6 Principles for Forming Healthy Habits

(ORDO NEWS) — Taking a shower every day, eating junk food at school, going to bed early, jogging every morning, biting your nails when you’re nervous, and watching TV when you get home from work are all examples of habits.

Habit refers to context-dependent but goal-independent learned behavior that does not require much mental effort.

How can we form healthy habits? The first step is to study the science of habit formation.

In this article, we summarize the six principles of habit formation discussed in a recent paper by Harvey et al., published in the March issue of Perspectives in Psychological Science.

1. Habits are independent of goals

Healthy habits are usually formed when, in pursuit of some goal, a person repeats healthy behavior in a certain context. Over time, behavior ceases to depend on the goal.

Application: To form healthy habits, the first step is to set goals. As you strive towards your goals, your behavior may become habitual.

For example, meditation can become a habit and persist even when the original reason for meditation (such as extreme panic and anxiety) no longer exists.

Or suppose you play basketball daily to lose weight; you may find that playing basketball has become part of your daily routine even after losing weight.

2. Habits are caused by context

Habits are triggered by contextual cues, both internal (eg, stress, hunger) and external (eg, advertising, the presence of other people).

Application: To form healthy habits, be as consistent as possible: Try to perform the desired behavior in the same context, in the same mood, with the same people, at the same time, etc.

Use event-based signals (such as exercising in the afternoon) rather than time-based ones (such as exercising at 7pm) because the former tend to be more effective.

Since we often stick to behaviors that require less effort, change your environment so that desired healthy behaviors are easier and unhealthy habits are harder.

For example, to eat healthier food, reduce the number of snacks with sugar and fat that are open on the counter. Just replace them with your favorite fruits. Similarly, to sleep better, make your bedroom more comfortable for sleeping than for work.

Lastly, get to know yourself. For example, say that you eat more when you are with friends. Being aware of such situational signs is important when you want to change unhealthy habits (for example, lose weight); find solutions that work in these conditions (for example, a trash bag).

3. Habits are formed through repetition

Repetition is essential for habit formation. It improves skills and reduces effort.

Application: Life can be unpredictable, so in order to continue to practice this habit regularly, it is necessary to use effective problem-solving methods. In short, prepare and plan.

For example, if you are trying to lose weight and eat healthy, think about what to do if, say, you don’t have fruits or vegetables at home, there are no healthy options in a restaurant, you can’t control the desire to eat chocolate cake in the refrigerator, etc.

Also, use reminders (eg alarm clocks, strategically placed notes). But keep in mind that the effectiveness of reminders sometimes decreases over time (for example, you stop noticing sticky notes).

4. Habits are automatic

Bad habits are difficult to break partly because they are automatic, that is, habits require few attentional resources and often do not require conscious initiation or even awareness. Automatism concerns not only behavior, but also attention to the signals that cause this behavior.

For example, a health-conscious person may first notice an apple when they enter the kitchen, while another person may be the first to notice a Snickers bar.

Application: You can break the automatism of negative behaviors, including negative automatic thoughts and thinking habits (eg, “I’m worthless” or “This will never work”), by conducting behavioral experiments.

For example, if you often justify self-criticism as helpful or motivating, experiment with self-compassion for a few days a week. See if the results of the experiment show that you are less or more motivated when you are compassionate to yourself.

Compared to discussing habits of thought, you may find these experimental exercises more effective in breaking down automatic negative thinking and developing positive thinking. Remember that just like negative beliefs, positive beliefs can become automatic through repetition.

5. Habits are reinforced by reinforcements

Reinforcement and reward reinforce behavior and promote habit formation.

Partial reinforcement (i.e., rewarding a behavior only occasionally) is more effective than constant reinforcement (i.e., rewarding a behavior all the time).

And schedules of interval reinforcement (reinforcement occurs only after a certain time) are more effective than proportional reinforcement schedules (reinforcement always occurs with a certain probability).

Application: Use continuous reinforcement first to create a strong connection between behavior and reinforcement; use partial reinforcement afterwards.

Anything that you consider rewarding, whether it’s praise, a favorite snack, or an extra hour of video game play, can work. However, sometimes rewards lose their power of motivation and need to be replaced.

6. It takes time to change habits

The final principle of habit formation concerns timing. The formation of new habits takes from several weeks to many months – depending on the person, the complexity of the behavior, the sequence and frequency of its implementation, etc.

For example, one study found that it takes between 18 and 254 days to form a habit.

Application: Be patient and focus on forming only one new habit at a time. Bad habits don’t form overnight, so don’t expect to be able to change a lot of bad habits and replace them with healthy habits in a short time.

This is true even if you are in psychotherapy. Indeed, a course of psychological treatment (such as cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT) of a couple of months is likely too short if the goal is to change multiple behaviors.

In short, to form healthy habits, keep practicing the desired behavior, stay optimistic, but be patient.

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