? Exercising “regularly” isn’t specific. Exercising every morning before showering is specific. Running X number of miles a week is specific. You get the idea.
  • Meaningful: Why is forming this habit important? Is it an end, or a means to an end? Make sure you have internalized why it is important to you.
  • Achievable: Make sure the habit you want to form is realistic. Consider your schedules, commitments, and limitations before moving forward.
  • Rewarding: What is the long-term reward, once the habit is established?
  • Time-Bound: By when do you want this habit to be formed? The Foundation for Economic Education suggests that it takes 21 days (3 consecutive weeks) to form a new habit. Once you have set a starting point, set the time goal three weeks afterwards.

Get specific and organized with the new habits you want to form - add it to your calendar and make sure you follow it! 

  1. Give It a Try

       Before moving forward, try out whatever habit you want to form. Whether it is to drink 8 glasses of water a day, or to eat 5 servings of vegetables every day, try it for a day! Make note of any emotional, physical and economic barriers that will keep you from carrying out the activity regularly. Forming habits are very much about understanding how to "hack" your mind and internal reward system.

Make note of how you react physically, emotionally and psychologically to the new habit you're trying to form.

  1. Set Short Term Rewards

       The long-term reward often isn’t enough to motivate us to do the right thing every day. Our minds seek immediate rewards, keeping us from making decisions that will make us comfortable in the long term, at the expense of our short-term feelings. For this reason, it is often necessary to create short-term rewards.

       Note that you should never use food as a reward. If you have eaten the five servings of vegetables, don’t reward yourself with a doughnut! Rewarding yourself with food can counteract the positive effects created by the habit.

Don't use food, especially unhealthy food, as a reward!

       Your reward can be watching a movie, taking a nap (our personal favorite!), getting a massage over the weekend, or adding to your comic book collection, among plenty of others. Make sure the short-term reward is meaningful, healthy and realistic to keep up over time. Moreover, the reward should be special - it can't be something that you would done regardless of the situation. This will help replace the immediate reward of tasting chocolate or sleeping an extra hour with one that you have set for yourself.

Go for a walk, bike ride or watch a movie as a reward for completing your daily goals

  1. Find an Accountability Partner

       Look to a spouse, partner, friend, or family member that can help hold you accountable. Explain why you want to form a new habit, and ask if they would be willing to support you and motivate you when you are feeling down. They should also be someone that can celebrate your achievements, and even be with you as you indulge in your rewards. Moreover, use your smart phone to schedule time(s) for when you want to carry out the good habit, with notifications that make sure you complete them. Creating a daily/weekly checklist works too! Accountability is key here. 

A good partner will call you out on your BS and will celebrate your successes

  1. Start!

       Carry out the activity or action consciously, knowing that it is the first day of a lifestyle change. After all, you are retraining your mind to create a good habit and surround it with positive feelings.

       If you are a motivated by visuals, take a wall calendar and mark the day you started. Put a star on each day that you carry out the desired activity. Even consider adding daily reminder notifications on your phone to reinforce that good habit too.

We're a huge fan of visuals & using calendars to set and achieve our goals! 

       If you skip a day, start over. Remember that the 21 days of habit forming must be consecutive.

Don’t forget to reward yourself just like you planned.

We're a fan of cat nap rewards too. But do this in moderation ;-) 


       Now that you’ve done all of that - congratulations! You have formed a new habit! Now to keep it up. How? Do a regular mental check in, and talk to your accountability partner about how you are feeling. Remember that habits are based upon your internal reward system, so it should always be your goal to reward good habits and avoid reinforcing bad ones! Be open to changing your reward if you feel like it is no longer sufficient motivation. Habits are about making lifestyle changes, so “falling off the bandwagon” means that your good habit has been replaced with a bad one. If this happens, no problem! You can start the process at step one.

What are you tips for forming good habits? Tell us in your comments below 

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