Building Healthy Habits that Stick

Published on: September 7, 2023 | Reading time: 🕐 6m

Woman sleeping with a book in her hands

The saying “humans are creatures of habits” seems to be true according to psychology research. Studies show that habits account for at least 40% of our daily behaviours. This means that almost half of our waking life consists of actions we repeat without much thought! While easy to overlook, habits are the building blocks of our daily routines and can have a tremendous impact on our health and well-being.

But, of course, not all habits are in our best interest. Most of us engage in some habits that aren’t great for our physical or mental health or our sleep! Why do we do this? These habits might simply feel good. Perhaps they’re so ingrained in our daily routine that we don’t even notice them. Or maybe we don’t know how to swap them for healthier or more productive habits.

If you’re wanting to replace some unwanted habits with new ones, there are some strategies you can try. The first is to keep this simple principle in mind: you need to repeat an action consistently in the same context for long enough. How long is long enough? There’s no definitive answer to this but some research suggests that it takes about 2 months for a new behaviour to become automatic. Then, once a behaviour becomes a habit, performing it requires much less effort and you may even notice that you start to crave it.

Let’s look at some other strategies that can help build healthy habits.

Reward yourself

Habits with no immediate rewards are usually more difficult to develop compared to those with immediate gratification. For instance, when aiming for healthy and sustainable weight loss, pounds should come off gradually and steadily. Many people struggle with this type of slow-and-steady progress, as it’s not rewarding enough. They may decide to throw the diet out the window and reach for a burger instead.

You might not notice an immediate benefit to some of the habits you’re trying to adopt in Sleep Therapy, so find ways to reward yourself for your efforts and consistency. For instance, if you’ve been consistent with a new healthy sleep habit (e.g., putting away your digital devices at least 1 hour before bed) for a certain number of days in a row, do something nice for yourself – treat yourself to a special coffee or some other tasty goodie, take 30 minutes to just relax, or do something you enjoy outside.

Pairing a low-reward behaviour with a reward will help your brain associate the desired behaviour with positive feelings and increase the likelihood of you repeating it. Of course, ensure the rewards you choose are proportional to your efforts and don’t turn into bad habits themselves!

Make yourself accountable

A strong sense of accountability makes it easier to engage in and commit to new behaviours. This is why people tend to be more successful when their progress is monitored by an instructor, personal trainer, therapist, and so on.

Ask someone to help you stay accountable on your journey toward healthy habits, such as a significant other, friend, child, co-worker, or other family member. This “accountability partner” might simply know about your goals or you may work together toward a healthy habit. For instance, start a new workout routine with a friend, eat healthier as a family, or work with your bed partner to adopt sleep-promoting habits.

Having an accountability partner makes it more difficult to find excuses, and concerns about disappointing or letting them down push us to follow through. Arrange to update your partner regularly on your progress and, if they happen, on your setbacks.

It’s also a good idea to increase your sense of responsibility toward yourself. Consider setting some time aside each week to reflect on your goals and progress. Ask yourself questions to check in, such as: “Did I take a walk every day like I planned to?”, “Did I respect my sleep schedule?”, “Did I cut back on mindless snacking?”. Jotting down your thoughts about your goals and progress can help you become more self-aware.

Set SMART goals

Although it can be tempting to shoot for the stars, the goals that we have the most success with are those that are realistic and well-thought-out. Try setting SMART goals!

  • Specific: A goal should be well-defined and clear. Narrow things down to identify specific goals, so you know where to focus your efforts. For example, “Get fit” is a common but very broad goal. Where would you even start? More specific goals might be to complete two strength training sessions per week, get your daily steps in, fit into an old pair of jeans, or be able to complete a push-up from your toes instead of your knees. Specific goals point you in the right direction and tend to be easily measurable.
  • Measurable: It’s important to establish a concrete way to measure progress toward your goal. This will help keep you on track and let you know when you’ve achieved it. For example, if you’re working on building strength in the body, perhaps you want to track the weights you’re using. This is a very simple way to assess your progress over time.
  • Achievable: Now for the reality check! Be honest with yourself and consider whether you can realistically reach your goal given the available resources. Aiming at targets that are out of reach sets us up for failure. So, instead, set yourself up for success by choosing attainable and realistic goals. Continuing with exercise as an example, rather than setting a goal to complete an Ironman, try a 5 or 10-km run instead (unless, of course, you’re already a triathlete!).
  • Relevant: Your goal should matter to you. Sometimes, we get so caught up in daily life that we forget the reason behind our actions. So, occasionally take a step back to reassess your goals. Ask yourself: “Does this goal support my other, overall life goals?”, “Do my current goals align with my values? With my direction in life?”, “Is this goal still worthwhile to me?”
  • Time-bound: Choose an appropriate timeframe for achieving your goal. Deadlines can sometimes feel restrictive, but they provide the necessary pressure to drive us into action. They can also encourage you to think about your goal in smaller pieces, with each smaller piece getting its target date.

Use older habits to help form new ones

Take advantage of an older habit by adding a new one to it, a concept called “habit stacking”. The idea is to group several habits into a routine. In general, our morning and nighttime routines are well-established, so these are ideal windows of opportunity to incorporate a new habit. For instance, add gratitude journaling to your bedtime routine, meditate for 5 minutes after your morning shower, or complete your sleep diary after breakfast.

Address underlying issues if necessary

Clinging to familiar routines is often soothing and comforting, whereas engaging in new behaviours can be anxiety-provoking. Addressing feelings of discomfort or unhelpful beliefs around changing old habits is sometimes key to achieving long-lasting behaviour change. For some people, psychotherapy or counselling can help tackle obstacles that are blocking their way, so they are better able to progress toward their goals.

Read more: COMISA: When Insomnia and Sleep Apnea Occur Together

M126 - More Articles