When looking into how to make habits stick, you need to understand the basics of habit formation. You consciously choose a behavior that you want to make part of your life without having to overthink it. Habits are usually paired with an environmental cue. After following that cue and action, over time, a habit will be formed. This is understood to be a psychological pattern called a “habit loop.” Habit loops follow a cue pattern, a routine, and a reward until that action becomes second nature.
Many people have a “bedtime routine” that may include reading, meditating, prayer, stretching, showering, watching a television show, reading social media, and brushing their teeth. These are behaviors that, because we have done them so often over a period of time, have become “habits.”
In losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight, most people have healthy behaviors they want to incorporate and turn into habits (exercise, logging food intake, eating breakfast). They also have specific patterns they want to extinguish (having dessert after dinner every night, getting high-calorie “coffee” on the way to work each day, or going to the office vending machine mid-afternoon).
In developing healthy habits and learning how to make habits stick, we need more than a verbal commitment. We need reminders (cues), we need reinforcement (actions), and we need rewards. We need to keep at it even when we “don’t feel like it.” To increase water intake, get a bottle that tells you how much water to drink by noon, by 3 PM, and by 6 PM. Or drink one bottle of water every two hours. Keep track of your water intake in some way each day. Find that cue that will remind you to start the action. Then do the action.
Once you have performed the action, incorporate some reward. Give yourself a mental gold star each day you achieve your goal. Buy yourself a newer, brighter water bottle each month that you meet your goals. And keep doing this until it becomes a habit.
For more challenging goals, such as making exercise a part of your life (at least more days of the week than not), start by picking the time of day you will be most likely to follow through.
Some people are morning exercisers (how I envy them). Some prefer working out just after work to have the rest of the evening to tend to other activities. And others (like myself) prefer to work out later in the evening. Find an exercise you will do. You can walk, follow a video at home, go to a gym, or join a group exercise class. Then do it. And do it again–that is how to make habits stick. For the more challenging behaviors that are, by the way, necessary to maintain weight loss and good health, you need to incorporate assistance.
We all need emotional support from others. They don’t have to do the exercise with us, but having someone celebrate you and tell you they are proud of you helps a lot. You can have an accountability partner as a form of support and accountability. You can make yourself a star chart and put stars on it when you complete your exercise. And give yourself a star for every day you refrain from that calorie-laden coffee, or manage to avoid fast food, or stay away from the vending machine.
Give yourself verbal and physical rewards (that are not food-related). Use support tools that include accountability measures such as charting or using a phone app. Be sure you have support and external accountability.
Remind yourself each and every day of the reasons you are working so hard on your health. Reward yourself and remind yourself that you and your health are worth the effort it takes to turn these behaviors into habits.
For me, exercise became a habit one day at a time. Exercise is a routine part of my life. I don’t allow an internal debate about whether or not I have time, or if I “feel like it.” I use a mantra, and I will encourage you to do the same. I tell myself, “It’s what I do,” and then I do it.
You have likely done very well at times in the past, sticking to the “Gotta Do Ems,” or the behaviors necessary to lose weight and keep it off. And yet, how long before you quit and go back to “your old ways”? Your “old habits,” the same ones that led to excess weight, health problems, a lack of energy, and an overall drain on your life.
There is no magical number related to how long it takes to turn a behavior into a habit. Twenty-one days is inaccurate. Research indicates it takes weeks, months, and often over a year before a behavior becomes a habit. You have to want the results to follow through with many of these behaviors. Get whatever help you need: a personal trainer, a bariatric dietician, a team of friends, and/or a therapist, if necessary.
What about if you want to extinguish a bad habit? Replace the unwanted behavior with a more positive one. When you are tempted to light a cigarette, drink some water. When you want to head to the drive-thru, call a friend and talk your way past the entrance. When you want to run to the vending machine, head for the stairs and walk a flight or two. Simple, but not easy! It all requires effort. Health requires effort!
No one can create habits for you. And you’ll learn quickly how to make habits stick with the help, assistance, encouragement, support, and accountability of others. Hey – it’s your health! It’s your responsibility, this day and every day.