How to develop a new healthy habit

Last reviewed on 25 January 2022

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, it's likely that your daily routine was disrupted. In fact, it might still not be back to normal. But did you know that all these changes could be a springboard to developing new healthy habits?

Psychologists who study the best ways to form healthy habits consider life events a ‘window of opportunity’ because they disrupt our routine. The pandemic has made many of us stop and deliberately consider our lives. So, as we head into 2022, this could be the time to start doing something you've always wanted to do.

In this article, we provide some tips to help you develop a new healthy habit – whether that’s exercising, spending more time with your family, being creative or something else. These are based on the science of habit formation and the personal experience of the author, Paulina, an expert in behaviour change who works with the Good Thinking team.

To help you set goals and build healthy habits, you might like to download the tomo app, which is free for Good Thinking users.

But, first, what exactly is a habit? It’s not that easy to define. Think about one of your routine activities, such as doing the laundry or making a cup of tea – can you remember exactly when it became a habit? Perhaps this definition is useful:

A habit is a chosen behaviour that is repeated in the same context until it becomes automatic.

Let’s unpack this using the following step-by-step instructions, with an example of a habit that Paulina recently developed that helped her to be more resilient to stress.

Choose something that you want to become habitual and set a realistic goal. Make sure it’s challenging enough to keep you interested but not too challenging that you set yourself up for failure.

In my case, I wanted to develop a regular meditation routine. I was inspired by my friend who wakes up at 6.30am and meditates for 90 minutes. I could try to do the same but I knew it wasn’t realistic so I set myself the following goal:

I will meditate for 15 minutes every day.

It’s more likely that you’ll stick to the desired behaviour if you pair it with a specific time and place (the when and where). Even better if you pair it with something you already do on a daily basis. This uses a simple yet powerful technique called ‘implementation intention’.

In my case, I decided to pair my behaviour with something I do every morning (brushing my teeth) and use a meditation app (the how) to time myself. I made sure that my implementation intention (my action plan) was as specific as possible so I have little room for hesitation:

Each morning after I have brushed my teeth, I will sit on my sofa and meditate for 15 minutes using my meditation app.

…until it comes effortless and you no longer have to think about it. The more consistent you are doing the same action in the same context, the more easily it will become a habit.

Motivation goes up and down and can be unreliable so forming a habit is not about motivating yourself every time – it’s about repeating an activity over and over until it becomes automatic. Of course, it won’t be automatic at the beginning but nothing ever is!

So, what healthy habit would you like to develop?

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