Forming healthy habits can be hard going.
You’re doing great for a few weeks with your new change, but inevitably you end up right back where you started, time and time again. Sound familiar?
But what if make lasting changes wasn’t so difficult?
Whether you’re looking to improve your diet, meditate daily or build a rock solid workout routine, the truth is this:
There are certain habit-forming principles that underpin any successful, lasting healthy habit.
Today, I’m gonna share with you those exact principles. Every tool and trick I’ve picked up on my own habit-changing journey, and used with others. So you can skip learning the hard way and start making sustainable changes from the get go.
They’re the Fifty Golden Rules of Forming Healthy Habits, and they’re all yours!
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Before we get stuck into the habit forming principles, I want to quickly address a question that comes up fairly often:
What exactly are healthy habits?
Now, I’m not in the business of telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. But here are a few ideas based on my own experience:
Healthy habits are:
Healthy habits aren’t:
Expanding on the first point from above:
So do the less visible habits of being proactive, streamlining my work process, and stepping outside of my comfort zone.
These are things that underpin a healthy, fulfilling life for me. Yours might be a little different, and that’s okay.
The neat thing?
Whatever you class as a healthy habit and whatever one(s) you attempt to adopt, the same habit-forming principles apply.
Which is exactly what we’ll be looking at from here on in.
Next to each healthy habit tip, I’ve included a link that enables you to share it on Twitter. So if any of the Golden Rules resonate with you, go ahead and hit the ‘tweet this’ link to share the parcel of wisdom with your friends!
Even though we might not always like to admit it, many of the situations we end up with in life are related to the actions that we’ve chosen to take.
This is something we have to come to terms with if we’re ever going to make lasting changes.
In other words:
There’s no wonder we struggle with low energy if our diet is poor, our stress levels are high, we rarely sleep and we don’t move an awful lot…
Newton’s third law states:
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
In simple terms, we get out of life what we put in. Make unhealthy decisions, and it’s more likely that we’ll get unhealthy results.
Thankfully, this law isn’t reserved for unhealthy habits. By adopting healthy habits and dropping ones that are holding us back, we can slowly start to transform our life situation.
I like the analogy that goes something along the lines of:
Unless you can figure out where you are right now and how that differs from where you want to be in the future, things can be pretty tough moving forwards.
But that shouldn’t put you off or scare you into doing nothing at all.
That’s where it can help to consider the next point, which is…
Unless you’re really tuned in, most of your habits are probably unconscious.
They’re on autopilot.
Just like you clean your teeth at a certain time each day without thinking, you may also stand in a certain way that affects your posture without realising it, or make unhealthy food choices without a second thought.
For some people this initial stage is the hardest – looking inside themselves, coming to terms with their current situation, and really figuring out what habits are serving them and what ones are not.
It’s extremely difficult to create lasting changes and form sustainable healthy habits without having a clear reason ‘why’ for doing it.
If you’re just half-heartedly trying to change a habit because a celebrity or a friend has done the same, you have a weak foundation to build upon.
It’s your personal reason ‘why’ that’ll keep you going when times get a little tough.
When you get tempted by that unhealthy food or you feel like skipping your scheduled workout, your big reason ‘why’ can keep you going.
Your reason ‘why’ will relate to your individual values – the things that are most important to you in life.
These things will differ for everyone and will evolve over time.
Some people value their family above all. To others, their career or financial status is a big priority. For me, my priorities are my loved ones and my movement practice. Any changes that I bring about in my life are for those two main causes.
Spend some time figuring out what really makes you tick, and make sure that any changes you try to make are aligned with that.
If you’re not sure where to start, human behavioural specialist and inspirational speaker Dr.Demartini has a free questionnaire that will help get you going.
Using reminders is a really powerful healthy habit forming tool, and it’s something we’ll cover again later.
It’s all well and good having your reason ‘why’ stored up top, but actually having it written down somewhere you’ll see it everyday is infinitely more powerful.
Put it on a post it note next to your desk or on the fridge – it serves as a constant reminder to stay close to your chosen path.
When you first catch the self-improvement bug, it can be difficult to resist the urge to make a shed load of changes all at once.
You want all the healthy habits. You wanna be a plant-eating, hand-standing, meditating machine – yesterday!
Although that sounds pretty cool, the reality is that attempting to make more than one change at a time significantly decreases your chances of success.
So at least in the early, fragile stages, stick with one change.
As I said, the early stage of forming a new habit (or changing an old one) is fragile. It could go either way.
That’s why it’s important to really think about what change you’re gonna attempt to make first.
Ideally it would be one that is fairly easy to make, and will also allow you to expand upon it later.
For example: changing your breakfast to something healthy is not too hard a change for most people. Having that healthy meal at the start of the day may give you more energy, which might make adding in a morning run at a later stage a much easier process.
Changing your breakfast to something healthy is not too hard a change for most people. Having that healthy meal at the start of the day may give you more energy, which might make adding in a morning run at a later stage a much easier process.
Think long term and plan your approach before jumping in haphazardly.
Is making that habit change actually going to bring about the feeling or state of being that you’re really seeking deep down?
I don’t want to deter you from running, but is training for an ultra-marathon the best thing you could be doing if your goal is simply to be healthier for your family?
I’d say probably not.
In fact, the training required to be able to run long distances at a fast pace can sometimes do more harm than good health wise.
As wellness advocate and obstacle course racer Ben Greenfield often points out on his blog and podcast, being physically fit enough to complete extreme feats of strength and endurance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be a picture of good health.
On the contrary, athletes are often some of the unhealthiest people you’ll meet, rife with overuse injuries and hormone imbalances.
As opposed to death marching on the pavements or busting your gut in the gym for several hours a week, things, like eating a nutrient dense diet, controlling your stress levels and introducing more low level movement throughout the day, will probably give you more of what you’re after from a health standpoint.
Habit changing is essentially the same as learning a new skill. Healthy eating, meditating and running, or whatever you’re looking to start doing – they’re all skills.
And just like if you were to try to learn how to play the guitar, you would probably get guitar lessons – if you were looking to change your diet/exercise/stress levels, it would make sense that you’d read up about your subject.
That might mean reading books related to the change you’re trying to make.
You could also join my online course Healthy Habits 101, where I guide you through the entire habit forming process, start to finish. Along with the video content, you get access to a discussion function so you can connect with likeminded people who are serious about making changes.
It’s unlikely you’re gonna maintain a healthy lifestyle long term if your house is still full of processed foods…
It may seem kinda obvious when it’s put like that, but you’d be surprised how many people completely ignore their surrounding environment when they’re trying to make a change. It becomes an unnecessary uphill battle.
If you’re constantly surrounded by temptations, you’re gonna cave eventually, so make sure your surroundings are conducive of making changes. That might mean clearing out the pantry, avoiding certain parts of the shopping mall, or even surrounding yourself with more positive, healthy people.
Having that unhealthy food around the house now might not be an issue early on when your motivation levels are high and you’re inspired to make changes, but a few weeks down the line, those salty tortilla chips may start to look pretty appetising, and the urge to gorge on them may be too strong to resist.
It’s key to identify any potential obstacles and remove them before they get the chance to become a real issue, as opposed to just dealing with them on the fly. The more prepared you are before you embark on your journey to forming healthy habits, the greater your chances of success.
As the guys over at Wired point out, willpower is a finite resource.
I like to think of it as that magic meter you see in the corner of your screen if you play video games. In the game, every time you cast a spell or perform a powerful attack, you’re exerting yourself, and that magic bar starts to drain, until it’s empty.
Likewise with habit changing.
The more you dip into your willpower reserves, the faster they drain. That means if you’re trying to make multiple changes, or you’re constantly having to resist urges because you’re surrounded by temptations, eventually you’re gonna resort back to your old ways.
The media has a habit of sensationalising things – don’t forget that.
Even though the headlines make it seem like plant-powered ulra-triathlete Rich Roll lost a ton of weight, overcame alcoholism, switched to a plant based diet and started competing in double distance iron man triathlons overnight, if you read his memoir Finding Ultra and listen to him talk on his podcast, you’ll find out that this was actually a gradual process that happened over several years.
It doesn’t sound as sexy, but almost all ‘overnight success stories’ play out the same way. Small changes, added up over time – not several big changes all at once.
The fact remains that Rich Roll did do those things that the media said he did – it just took him a bit longer than they made it out.
As cliche as it sounds, you can do pretty much anything you set our mind to – the catch is that it’s probably not gonna happen overnight.
Instead, it’ll take a shed load of hard work and patience. It’ll require you to be consistent with your efforts, even when you can’t really see the path ahead. That’s where having the big reason ‘why’ that we talked about earlier comes in handy.
As Derek Doepker talked about in my interview with him, choosing something simple and easy allows you to stay inside (or just slightly outside) of your comfort zone, and you can move forwards at your own pace without worrying about draining your willpower.
That might mean staring with a glass of water or green smoothie in the morning if your goal is to change your diet. You might start with a short walk at lunch time if you’re eventually looking to run regularly.
Do the smallest thing, and do it often. Succeeding with it will help to build your self-confidence, giving you the momentum you need to create bigger changes in the future.
This is another viable option, and one that I’ve used a few times myself.
If changing your diet to fully plant based was your big goal, you could do all the prep work, and then jump in with two feet for thirty days, going cold-turkey from day one.
The beauty of this technique is that at the end of the thirty day period you can re-assess things. If you found it easy, then good on you – you’ve saved a lot of time and you’re well on your way to forming that habit. If you struggled, but wanna carry on with the new habit, you could then switch over to the small steps method.
Take the massive action, go cold turkey, whatever you want to call it. But if it fails, don’t treat it as failure. Treat it as the completion of Phase 1, the massive action phase, then shift to Phase 2, the small steps phase.
If you do switch over to the smaller steps approach, it’ll seem much easier as you already have the experience of performing the habit at a higher level.
How many times have you decided you were gonna make a change and started it right away without really giving it much thought? Usually it doesn’t end that well – you haven’t had enough time to plan your attack.
Setting a start date to your healthy habits challenge can increase the likelihood of you taking it a bit more seriously. If you choose a specific date, you then have time to do all the necessary prep work to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding.
Having an end date ensures that you have something to work towards. It’s also a little less daunting than making a change ‘forever’. If you do get tempted by a certain food or behaviour, it’s only thirty days until you have the option to choose it again – not another lifetime.
Another reminder to have a little patience, and not to expect too much early on.
You may feel like that habit is solidified after a couple of weeks, and it may well be – but the data suggests otherwise.
It seems that the early estimations of 21 days to form a habit don’t actually hold up that well when put to the test. Anywhere between 30-90 days is a bit more realistic, and sometimes it takes even longer.
So err on the side of caution and wait at least a month or two before embarking on a new habit change, or taking your current one any further.
Thirty to ninety days is a pretty broad time frame, and there’s reasons for it.
There are so many things that can affect how long it takes to form a new habit, including:
And much more.
The good news is that the more you optimise the things that can affect your habit change, the less time it’ll take to solidify the habit.
It might seem that habit changing is gonna be a long, drawn out, arduous process.
It does take some work, but once you get the ball rolling, things can get a little easier.
Once you’ve succeeded with one change, you can apply the same principles to other changes you want to make. You’ll find out what really works and what doesn’t, and you’ll be able to refine your approach.
Although your capacity to make changes improves over time, that doesn’t give you the ability to change everything at once. It’s probably not gonna end that well.
Don’t lose sight of the things that have worked for you.
Habit changing is a continual process – you have to continue to apply those principles and regularly check in with yourself if you want to stay on track.
Leo Babauta is a bit of hero of mine.
He’s someone I look up to a lot, and his blog Zen Habits is a wealth of info all about habit forming and personal development that I highly recommend.
Here’s a great video of him having a discussion with another thought leader Tim Ferriss. Talking all about whether or not goals are a necessary tool in forming healthy habits:
Whilst goals can work well for some people, for others they’re too rigid and don’t allow enough spontaneity.
It’s important to experiment with both, and find what works for you. I personally find that for fitness related stuff, having clear goals can been really useful. But for other areas of life like my relationships and communication skills, a softer, goal-less approach works better.
In short, the habit loop goes like this: our brain detects a cue, which triggers an action, to receive a particular reward.
Your brain detects a cue, which triggers an action, to receive a particular reward.
The loop was popularized by author Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, and its something that fellow wellness advocate Matt Jager talked about in a great guest post he did here on Health Room last year.
Understanding how your behaviours relate to the loop is a big step towards aligning those behaviours with your values.
If you can start to identify common triggers that set off your unhealthy habits, you can start to manipulate the loop by introducing a new action that will breed a similar reward.
A common example is smoking to relieve stress. If you can identify the trigger of feeling stressed, you can start to replace the act of smoking with something else that provides stress relief – like exercise or meditation.
I mentioned this earlier briefly, but it’s worth reiterating.
The more that you repeat a certain pattern, the more likely it is that it’ll stick.
As Bruce Lee once said:
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.
Get those reps in and form the important neural pathways that are essential for developing lasting healthy habits.
It sounds cool being a lone wolf, getting things done on your own. Often though, it’s not really a sign of bravery as we like to think it is. In fact, it’s the opposite.
Most of the time we go alone because we’re scared to ask for help. We don’t wanna look weak. It’s an ego thing.
The truth is that we can achieve a lot more together than we can alone. I was stuck with a lot of my habits until I let go and asked for a hand. Now it’s a much more enjoyable process.
In forming healthy habits, having someone to hold you accountable to what you say you’re going to do is so powerful.
You don’t want to be the guy who lets your partner down, or appears to be unable to follow through with their intentions.
Making changes to please others should never be your big reason ‘why’, but it can certainly be an added motivator. So why not schedule in a check in date with someone you trust, and keep them updated on your progress?
Don’t stop with just checking in with a friend now and again.
There are so many other forms of accountability available to you these days, including forums, online groups and even habit changing apps.
Exploit every avenue and use all the tools at your disposal to make sure you stay on that path. Just make sure you don’t use these tools as distractions that steer you away from the goal.
Helping others is not just a good thing to do. It’s also one of the best ways to accelerate your own growth.
By acting as someone else’s accountability partner, you’re not just helping them make lasting changes. You’re also increasing your understanding of the habit forming process.
You’re also more likely to stay on the straight and narrow. Simply because it would be a bit hypocritical of you to be dishing out advice, but then doing the complete opposite. In a way, writing articles like this one and teaching in my online course does a lot to help keep me on track with my own habit changes.
I have to walk the talk, so to speak.
As I mentioned earlier, if you understand the habit loop, you can then start to manipulate it.
If you have an existing habit that’s on autopilot, you can use it as a trigger for a new healthy habit. One example is brushing your teeth in the morning.
Hopefully that’s something you do every day, automatically.
You could then use that to trigger your morning meditation. The more you do it intentionally, the more likely it is that meditation will just become the next thing you do after brushing your teeth.
As well as building off existing habits as triggers, you can introduce new ones. Some of the most effective include:
Again, it goes back to creating that environment that’s conducive to making positive changes and forming healthy habits. Fill your space with little reminders that make it easier for you to take action.
Internal rewards of forming healthy habits would relate back to your reason why. You’re doing it because it’s important to you.
That alone can be enough to drive some.
But it doesn’t hurt to have some added external motivators now and again.
They could involve going out for a meal after completing your thirty day challenge. Maybe your accountability partner will take you to the movies, or you get to go on that weekend break.
Things like this can give you that added push if times get rough.
This one’s a little controversial, but some people respond more readily to the stick than the carrot.
What I mean by that is, some people have better success if there’s a potential negative consequence, as opposed to a possible positive one.
Think of it this way – you’d probably run much faster if you were being chased by a rabid dog, than if you were running just to win a race.
With this in mind, you could introduce some negative consequences for missing a habit.
Maybe if you miss a couple of days in a row of your new stretching routine, you have to put pay a friend some money, or perform an embarrassing forfeit in public.
Often the sillier the better
Tracking your progress is a really important part of the healthy habit-forming process.
You could go simple and use a wall calendar, ticking off the days that you performed the habit. Having it somewhere visible gives you some added motivation, as you don’t want any days without ticks.
You could also go a bit more advanced and keep a journal. To note how the process feels, and what seems to work best. And if you want to take things to the next level, you could try a habit changing app or an online course like mine.
It’s about changing your story, and then reinforcing it with action. It’s about becoming the hero, and embracing your true potential.
For this to occur, however, you have to be able to see it. If you can’t see yourself succeeding in your mind’s eye where the conditions care exactly as you like them, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do it in the real world where there are a lot more variables.
So practice, practice, practice visualization – seeing yourself achieving. Then go get it done.
It would be great if we could just think of a habit we’d like to change, carry it out, and move onto the next one. But forming healthy habits doesn’t work like that, and I’m not sure it would be that fun anyway.
It’s likely a curveball will be sent your way at some point, causing you to veer off track. You’ll stumble, miss a day or two of your habit change, and feel a bit bad about it.
The first step is to be okay with that.
Actually, I lied. The first step is to have a plan of action that you can put forth in the event of failure.
As I mentioned earlier, prepare for every obstacle you can think of, and figure out how you’ll react if one knocks you down.
A bit like a computer works, with IF – THEN statements.
IF x happens, THEN I’ll do y.
Always have a response set up, and a backup plan.
A common difference between the average Joe who’s unhappy with their situation and someone who’s formed lots of healthy habits:
The high achiever has failed more.
They’ve just dealt with it a little differently.
Instead of cowering away from difficult situations with a fear of losing, they’ve approached things head on. They’ve failed, but they’ve used it as a learning experience.
In that sense, failure is almost a necessary stepping stone towards success.
Failure is your friend, but it’s not your best friend…
Don’t get too accustomed to it. Stumble and fall by all means, but get up and learn from your mistakes as soon as possible.
If you are failing on the regular, you may want to think about adjusting your habit change to make it more achievable for your current state. That might mean having your green smoothie five days a week instead of seven. Or meditating for ten minutes instead of fifteen.
Do what you need to do, to make sure you can get it done.
Although we like to set lofty goals and work hard towards them, habit changing isn’t about the end result. It’s not about finally reaching the finish line or even changing the habit.
What’s most important is the journey in between. It’s about the present moment. What you learn about yourself and your place in the world that matters the most. Not some arbitrary goal.
Don’t lose sight of that.
Enjoy the journey.
Another one of my favourite quotes, this one from Eckhart Tolle:
Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.
It’s easy to stress over the minutia. The exact amount of carbs you should be eating, or the number of calories you need to burn today.
But it’s important to remember that those little things rarely matter as much as you’ve made them out to. The life experience is much more than that.
Keep the big picture in mind. Do what you can, but don’t stress too much over the little things.
It’s easy to be reactive and blame someone else for our problems or even our current habits. But that’s not what a hero does.
A hero is proactive – they take responsibility for the things that they can control, and they don’t sweat the rest.
Rather than submitting to the will of others, they take charge of their life and they align it with their values. Even if it takes years of hard work.
Another nice quote for ya from Epictetus
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
As the great filmmaker and YouTuber Casey Neistat often talks about, it’s what you actually do that counts, not what you say you’re gonna do.
Don’t be that person who sets a load of goals in the New year, but never follows through with them. Be one of the small percentage who sets an intention, and goes after it ferociously.
Walk your talk.
Whilst it can be beneficial to have a laser-like focus on what you wanna achieve, it also pays dividends to be flexible and open to an alternative.
As you grow older, your values and ideologies will change. Therefore it makes sense that some habits and goals that were once important to you, may not be so anymore.
Don’t hold onto something just because that’s the way it’s always been.
Be ready to let go, adjust and adapt. Be like water.
This is the backbone supporting many of the ideas that I share here on Health Room. Healthy living is a complicated picture, made up of many different interacting components.
Despite what some say, there’s no one habit or way of living that’ll solve all your issues. Ther’s no quick fix to becoming the happiest, healthiest person alive.
You could have the cleanest diet, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t move or you’re stressed out.
Again, keep that big picture in mind. By all means contribute your efforts towards solving the health puzzle. But keep in mind that the definitive answer may not appear in your lifetime, if ever.
I mentioned above that there’s no one true habit to rule them all. That being said, there are some healthy habits that’ll kind a facilitate further changes.
For example, you might find that consistent meditation may lead to you making healthier, more mindful diet choices. Or maybe performing daily yoga will encourage you towards practicing meditation.
These are what author Charles Duhigg calls ‘keystone habits’.
They make the habit changing process that little bit easier. Facilitating a chain reaction that allows you to integrate other healthy habits into your life more easily.
Even though you might feel like there’s a constant pressure to grow, you don’t always have to be looking for the next mountain to climb.
Sometimes it’s good to take a pause, be still, and just savor the moment.
It gives you a chance to re-evaluate where you are and what you want in life. So you make any necessary adjustments to the master plan.
As author Hermann Hesse wrote:
Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at anytime and be yourself.
Last but certainly not least – gratitude.
If you’re grateful for what you have and you’re centred in your self, then everything else is just background noise.
If you can get into that state where you really, truly appreciate everything that happens in life (both the so-called ‘good’ and ‘bad’), then I feel like you’re more likely to be kind to yourself and almost drift towards your true nature – healthy habits and all.
A grateful person is a powerful one.
Well done for making it to the end of this short novel of a post.
I enjoyed writing it, and I hope it’s been useful to you in some way.
Remember what I said in rule 44 though – ideas without action are just ideas.
For the tips I’ve shared in this post to work for you, you’ve gotta be prepared to put in a little effort. To apply the ideas to your life.
Have you ever used any of the principles that I mentioned above to develop healthy habits? Are there any habit changing rules or tips you would maybe add to the list?
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