The worst part about healthy habits is that you have to keep doing them for them to actually work.
If only I could just do a “habit” once, be done with it, celebrate my amazing accomplishment, and move on with my life.
Everything would be so much easier if repetition didn’t matter.
Habits are those things that you’re supposed to do every day or every week or what have you, because they’re supposed to make your life better.
And if they’re supposed to make your life better, the most impactful habits usually don’t come with an ultimate expiry date, even after you’ve hit the major goal you originally set out to achieve.
Think about it.
You’re not supposed to just commit to exercising and eating healthy for three months and then go back to couch potato mode — you reach your fitness goals, and then adjust your habits accordingly so you don’t get out of shape again.
You can’t promise yourself to start eating fewer carbs, then expect to not gain any water weight after you high your weight loss goal and start eating more carbs again.
You can’t decide to get a extra hour of sleep every night after coming close to burnout, then go back to sleeping 5 to 6 hours a night again when work and life get busy.
These are the big, life changing habits that aren’t really meant to end, ever.
Let’s face it — we all need to figure out how to create healthy habits that stick with us throughout our lives to get to where we want to be.
The details and efforts are ultimately left up to you, but you can start with the framework below to enhance your chances of success, and strengthen the stickiness of the habits you set out to develop.
Why Humans Are Terrible At Making Healthy Habits Stick
It’s not just you — it’s literally everyone.
We’re all bad at making healthy habits stick because our dang reptilian brains get in the way of it.
Our minds and bodies simply haven’t evolved enough to break free from the goal of “survival.”
We all have an equilibrium that are minds and bodies cling to because it’s comfortable, and comfortable is good.
Comfortable means we’re surviving.
So then we have to muster up all the willpower we can to make some uncomfortable changes, which is pretty easy to do in the very beginning, until of course our willpower runs out (which it always does since it’s a finite resource that must be regularly replenished).
The other thing we humans love to do is set ambitious goals that often involve getting extremely uncomfortable.
You know, like trying to stick to 1,200 calories a day after being used to eating 2,200+.
Or going from a sedentary lifestyle to working out at the gym for at least an hour, 5 times a week.
In these cases, your equilibrium is being stretched to its limits, like a slingshot.
Stretch it too far and it will snap back, often backfiring and undoing any progress you made.
The Smart Way to Figuring Out How to Make Healthy Habits Stick
The first part to figuring out how to actually make your healthy habits stick is accepting that you’re human.
You must be aware that your mind and body will fight back thanks to its survival instincts.
This is one of the most important things to understand when trying to establish healthy habits.
Next, follow these two rules for implementing any healthy habit:
1. Make your habit laughably small, easy, and doable (so you can’t not do it).
2. Focus on mastering the process for self-improvement reasons rather than relying on the fantasy of reaching your goal as motivation.
Stephen Guise, author of Mini Habits, was probably the first to popularize the idea of starting small with habits and focusing more on the quantity (or repetitiveness of it) rather than the quality of it.
When you start with an insanely small, insanely easy habit and focus on simply doing it regularly rather than obsessing over getting to the end goal as quickly as possible, you’re far more likely to succeed.
This is because you’re setting the behaviour first.
You’re slowly training your subconscious to do a behaviour automatically in such a way that it doesn’t upset your equilibrium and cause it to snap back on you.
Then, after a period of repeating your small habit, you can increase or intensify it—but just a little.
Remember, you don’t want to upset your equilibrium.
After another period of a slightly increased or intensified small habit, you do it again.
And again. And again.
You keep building ever so slightly upon that small habit until it’s actually not so small anymore — but it feels natural to do it, because you’ve trained yourself and in the process, shifted your equilibrium.
This is the really mundane, unsexy truth of successful habit building.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Desired Healthy Eating Habit: Eat 5 to 10 Servings of Veggies Per Day
Let’s say that you barely eat any vegetables at this point.
Trying to change your eating habits overnight won’t work.
Instead, start a habit of taking one bite of a vegetable every day.
Yes, one bite. That’s it!
If it’s laughably simple, then you’re doing it right.
If you don’t mind vegetables and already eat them mostly daily, you might want to start with one serving a vegetables a day.
You have to take into account where you’re starting from, so some people might need to simplify the habit as much as possible while others can start from a slightly more advanced point.
Do it for a week, taking one bite a day (if you suck at eating veggies) or having one serving a day (if you’re okay with eating them) and then increase it to two the next week.
Keep increasing, week after week, and after several weeks, you’ll have developed a brand new healthy habit that feels like second nature to you.
Let’s look at another one.
Desired Fitness Habit: Hit 10,000 Steps Per Day
Let’s say that you have a very sedentary job and are lucky if you hit 2,000 steps for the day.
Instead of trying to go from barely 2,000 to 10,000 every single day, try to just increase it by one hundred.
Yes, just one hundred.
And pick something you can do every day to get those extra hundred steps — something as simple as walking to the mailbox, taking an extra break at work to walk around your office or home, or even just doing a couple laps around your kitchen island before dinner.
After a week, increase it by another hundred.
The next week, increase it again.
You get the idea, right?
Sure, this kind of regimen takes a while, but the success rate is higher compared to taking on the desired habit too fast.
(Remember the slingshot effect.)
Now let’s talk about mastering the process of the habit rather than romanticizing your ultimate goal.
Why Your Ultimate Goal Is Less Important Than You ThinkClearly, we’re all very results-driven by the good habits we decide to put in place. Without results, what’s the point in even building a habit? Right. So, it’s natural that we all try to do a really good job every day when habit-making time rolls around. We really want to hit our goal, so we try to tap into our willpower reserves to focus on the quality of our habit building efforts, because the better the quality, the closer it brings us to our desired results. We’re all so focused on changing our external circumstances and achieving results, thinking that this is what it takes to permanently change our behaviour. These surface-level strategies can work in the short-term, but it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re trying to create a habit that you can stick with for longer than a few days or weeks.
Make Your Goal a Nice Side Effect of Mastering the Habit (a.k.a. the Process)Focus on improving the process and getting better at what you’re doing rather than striving for a specific outcome. Listen, I never said don’t have a goal. By all means have a goal, and make it big! But when you fixate on it and measure all your success by how close or how far you are to reaching it, you’re more likely to fall off track with your good habits. Psychologists call this a performance-based goal. A mastery-based goal, on the other hand, involves focusing on the process rather than the outcome. A person with a performance goal thinks, “I have to do [the habit] today because if I don’t, I won’t reach [the goal]” whereas a person with a mastery goal thinks, “I have to do [the habit] today because if I don’t, I will not have improved.” It turns out that performance goals are great for motivation in the short-term, because they have everything to do with that big outcome that you’re constantly fantasizing about. But they’re terrible for long-term success, which always involves dealing with a lot of uncertainty, doing things imperfectly, making a lot of mistakes, and of course handling critics. Taking a performance-based approach to habit building creates a mindset that sees every obstacle and setback as a bad thing that must be avoided. After all, it’s keeping you from producing the outcome. And when you do come by one of those obstacles or setbacks that try to drag you down, you’re more likely to stay down there. Perfectionists love the performance-based goal approach because it’s based off of hating/fearing/avoiding obstacles, which is in alignment with the perfect fantasy worlds they’ve created in their heads. A mastery-based approach to habit building, however, involves flipping everything around so that obstacles and setbacks are seen as opportunities to get better. This doesn’t mean that obstacles and setbacks automatically become fun and awesome—it just means that they’re embraced in a way that they’re seen as extremely valuable lessons, regardless of how messy things get or how bad things go. Eventually, once you’ve stuck to a mastery-based approach for long enough, you should notice that your original desire for reaching a specific goal begins to dissipate. Your subconscious mind will start to recognize that the habit is simply a part of who you are and how you live—no matter what end goal you had in mind in the first place. In other words, having a goal sort of becomes unnecessary because you just keep going no matter what, whether you reach it or not, with no real end in sight.
Take Diet and Exercise, for ExampleA lot of people start eating better and working out because they have a goal to lose X amount of pounds or they want to fit into a size Y. These people often fail because they allow themselves to give up and be taken down by obstacles like eating out at restaurants, busy days at school or at work, unexpected cravings, peer pressure from friends to eat junk, emotional triggers and weight loss plateaus. Some people do reach their goal, but many eventually gain all their weight back. The difference between the people who fail and the people who don’t fail has a lot to do with their level of fixation on their goal of losing X pounds or fitting into a size Y. The people who actually do make great weight loss progress and don’t gain it all back are the ones who’ve developed solid subconscious beliefs that eating healthy and exercising regularly are beneficial habits in and of themselves and are not a means to an end. And even if a person really does want to lose X pounds, they can still succeed as long they don’t place the value of their goal higher than the improvement they know they’ll get out of sticking with the habit. I love how James Clear’s concept of identity-based habits applies so well to this whole idea of making the goal irrelevant. By making the goal irrelevant and focusing on what the habit can do to help you improve yourself, you’re essentially making it a part of who you really are rather than just an external thing you’re trying to achieve. As if this wasn’t enough to convince you to stop obsessing over a goal, consider how focusing on the process itself and your own improvement will help you to better deal with lack of control in certain areas of your life and develop more resilience. Since obstacles and setbacks are seen as opportunistic stepping stones, they will always serve to build you up rather than drag you down. Just think of all the people you know who manage to stay in such great shape, yet don’t avoid potlucks and vacations and stressful situations and birthday cakes. They simply integrate them into the process — indulging when they want, planning around their other healthy meals, and learning from every decision and action they take. Letting go of the intense desire for control and learning how to become more resilient are two topics I want to cover in greater detail sometime in the future. Now, let’s recap:
- We’re bad at sticking to good habits because it’s often very uncomfortable to maintain the quality of effort we want to make right off the bat, creating resistance in our minds and eventually making us fall off track.
- We can fix this by taking a quantity-based approach to habit building by doing one small task or spending 5 minutes practicing something, which takes most of the discomfort out of the picture and slowly reshapes our subconscious minds.
- We’re also pretty bad at sticking to good habits because we measure our success by our ability to achieve an outcome, which makes us fear obstacles and convinces us to give up when we have to face those obstacles.
- We can fix this by focusing on the process instead of the outcome and recognizing the value of improvement by embracing every obstacle as something that contributes to improvement.