Seven Tips to Establish a Habit

Posted by on Feb 28, 2015 in Health | Comments Off on Seven Tips to Establish a Habit


Seven Tips to Establish a Habit


Image by snugsomeone @ DeviantArt

For many of my patients, my advice comes down to something that seems so simple: change your habits. Whether it’s smoking, over eating, inactivity, or inappropriate stress responses, they must choose to change.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Albert Einstein

What does science tell us about changing those patterns of behavior? How long does it take to reverse years of bad habits? 

Below, I outline seven ways to ease yourself into establishing a healthy habit.

  1. Handwrite your lists

    Simon Sinek in his presentation about why Good Leaders Eat Last, talks about the importance of making lists (among other things). Our bodies are programmed to accomplish physical tasks, like throwing a spear at our dinner. Most of what we do in day to day life is not physical however: plan a meeting, answer emails, make reservations for business trips. Throwing the spear is more gratifying for our brains. Making physical lists and crossing items off of those lists can give your brain the similar satisfaction of throwing a spear.

  2. Interrupt routines

    By using “if then” statements we can begin to reprogram our behavior. Heidi Grant, PhD discusses how this works with exercise. In one study, 91% of participants using the “If Then” method were still exercising months later. For example, “If today is Tuesday I will walk 2 miles”.

  3. Simplify

    This study supports that we should think in terms of the big picture of what we want to accomplish (macro goals) and use day to day to day activities to motivate you (micro goals). For instance, if you want to write a book (macro goal) start by writing 1,000 words every day (micro goal).

  4. Eliminate Roadblocks

    Examine  what’s standing in your way and plan around it. Example: my goal is to attend a yoga class early every morning. However, I find myself wanting to sleep in rather than get up and get dressed. The plan around this is to wear my yoga clothes to bed and have my shoes and bag with my mat at the foot of the bed ready to go. Avoid sleeping in by making it easy to get out of bed and out the door in the morning. Dr Jeremy Dean goes into more detail in his blog.

  5. Find Accountability

    Tell others what you are doing. Tweet about it, put it on your wall, let your coworkers know, and let your close friends know. If you find that someone else has similar goals… keep each other accountable. This effect was described in the 1920s and the the term coined in the 1950s: Hawthorne Effect. There are whole communities designed around this principal. This one uses allows you to set a goal in minutes. 21 habits will have you commit to 21 days and $21. For each day you meet the commitment you earn a dollar back. If you don’t meet the goal the money is donated to charity. 

  6. Visualize Success

    Recent neuroscience studies reveals that when we imagine ourself doing something, it triggers the same regions of the brain as when we are physically doing the thing. This suggests that the more we imagine ourselves performing a task, the stronger the neural connections will be to actually perform the given task. This study looked at increasing fruit intake through visualization. Try imagining yourself eating more vegetables, exercising more, even sleeping better. Perform this visualization exercise every day. Amy Cuddy, in this TedTalk, shares that even our body language can shape who we are. Men who stood in front of the mirror in a “Superman” pose and imagined themselves being stronger gained more muscle than those that assumed a “smaller” stance.

  7. Give it 12 weeks (or more)

    The idea that it takes 21 days to establish a good habit is probably flawed. There’s more data to support that breaking a bad habit can be done in as little as 21 days. This study highlights that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days with the average being 66. Of note, missing one opportunity did not materially affect success.

My father used analogies often when we were growing up to drive points home. I find myself using them in my day to day life to explain difficult concepts to patients.  One that I frequently refer to when describing disease processes is as a maze. Early in any disease process the walls of the maze are low, there are plenty of gaps in the walls to change paths and the walls are low. The further we progress down a disease’s path, the higher those walls become and the fewer opportunities we have to change paths. Changing the way we live our lives can be difficult. Without that change, we are bound to stay on the same path we have always been.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Dr Jeffrey Davis is a Family Physician and the owner of Prairie Health and Wellness. He’s married to a wonderful woman who has given him four beautiful children.