How to cultivate healthy habits and keep them working for you

candy M&Ms

Photo by Scott Enhardt-Wikimedia

If you are like me, you know exactly what you need to do to create a more healthy lifestyle. 

Lose the weight. Eat better. Exercise more. Simplify. But saying is easier than doing. 
Here are a few suggestions for cultivating and persisting in those healthy habits.

How long does it take to change a habit?

It depends.
William James, back in the 1900s studied habits and calculated it took about 21 days to cultivate a new one. That works for me. I remember moving into a new apartment. It took about three weeks before I turned left instead of right to go into my bedroom.

On the other hand, current thinking is telling us that it takes 30 days to create a new habit, but 90 days to break an old one! And the clock keeps resetting. If you are on Day 71 and then relapse, the next day is DAY ONE, not Day 72.  That’s enough to cause serious depression!

It does help to keep track, though. Most addiction programs, such as stopping smoking or kicking drugs keep track. All of the Twelve Step programs do. In fact, we count days and months with relationships and marriage, too.  Woe be he that forgets the anniversary!

Several tools that I’ve found to help with countdowns or days since: 

  • If you use the Google Tool Bar, there is a handy widget called Days Since (downloadable, free) that will keep track of multiple tasks: Feed the dog, water the fish, stay on a diet? 
  • Of course WordPress Plugins has a bunch.  For example, take a look at this Countdown Widget
  • If you want tangible something you can put on the frig or stick on a baby food jar, try the How Many Days ago timer.

Nature abhors a vacuum

If you are seeking to substitute a healthy habit for an unhealthy one, remember the emotional component. 

Emotion drives action, and if your reasons for wanting to change a habit are only rational, not a lot is going to happen. On the other hand, if you build in some rewards and some, yes, punishments, your habits will change faster and be more durable.

Scott H. Young has done an excellent series of posts on Mastering Habituation in which he says you need to consider not only the primary emotion reason for a new habit, but also the five or six minor ones that will be related. 

Once you root out all of the underlying emotional highs and lows of an old habit and replace them with new, your habit persistence will increase.

Social punishment—the stick behind the carrot

In addition to pleasurable rewards for keeping to a new habit, if you are really serious, you can build in some social deterrents as well. For example, announce publicly in the office lunch room that you are going on a diet and ask folks to nudge you if you fall off the wagon. Believe me, they will!

I remember one time I was just learning public speaking. I got up in front of a class of middle schoolers to give a presentation and punctuated every important point with a pointing finger and a ‘Listen to this’. The kids began to  mimick the gesture behind my back. When I caught on, face red, I corrected my speech and have not used that phrase since! Social punishment can be a VERY strong incentive to change!

Build in ‘awareness reminders’

Paradoxically, the very thing that we want to habituate needs to be drawn to our attention again and again, or we will fall back into old habits. 

So give yourself visual and physical clues. For example, if you are going to work out in the morning, put your running shoes by your bed where your toes will find them as you rise. Or turn the alarm clock to the wall to catch your attention.

If you are leaving yourself affirmations, change their location: one side of the mirror to the other, or from the freezer door to the door of the cabinet where you keep your plates.

Give yourself immediate rewards

Elementary school teachers sometimes use a ‘Token Economy’ in which the kids can—and do—work for M&Ms!

But it is not just for kids. There are good reasons why the military gives out medals, 12 step programs give out chips for abstinence, Weight Watchers and the County Fair give out ribbons. It is a simple process and it consistently works! 

For me, stars do the trick. I went down to the office supply store and got a supply of those gold (and silver, red & blue) stars that your teacher used to put on your paper. Each day that I exercise, one goes on the kitchen calendar. I can see—and my visitors can, too—how successful I have been at keeping a good thing going.

Keep it simple, but be specific

Consider the concept of shaping. A wonderful program called Simple Steps: 10 Weeks to Getting Control of Your Life: Health, Weight, Home, Spirit suggests changing just 4 things a week to build a healthier life style. Each subsequent week you add on four more. At the end of 10 weeks, your life has changed dramatically.

You might try this same concept, personalized for your own list of new habits to cultivate. For example, I am doing a variant of this program, using my own 12 items. Each week I add another, while keeping the ones already in play intact.

Included on my list are drinking water, taking vitamins, eliminating ‘white foods’ and dairy products. I tackle only one at a time, one a week. At the end of 12 weeks I’ll turn the pile over and start again, putting a special emphasis on topic one.

Bad habits can be broken and better ones substituted.

To change habits takes persistence.  We have to be craftier than the Id who wants what they want, when they want it. 

If you treat your psyche kindly, with patience, you will see the changes you want to happen showing up on your doorstep and moving in, for good!


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About Author, Pegasus Quincy Mystery Series

I write a mystery series about a young rookie deputy on her first assignment in the Verde Valley of Arizona.
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