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How to Build One Great Habit
By Leah Zerbe
July 13, 2023
According to experts who study habit formation, building any new habit is all about mastering these four simple steps: the habit’s trigger (or cue), the craving, the response, and the reward.
In other words, you’re most likely to adopt a new healthy habit when you have reminders built into your day that keep it at the top of your mind, when it satisfies a need, and when you recognize how your life is improving because of the habit.
Most of us can think of a handful of health-related habits that we’d like to pick up;, however, research suggests that it can be more effective to try adopting just one or two habits at a time. Over time you can keep building new healthy habits (they often have a domino effect), but focusing on only one to start helps get the ball rolling and gives you much-needed momentum.
Below we’ll look at science-backed ways to turn desired behaviors into ingrained habits. Follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to living a healthier lifestyle.
How to create one great wellness habit in five steps:
One of the best ways to start making changes is to get very clear on what you’re trying to achieve, especially by putting pen to paper.
Write down exactly what your goal is, and be specific. By being specific, you're better able to hold yourself accountable and track your progress.
So instead of saying “I want to exercise more,” say “I want to be an active person by working out at least 3 or 4 times every week for the next 6 months (and hopefully much longer).” Of course, if you choose to begin any new exercise routine, you should check with your healthcare professional.
Next, identify why you want to make this habit a part of your life (this is your craving/desire, which motivates you to change and act). It also helps to visualize the type of person you want to become and how this habit helps you to do this. Imagine and jot down how the habit will affect your life one, five and 15+ years in the future if you’re able to stick with it.
According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, “What you crave is not the habit itself but the change in state it delivers.” Work on clarifying exactly how you want to feel once you’ve adopted your habit.
This is also a good time to brainstorm small steps you can take along the way to achieve your goal. Begin by keeping the end goal in mind, then clearly define your path. This gives you the chance to check smaller milestones off of your to-do list.
Additionally, a journaling habit can help you practice more gratitude while you learn as you go, and reduce stress if you use it to jot down your worries whenever your mind is racing. Both of these benefit your ability to practice self-compassion and stick to healthy habits long-term.
Mornings for most adults are busy, whether that’s due to squeezing in a workout, a healthy breakfast or a long commute all before the work day gets going.
However, it can be a big help if you can dedicate just 10 minutes per morning to achieving something related to your goal, even if that means learning more about a specific topic related to your habit.
The morning is often when we’re thinking most clearly and also when we’re free of distractions. Use this time wisely to prepare for the rest of your day. Remember the type of person you want to become, then start your day by implementing the habits and daily routine that that type of person would practice.
For instance, if you want to grow spiritually, read your bible and pray for 15 minutes every morning. If you want to both get stronger and look leaner, lift weights for 30 minutes in the morning 3x a week.
When you tackle just one or two things that move you toward your goal, this creates a positive cycle, further boosting your motivation to keep progressing.
The morning is also an ideal time to focus on “keystone habits,” which are “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.” Keystone habits create a domino effect; consider how working out in the morning motivates you to eat a healthier lunch, or how getting to sleep earlier gives you energy to be more active the next day.
Reminders are cues that trigger your brain to initiate a behavior. These are the things that are planted throughout your daily routine that lead to you actually perform desired behaviors.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to walk 10,000 steps per day; wearing a fitness tracker that has alarms set to remind you to get up and move periodically throughout the day is a great cue.
Another way to remind yourself to perform a habit/behavior is to link two habits together, which is called “habit stacking.” For instance, when you brush your teeth in the morning, this can serve as a reminder to take probiotic supplements or to drink a big glass of lemon water.
The great thing about habit stacking is that it can improve multiple aspects of your life simultaneously, creating an upward spiral. For example, if you want to both increase your endurance and become a better leader at work, then set up a time three days per week to do 30 minutes of cardio exercise while you listen to a leadership podcast.
Rewards are the end goal of every habit and they help to reinforce the habit by providing a benefit — such as pride, pleasure or relief from a previous problem you had.
Basically, rewards are essential for forming habits because they teach us which actions are worth remembering and repeating in the future. In doing so, rewards “close the loop,” providing satisfaction which engrains certain automatic behaviors in our minds.
What type of rewards should you give yourself? You don’t necessarily have to buy anything to feel satisfied. You might practice mindfulness each day to notice how much better you feel, take pictures of yourself to record your progress, or log your workouts to celebrate how far you’ve come (all of these are sources of pride and joy).
Other ways to reward yourself include by purchasing small items that make you feel good — like a new workout outfit, more fitness equipment, meals out, a massage to relax, a new book, etc.
We tend to replicate the attitudes and behaviors of the people we spend the most time around, which means a health-oriented community can really motivate you to live your best life.
Having friends, coworkers or family to build your healthy habits with will make things more fun, meaningful and increase your chances of sticking with them.
You might find that exercising with a friend is more motivating, or that attending church and serving at a homeless shelter with like-minded people gives you a greater purpose in life.
Other ideas for building a supportive tribe include: scheduling a healthy Sunday brunch at your home so that everyone shares the best part of the week together in a fun, low-stress atmosphere; joining a fitness class or sports team that you look forward to attending; setting up walking meetings or exercise breaks with your coworkers; partaking in a community race/marathon, and so on.