Last reviewed on 2 November 2020
At this challenging time, you might be concerned about the disruption to your daily routine. But did you realise that all the changes that are going on 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 current situation is making us stop and deliberately consider our lives. So now is the opportunity to start doing something you always wanted to do but never seemed to have the time.
This article by the Good Thinking team gives you a quick start guide on how to develop a new healthy habit based on the science of habit formation.
What exactly is a habit?
It’s not that easy to define a habit. Think about one of the routine activities you do – can you remember exactly when it became a habit? Perhaps this definition is useful:
Habit is a chosen behaviour that is repeated in the same context until it becomes automatic.
Let’s unpack this using a step-by-step instruction, with an example of a habit I recently developed that helped me to be more resilient to stress.
Step 1: Choose your goal wisely
The initial step is about choosing the action you want to become habitual and setting a goal. We are more likely to stick to a behaviour if it is just challenging enough to keep us interested but not too challenging as to set ourselves up for disappointment.
I wanted to develop a regular meditation routine. My friend who wakes up at 6:30am and meditates for 90 minutes inspired me. I could try to attempt to do the same but I would set myself up for failure! So, I decided to set a goal that was realistic for me. When you set your goal, make it as specific as possible, for example:
My goal is to meditate for 15 minutes every day.
Step 2: Choosing the context: when, where and how
This step is all about the environment. We are more likely to engage with the behaviour if we pair it with a specific time and place where we do it. Be consistent with choosing your when and where. The advice is to pair it with the context you encounter on a daily basis.
Here, it’s useful to introduce this simple yet powerful tool that psychologists studying habit formation use. It’s called implementation intention technique and it increases the chances that you stick to the behaviour. This is the simple template:
When I applied implementation intention to my new behaviour I found that the best time for me to meditate is following something I do every single morning. Pairing my new behaviour with an existing routine made it more possible for me to stick to it. Here’s my implementation intention:
Each morning after I have brushed my teeth, I will sit on my couch to meditate for 15 minutes using my meditation app.
The how in this context is the app to help me to time myself. Being as specific as possible ensured that I had little time and room for hesitation because I had a clear action plan.
Step 3: Repeat, repeat, and repeat…
… until it becomes effortless – meaning you will not have to think about it to do it. Repetition is the key. The more consistent you are doing the same action in the context, the more easily it will become a habit.
Don’t worry because it will get easier with time until it becomes automatic. Of course, it won’t be automatic at the beginning but neither was teeth brushing effortless as a child (although most of us can’t even remember learning this complex skill!).
Forming a healthy habit is not about motivating yourself every time you want to develop a new routine. This is because motivation goes up and down and can be unreliable. The key is repetition. Then, your new behaviour is likely to persist even when your motivation or interest wanes.
So, what habit would you like to develop while your normal routine has been disrupted? Make it automatic, repeat it in the same context at the same time, every time. And remember, if you occasionally miss your planned activity, this won’t seriously impair the forming of your habit. Just get back on track straight away. Happy habit forming!
You might also find our articles about five ways to good mental wellbeing, healthy eating and stopping smoking useful – and don't forget to check out our podcasts with Michael Farquhar (sleep), Janet Wingrove (mindfulness), Tanya Goodin (healthy screen/life balance), Tracey Taylor (OCD) and Paula Ludley (supporting family). The NHS has also launched a campaign to help you kickstart your journey to better health – visit the NHS Better Health website for more information.