Key Takeaways

  1. Habits are automatic responses that occur when prompted by certain cues, and once established, habits allow you to practice healthy behaviors with minimal effort.
  2. To build better habits, create plans for how you’ll stick to habits even when it’s difficult, start with relatively small changes first, and pair habits with behaviors you already enjoy regularly.
  3. Breaking bad habits involves slightly different methods, which you’ll learn at the end of this article.

“It seems so easy for her to eat healthy all the time, I wish I could stick to that kind of diet.”

“I wish I had the work ethic to show up to the gym every day like that guy.”

“Why is it so easy for other people to stay lean even through the holidays?”

Chances are good you’ve had one of these thoughts or know someone who has.

And once you understand the relatively simple levers you need to pull to get in shape—controlling your calorie intake, lifting weights, eating enough protein, and so forth—it’s making yourself pull these levers every day that leads to long-term progress.  

So why is it so hard to actually do these things?

Why do we get up early to go to the gym for a few weeks before succumbing to the temptation to hit the snooze button? 

Why do we eat more home-cooked meals of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats for a month or two, only to fall back into the habit of getting takeout multiple times per week? 

Well, the unfortunate answer is this is simply our genetic hardwiring in action.

We seek instant gratification, the path of least resistance, and quick fixes, because these are generally the easiest ways to get what we want in the moment, even if they’re counter to our long-term goals.

This is why it’s much easier to grab that donut on the way back to your desk, bite into it and receive immediate feelings of delicious happiness than it is to eat the carrots and celery you packed as a snack.

The daily discipline required to exercise more and eat better may not pay obvious dividends until months down the road.

So, if our lazy human tendencies are constantly trying to pull us off the straight and narrow path, how do we work around them?

When you ask people who consistently live a healthy lifestyle how they stay motivated to eat healthy and workout, it’s likely they’ll respond with something along the lines of, “I don’t really have to think about it anymore, I just do it! It’s part of my life.”

Good for them, you might be thinking, but how can you rewire your habits so you can stick to healthy behaviors? 

That’s what you’re going to learn in this article. 

The truth is you don’t have to rely on willpower, discipline, and self-denial to force yourself to eat healthy or work out regularly. 

Instead, the major key to changing your lifestyle is to first change your habits, and this is much simpler than you may realize. 

Let’s get started. 

What Is a Habit and How Do We Make Them? 

examples of habits

A habit is an automatic behavior or response that’s triggered by a situation, person, or environment.

You probably know habits are formed through repetition, but there’s also a specific pattern to that repetition. It goes like this:  

  1. First, we are cued by an event, situation, smell, etc.
  2. Next, we subconsciously interpret the situation and give it some meaning.
  3. Next, we perform an action, triggered by that situation.
  4. Lastly, we feel or receive some sort of reward for having completed the action.

Here are some examples of this habit loop in action.

Have you ever been driving somewhere and ended up taking the wrong exit, because that’s the exit you take every day to work?

Or, have you immediately made coffee upon waking up, only to realize shortly thereafter you forgot to put the pot in the coffee machine, and now your counter has become a black, caffeinated swimming pool?

Or, have you walked into a dark room and immediately reached to turn on the light switch, even if that room doesn’t have one?

These situations occur from habitual actions that don’t require us to think twice about what we’re doing—this can obviously backfire in some situations and you can end up super late to your friend’s birthday dinner because, out of habit, you ended up at work instead.

In fact, habits are so automatic, they tend to not even be influenced by motivation, stress, or lapses in attention . . . three things that also get in the way of our ability to reach health and fitness goals.

And about those goals—if you set a goal and frequently remind yourself of it, isn’t that helpful for behavior change? Sure, to a degree. But if you want to build strong habits, research indicates these habits are not a result of setting goals. Instead, it works the other way around.

That is, setting a goal doesn’t automatically make you start building habits to reach that goal. Instead, you set goals, and then deliberately work to build habits that help you achieve those goals. 

As habits are being created (whether intentional or not), the more times the step-by-step process (situation, interpretation, action, reward) occurs—the more automatic it becomes.

However, it’s important to note that at some point actions can’t get any more automatic. When you start to form a habit, each additional repetition helps strengthen that habit significantly more.

Over time, though, the repetition no longer provides large strides, but rather small steps . . . which soon become little scoots… and ultimately you plateau and run out of ability to improve the habit further. This sounds like a bad thing, but really it just means you’ve improved the habit as much as you can, and it’s time to build another one.

And the more habits you build, the easier it will become to achieve your goals.

Summary: Habits are automatic responses that occur when prompted by certain cues. Once established, habits allow us to repeat healthy behaviors like eating healthy and exercising with minimal effort.

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Why Habits Matter

Habits are created after many repetitions of performing an action following a situational cue. And when something is habitual, it’s an automatic process that doesn’t require much cognitive effort to complete.

I’m sure you’ve heard your favorite #fitspo talk about the importance of making health and fitness a lifestyle and that a 30-day detox diet isn’t going to help you much with those long-term health and fitness goals.

If you take a closer look at this idea of living a health and fitness focused “lifestyle”—you’ll realize this really just means taking things like healthy eating and exercise and turning them into daily habits.

And it turns out building habits in this way is a much better way to change behaviors than relying on willpower.

A study conducted by scientists at Duke University involving 57 men and 60 women sought to determine the strength of habits versus intentions to perform a behavior—specifically fast food purchases.

In other words, the researchers wanted to see which factor had greater sway over people’s eating habits: habits or conscious intentions.

That is, do people eat the way they do because it’s a subconscious routine or because they decide to on a daily basis?

To answer this question, the researchers had individuals complete a questionnaire that measured how habitual fast food purchasing was for them and their intentions to buy fast food in the next week. Over the course of the next week, they completed a daily assessment indicating whether or not they actually purchased fast food.

The results of this study indicated that intentions to purchase or not purchase fast food did not guide behavior as much as habits did.

In other words, people generally purchased fast food because it was a habit, not because they consciously decided to purchase fast food.

For those that already had strong habits in place, their intentions to buy fast food were not good indicators of actual behavior. Instead, it seems their habits had the ability to override any intentions they had.

For example, someone might “decide” they’re going to buy a fast food meal, but when it comes time to do so they generally revert to their normal eating style.

Habits not only help explain what we do, they can also help us accomplish our health and fitness goals.

In order to help people reach and maintain their weight loss goals, researchers at the University of Helsinki wanted to learn from successful individuals what helped them succeed.

In this study, 184 people who successfully lost weight and maintained it were asked a series of questions about their weight loss experience.

Ninety-two percent of people in this study reported they made a habit of weighing themselves frequently during the weight loss phase and 75% continued this habit into their maintenance phase.

Additionally, developing the habit of eating meals at a regular frequency everyday was an often mentioned strategy used by these successful individuals.

It’s not all about your eating habits though!

Researchers at the University of Colorado compared the daily exercise habits of 25 people who lost weight and maintained it to 27 normal weight people and 28 overweight people.

They found that weight loss maintainers burned, on average, 812 calories per day from physical activity, and this was significantly more than the 621 calories burned by normal weight people and the 637 calories burned by the overweight group.

Summary: Habits have a strong influence on your diet and exercise behaviors—often stronger than deliberate decisions. If you want to adopt a new healthy behavior, making it a habit is a much more effective method than relying on willpower.  

3 Tips for Building Better Habits

types of habits

Okay, great—you know habits are important.

Habits are one of the “secrets” that allow healthy people to stick to their exercise and diet regimens.

Habits require little cognitive effort. 

Habits are more powerful than our intentions.

But how do we build better habits?

Habit formation can seem like a daunting task. The gap between “I’m lucky if I get to the gym once a week right now” and “I can’t imagine not going to the gym” can seem wide.

By breaking down the process of habit formation—cue, interpretation, action, and reward—and finding ways to use it to our advantage, we can pick and choose what behaviors we want to maintain and which ones we want to ditch.

1. Think About Your Goals, But Not Too Much

Everyone loves a good before and after success story, and it’s all too easy to focus heavily on our current “before” status and the “after” outcomes we hope to achieve.

However, being hyper-focused on a goal and a related short-term strategy to achieve it can be misguided. 

Setting a goal can help you create clarity about what you want. The problem with focusing too much on your goal, though, is that it doesn’t do anything to help you get there. 

Instead, we can take advantage of that habit loop you learned about a moment ago, and pull on that cue-interpretation-action-reward pathway by preparing ourselves for how to respond to specific obstacles and opportunities that may arise. 

One effective way to do this is to write some “if-then” plans

When your planning consists of vague thoughts about how you should “cook at home more” or “start going to the gym,” your chances of actually making these changes are quite low.

Instead, get serious about planning. 

Take some time to write down what you want to achieve. Don’t stop there, though.

Next, think about the obstacles you’re most likely to encounter on the way to achieving your goals. On a more positive note, also write down any potential opportunities that may arise along the way. 

Next—and here’s the really important part—write down how you’ll respond to these negative and positive circumstances. 

If you find yourself at a restaurant with friends that has few healthy choices, what will you order and how much will you eat? 

If you get a nasty cold and have to miss a week or two of workouts, what will you do while you recover? How will you change your diet and exercise plans?

If you find you’re getting close to your goal weight and you get an offer to go on a weekend-long beer and bratwurst festival, what will you do?

Nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan, and it’s important that you make contingency plans for what you’ll do when you can’t stick to your primary plan.

This way, you aren’t forced to make a decision in the heat of the moment. Instead, you’ve already decided how you’ll act in these trying circumstances, and these premeditated decisions are almost always better than knee-jerk reactions.

If you’re having trouble with this exercise, here’s a simple template you can use: 

“If (opportunity/obstacle) arises, then I will (respond in this way)”

I know it sounds a bit “woo woo,” but this strategy is supported by many studies, even specifically when it comes to improving healthy eating and exercise behaviors.

Summary: Goal setting is only really helpful to the extent that it provides us with some clarity in what we want to achieve. After your goals are set, you should focus on creating “if this, then that” plans to help you overcome obstacles and take advantage of opportunities in support of your goals.

2. Start Small and Build Consistently

Deciding to cook all of your meals at home can seem daunting if you’re used to eating take out most of the time.

Rather than attempting to implement this brand new daily behavior, (and likely failing after the first week) try scaling it back to something smaller and more specific.

Maybe you can devote 10 minutes on your lunch break to hunt for “healthy and easy at home recipes” so you have some recipe ideas ready for when you have time to cook at home.

This small beginner task also helps create the beginnings of a habit loop:

Every time the clock strikes noon (a cue) you’ll begin to automatically think “time to eat” and “time to recipe hunt” (interpretation)

Your response will be to head to the cafeteria, eat lunch, and scroll through or another similar website (action). 

At the end of each lunch break you’ll feel accomplished and excited for your next home cooked meal (reward). 

And your new habit is beginning to take shape.

It’s tempting to dive into the deep end and make major habit changes all at once, but this strategy isn’t best for most people.

Trying to ditch all your bad habits at once and build a host of new good habits may seem like the quickest way to success.

However, attempting so much change at the same time is more likely to leave you feeling overwhelmed, unable to keep up, and ultimately disappointed and back at square one.

Rather than overdoing it and not making it, why not play it safe and just build some momentum? Your future, successful self will thank you.

Summary: Although it’s tempting to make big changes right away when you’re excited to craft your new, healthy lifestyle, most people will see greater success by starting with smaller habits they can stick to consistently.

3. Pair Your Habit with a Temptation

If you want to make something a habit, pair it with something else you already do regularly, preferably something you enjoy.

For instance, let’s say you’re currently trying to incorporate more cardio exercise into your routine for heart health and endurance, but you absolutely hate it. You could try pairing it with another activity you enjoy regularly.

Maybe you have a favorite TV show you watch every Thursday at 7 PM. Sounds like a great time to jump on the stairmaster.

Or, maybe you always make a special dinner on Saturday evenings. What if you always plan your biggest cardio workout right before this dinner, so you have something to look forward to?

Or, maybe you could start doing cardio with someone you can talk to, so you can talk to someone else during your cardio workout (and get some additional accountability).

You’ll be much more likely to do something if it’s paired with something you look forward to already.

Summary: If you’re struggling to make something a habit because you don’t enjoy it, try pairing it with something you enjoy to increase your chances of success.

3 Tips for Breaking Bad Habits

bad habits

Now that you know how to build good habits, it’s time to go over how to break bad habits.

You’ll find there’s plenty of overlap between these strategies, and in some cases, breaking bad habits largely boils down to reinforcing good habits.

1. Make the Good Easier and the Bad Harder

Circling back to our lazy human tendencies here—not only do we prefer instant gratification, we also prefer the easy way out and the paths of least resistance.

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at California State University, researchers wanted to determine how making it more difficult for kids to get chocolate milk changed how much they drank.

Instead of chocolate milk being readily available in a refrigerated case, like the other milk options, students now had to specifically ask the cafeteria staff for chocolate milk.

The extra effort required to ask for chocolate milk, rather than just grabbing it themselves, made a significant impact: students increased their white milk consumption by 18%. And they were nearly four times more likely to drink white milk than a control group of students at a different school that didn’t have to ask for their chocolate milk.

So, when the white milk became the easy option, it also became a more popular option than the harder-to-obtain chocolate milk. 

Here are a few ways you can do the same thing in your home:

  • Stash the ice cream in the overflow freezer in your garage, so if you really want a few spoonfuls you have to go all the way out there to get it.
  • Place the cookies, chips, and other tempting snacks at the top of your pantry. Bonus points if they’re high enough to require a step stool to fetch them.
  • Take the TV out of your bedroom if you’re working on watching less TV before bed (or at least remove the batteries from the remote to make the action more effortful, rather than impossible).

When it comes to reinforcing good habits, we simply want to do the opposite: make it as easy as possible to stick to our good habits.

A study conducted by scientists at the University of Aberdeen is a perfect example of this.

The researchers wanted to determine if making fresh fruit readily available to employees at work would increase their consumption of fruit. 

In order to do this, they presented employees at one workplace with a basket of fresh fruit everyday in the breakroom for five months.

A total of 79 employees completed a dietary recall and a urine test at the beginning of the study and five months later at the end of the study. Thirty four of these employees were part of the study that received the free fruit at their workplace, whereas the other 45 employees received no fruit at their workplace.

After five months the total intake of fruits increased by 72 grams in the group of employees that were given free fruit everyday, compared to only 2 grams in the group receiving no fruit.

The results of this study provide further evidence for how we can use our brain’s preference for easy options to our advantage.

In your own life, you can try to do something similar to maintain your good habits.

  • In the habit of buying more veggies? Keep this up by preparing them for easy use and snacking later on (wash, chop, peel, etc.) as soon as you get back from the store. Or, make sure to buy some veggies pre-chopped so you don’t even have to make them ready-to-eat.
  • Made it a habit to drink more water? Awesome—buy a massive reusable bottle to keep at work, so if you get pulled into a “short” meeting that ends up being three hours long, you won’t fall behind on your new hydration habit.

If there’s something you want to make a habit or something you want to keep up in the future, make it easy to do.

And if there’s a bad habit you want to break, make it hard to do.

Summary: As humans, we prefer the path of least resistance. To make or break a habit, we can leverage this fact and make bad habits harder to stick to and good habits easier to stick to.

2. Check Your Social Environment

Ah yes, another basic human tendency we often must fight against if we want to change our habits—family and friendships.

Even back in the day as cave people, we placed extreme value on the groups of people we surround ourselves with. For safety, for health, for entertainment.

Being part of a group/tribe/cave society greatly increased our chances of survival. Being banished from the group was the quickest way to become sabertooth dinner.

Today, group membership provides us with much more than just survival. But regardless, we want to be in the group. We want to feel included. And to do this, we have to obey the rules.

By rules I don’t mean “every Wednesday we wear pink”; these rules are usually unspoken.

For instance, if you’re trying to make some new healthy habits stick, but your group of friends is known for weekends filled with booze and burgers . . . then if you were to suggest a sober movie night or a group gym date—this would likely result in your friends assuming you were making a joke.

And even your own desire to do these things that are anti-friend group might make you feel like you are breaking the “rules” and question your new habits, every single weekend. This is a recipe for a very unsticky habit.

Now, I’m not going to tell you to break up with your best friends and stop speaking to your family. Instead, some options to consider if this issue sounds familiar:

  • Talk to your people. If they love you and support you—then they’ll continue to love you and support your new habits and goals. But, they’ll never know how you’re feeling (worried you’ll be exiled if you turn down a second round of beer) unless you talk to them. Explaining to your friends and family why you want to maintain these new habits can really go a long way. You might even end up with some converts to your new lifestyle. 
  • Make more friends! It’s okay to have a “eat pizza and relax” friend group and a “go to the gym” group. If your current social environment doesn’t have anyone interested in living this new healthy lifestyle you’re working hard to build—you don’t need to force them to be more like you and you don’t need to ditch them, either. Social media is a great tool to find and make friends in your area that are also interested in healthy eats and gym time.

Although we may appreciate being a member of a group for reasons beyond survival, like our cave dwelling ancestors, our friends and family can make a huge impact in our ability to create lifestyle changes. 

Summary: Who you associate with has an outsized impact on how easy it is to stick to your habits. If your friends are making it hard to stick to your habits, explain the situation or try to find a new group of friends you can hang out with when you want more positive reinforcement and less temptation.

3. Don’t Freak Out If You Miss One Day

So you’ve been going to the gym five days per week for a month now.

It finally feels like consistent gym-going is really becoming a habit instead of a chore.

Then, of course, your boss piles on an extra project at work—causing you to stay an extra one or two hours every day. 

And you have a gnarly cold on top of the extra workload, making everything seem 10 times more difficult.

Getting to the gym is only feasible three days this week, and you have to keep the exercise on the lighter side. 

You feel totally defeated (and congested). It’s as if all your habit formation momentum has been lost.

But you shouldn’t! 

Even if you miss a day here and there, your ability to create a habit isn’t significantly hindered. However, if you’re early on in the habit formation process, taking a week off is more likely to derail your progress.

For example, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of London, researchers monitored the habit formation process of 82 people over the course of 84 days.

Researchers had each person pick a habit they wished to develop (e.g. drinking a bottle of water with lunch) and then every day they logged into the study website to report whether or not they performed the behavior and to complete a habit formation assessment.

At the end of the study, the researchers determined that the people who successfully created a habit out of the behavior (the behavior was now automatic) were able to do so even if they missed a day. Although their ratings on the habit formation assessment took a temporary hit the following day after their lapse, this didn’t seem to hurt their long-term progress.

Summary: Creating a new habit takes time and repetition, but missing a few days here and there won’t significantly hurt your results as long as you stick to the habit more often than not.

The Bottom Line on Building Habits

Humans like instant gratification and the path of least resistance—and this makes sense in light of how we evolved.

As cave people and hunter-gatherers we needed to focus on survival. 

The same strong pull we feel to the donuts in the breakroom for the instant gratification provided by the delicious combination of sugar and fat is the same basic human survival skills that kept us from starving in 8000 B.C.

These quirks in our behavior once helped us survive and create more cave babies (and eventually evolve into who we are today) are now obstacles in the way of behaviors that are actually healthier for us.

We can overcome our natural urges by creating habits—unconscious processes that help us do the right thing without thinking about it. 

Now that you understand the habit formation process (cue, interpretation, action, reward) and the power of other elements, like your social environment, you have all the tools at your disposal to manufacture the lifestyle you desire, all while maintaining (most of) your lazy human tendencies.

What’s your take on building and breaking habits? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

+ Scientific References