We as beings are a sum of what we do; our repeated behaviours ultimately create our identity. As creatures of habit, we develop behaviors (some good and some bad) to make things easier for ourselves. Ultimately, habits help us save time, effort and energy. Adopting good habits can help propel us to a better state of health and wellbeing. While motivation is needed to get us started, learning to harness the power of habit can help keep us motivated to achieve our goals.
How Can We Develop Better Health Habits?
For habits to develop, action and behaviour need to be repeated in a patterned sequence multiple times before they are recognized and recorded.
The first thing to think about when wanting to develop a habit is why? What importance does this action or behaviour have to you? What will the benefits of creating this habit be? Does this habit help bring you closer to your goals? We need to have a big enough why factor to actually want to commit to changing a behaviour or creating a new one. A habit needs to have meaning for us in order for us to implement it; it either helps us become more productive, or establishes a positive change in our lives.
After we have established a strong enough reason to want to change a behaviour or develop a new one, we must implement a proper strategy and take action to have it become a part of our unconscious mind. This ensures that the behavior does not deplete our limited reservoir of will and discipline.
Exercising these steps is key when adopting a new habit:
- Prioritizing – Creating a new habit takes mental and physical energy. Don’t overextend yourself with too many new goals. The key is to focus on developing one significant habit at a time while conserving energy. Focusing on individual changes helps minimize distractions and allows you to delve deeper into obtaining that one change. The two components of this step are to determine the new habit and truly commit to it.
- Establishing Triggers – These are cues and reminders that generate that autonomic response in the brain. Create environmental support that will encourage the implementation of your new habit. For example: leave yourself notes or set reminders in your calendar.
- Setting Patterns – Incorporate actions into your day-to-day activities and develop a routine that your brain will recognize. Focus on frequency of the behaviour, engage in it daily so that the psychological and physical patterns develop in your mind.
- Setting Rewards – Extrinsically motivate your brain to crave a reward the next time you repeat the behaviour.
For example, a simple habit might be taking your shoes off upon arriving home. You probably don’t think much about doing it, but you have made it a habit. There is a mental link formed between getting home (the trigger) and your response to that trigger (taking your shoes off). And the reward is not tracking in dirt on your floors!
So, how long does it take to develop a habit?
Some say twenty-one days; others say six to eight weeks, but how long it takes really depends on your perceived level of difficulty acquiring the habit and how important it is to you. Habits are a process, not an event. Understanding this key aspect of pattern development from the beginning makes it easier to manage expectations and commit to making incremental changes. When we have a strong desire for the expected outcome there is a greater inclination to continue the habit.
Here are a few examples of triggers, repeated patterns and rewards that can be set and maintained in order for a habit to form:
- Laying out your workout clothes the night before so that upon waking you are immediately reminded to workout. I have even slept in my workout clothes when I had a super early Crossfit class just in case! (trigger);
- Leave your daily vitamins beside your car keys to remember to take them (trigger);
- Establishing a certain routine at the grocery store that allows you to avoid aisles with unhealthy temptations (repeated behaviour);
- Leaving a book on your nightstand to remind yourself to read before bed instead of scrolling on your phone or iPad (trigger);
- Remembering how awful it feels to be hungover to avoid excessive drinking on a night out (punishment); and
- Remembering you may get recognition at work for the extra effort you put in (reward).
A simple way of looking at it is to decide and commit to changing one bad habit or adding one new healthy habit each month, doable right? Doing this sets manageable and achievable micro-goals. By the end of the year, if you stick with your plan, you will have changed twelve habits! As mentioned earlier, our habits make us who we are, and we want to remain as congruent with our goals and values as possible. Think to yourself: who am I? Who do I wish to be? Do my behaviours reflect this? And remember, you are in full control of this outcome. I often go as far as asking myself, how would “so and so”, whom I look up to and admire behave regarding this habit?
The 3 Hack Your Health Levels
In my years of experience in the health industry, I’ve found that most health habits fall into one of three levels in terms of their complexity and difficulty in execution.
What is a Level 1 Hack?
Definition: A simple habit that can be executed quickly, easily and is often a one time effort.
- Replace deodorant
- Switch cooking oil
- Change brand of multivitamin
The 5 Steps of a Level 1 Hack:
- Awareness: What have you become aware of? What have you learned that you would like to add to your daily routine?
- Decide: make the decision to make a change (set goal) and affirm why it is important to you.
- Act: What is your first course of action? What objectives must you set to begin implementing this?
- Implement: What do you need to do to follow through with your objectives and plan of action?
- Reflect: How do you feel when the habit or change has been fully implemented? How does it improve your current lifestyle?
What Is A Level 2 Hack?
Definition: A more complex habit that requires the implementation of a routine to be sustainable.
- Taking vitamins daily
- Work-out 4 times per week
- Eat 6 to 8 servings of greens everyday
The 6 Steps of a Level 2 Hack:
- Repeat: for a behaviour to become a habit, your brain must have repeated exposure to it to develop the neural pathways that create the automatic response. Repeating the behaviour speeds its development, requiring less effort and willpower each time you perform it.
- Plan: Be aware of your potential distractions and what may hinder your progress. When you recognize and identify the things that can derail your efforts, you can plan around them and avoid interference.
What Is A Level 3 Hack?
Definition: The ‘hard’ habit you have been wanting to change for a long time but can’t seem to accomplish.
- Lose that last 10 pounds
- Eliminate gluten or dairy completely from your diet
- Meditate everyday
The 9 Steps of a Level 3 Hack:
- Be Accountable: Because this habit is identified as a difficult hack, it’s advisable to have someone, besides yourself, to whom you feel accountable and helps you to stay on track. Accountability is a huge aspect of remaining motivated with your goal.
- Celebrate: In order to stay motivated and excited throughout your efforts, reward yourself when you are successful in the implementation of a new habit or change.
This step-by-step procedure will not only provide you with the breakdown of habit development, but it will also prepare you to stay motivated and on track as you progress through each “Habit Hack.” With just a few easy steps, you now have a systematic plan that will allow you to implement positive change in your life! Just choose the hacking level, and hack away! If you’d like to save a copy of the 3 levels of hacks to reference click here to download my infographic.