How can we invite healthy habits into our lives and make them feel like second nature? Most of us are just winging it from day to day. If you are having a good day, you have a plan for your day that includes a few healthy habits like hitting the gym or a social gathering with your friends. Yet by the end of the day, you only managed to accomplish half of what you planned. You got tired or distracted by a Netflix show.
Some days are better than others but consistency is what matters. The problem is that we think knowing why something is important and wanting it to be done is not enough.
What is the key to healthy habits becoming a natural part of your life? Repetition! According to experts, repetition can turn a new behavior into a habit. Susan Alberts, psychologist and author of Hanger Management said:
“Daily routines help to make behaviors effortless and easy. Once we get into the swing of things, we have to put very little thought into the new behavior.”
Repetition of new behaviors can be painful and unnatural, and that’s the hard part. Holistic psychologist, Ellie Cobb stressed why repetition is important:
“Our brain is constantly searching for patterns and frameworks to help integrate new information. And the most important aspect of helping the brain learn a new framework is with repetition and consistency.”
Decades of research show that only repetition can turn a behavior into a habit. Think about bad habits such as smoking. The behavior becomes a habit when repeated many times. Repetition can literally change your brain. A study from 2018 showed that stress is associated with an increased level of depression but a healthy routine can decrease the risk of depression. A similar study from 2019, found that consistent and healthy meals and regular sleep can lead to emotional self-regulation among teenagers. Developing a healthy lifestyle rhythm and turning those healthy behaviors into habits can be a struggle.
How long does it take for painful repetition to become second nature? Many people will give up right before they get to that point when a healthy behavior becomes a habit. How long does it take? Estimates vary and depend on the habit and our personality but it takes between two weeks and two months.
How to start? The first thing you have to do is verbalize your intentions and turn them into actions. Losing weight is not specific, exercising from 6.30 AM to 7 AM, three times a week is measurable and actionable. The second thing you should do is link behavior to a specific time and place, and other behaviors (meaning what you usually do before and after that behavior). For example, if you want to read more, then have a plan of reading for 30 minutes after dinner at 8 PM in your living room.
The brain is resistant to breaking old bad habits, however, it’s pretty good with creating new, good ones. Instead of focusing on breaking bad habits, focus on building new, good and healthy habits. Instead of focusing on stopping eating sweets in the afternoon hours, focus your energy on creating a habit of eating healthy snacks in the afternoon.
Remember, sometimes things happen and you need a change of plan. Maybe you came home after 9PM and you can’t cook your healthy dinner. Be prepared for those situations and have a plan B in place. For many, it’s hard to go back when they have a bad day. While a bad day can feel like a blow to your progress, there is no reason to stress. In general, you should give yourself some slack. Not everything can be or needs to be perfect.