How to Build Healthier Habits Today

Decision science teaches us how to adopt better habits and make them stick.

Posted Apr 26, 2019

Each year, a shocking 92% of people fail to stick to their New Year’s resolutions, and most people throw in the towel by mid-February.

Prasanth Inturi/Pexels
How to establish healthier habits
Source: Prasanth Inturi/Pexels

Now is the ideal time to take stock and evaluate your own efforts. Did you manage to miraculously overhaul your life and create that highly acclaimed ‘New You?' Did you turn into a teetotal vegan, who starts each morning with an invigorating run, is always punctual, saves half a month’s salary and never misses a friend’s birthday?

Chances are you didn’t. Indeed, if you are anything like the normal population, you will have slipped up many weeks ago. And while that’s disappointing, there’s no point beating yourself up over it. Perhaps you simply started at the wrong time.

The right time

Despite the popular tradition of goal-setting at the beginning of a new year, the first of January may not be the best time for embarking on the difficult journey to building better habits.

The one key requirement for making lasting changes is motivation. However, most New Year’s resolutions are born out of boozy holiday parties. It has become “trendy” to set resolutions, and as a social phenomenon, most of these resolutions lack the deeper motivation so crucial for achieving lasting change. 

Rather than following short-term, media-propagated trends, the building of new habits needs to be inspired by an intrinsic, longer-term vision for change. Such a vision is rarely bound to particular calendar dates. If you really want to make a change, the right time to put it into practice is not next January. The right time is now.

The right resolutions

Let’s assume your aim is to establish a regular yoga practice and lead a healthier life—not just in January but for many years to come. In addition to this long-term focus, it’s important to identify the right “terms” conducive to putting your plans into action, and this requires a thorough understanding of how habits are built. In his book “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg describes three basic elements of habits: the Trigger, the Action, and the Reward. Below, each element will be discussed in turn, and simple tips will be offered on how to maximize your personal success.

Build stronger triggers:

Triggers typically consist of contextual factors, which serve as cues to action. In the context of practicing yoga, these may include electronic reminders or a friend picking you up for class. Both are external factors that nudge you towards the desired behavior, and your success of building habits can be increased by strengthening those factors.

  • Establish routine: The power of triggers can be increased through the strategic use of repetition and routine. For example, try to practice yoga at the same time and place each day. Simply arriving in your regular practice location could become a trigger, thereby helping to get you on the mat.
  • Plan ahead: Always be one step ahead of your inner couch potato. Plan your practice in advance, for example, by deciding which classes you are going to take. This is helpful for reducing the cognitive load involved in making decisions and makes resolutions easier to follow.
  • Foresee barriers: Most people lead hectic lives with multiple responsibilities. Try to predict any challenges that get in the way of your resolution. If you travel frequently or do irregular shift work, for example, it might be difficult to find a regular yoga course that accommodates your needs. In this case, a mobile app with flexible classes could help by allowing to establish a remote and independent yoga practice.

Define meaningful action:

The action refers to the desired behavior you want to establish. In order to make an action stick, you need to be clear about what it entails.

  • Know your intention: Question what you want to achieve. Is the yoga practice intended to increase mindfulness or build muscle mass? Your intention will determine the action you need to take.
  • Be specific: A vague aim of “doing regular yoga” is not going to cut it, because it allows for convenient re-interpretation when it’s tempting to fall back into the old rut. The term “regular” can easily mean different things: once a day, twice per week or thrice every year. What exactly is it that you want to achieve?
  • Take it slow: Starting off too big with sheer unattainable goals is rarely helpful. Identify realistic goals, which take into account your starting point. If you’re a yoga novice, 5-10 minutes of gentle stretching each morning may be plenty to keep you challenged. Luckily, there are many brief yoga videos on YouTube which can help to get you started. 

Find reward in your effort:

The final habit component is reward. This can refer to a material or emotional incentive, which helps to compensate you for your efforts. In most cases, accomplishing your goals bears an intrinsic reward. However, sometimes this may not be powerful enough to help you sustain a habit over time. As a yoga newbie, you might feel sore after each class. You might also feel embarrassed by your less than shapely poses or the puddle of sweat accumulating on your mat.

  • Boost existing rewards: Try to increase existing rewards or design additional ones! How about you treat yourself to a massage after each yoga class? Can you think of any yummy post-workout snacks to reward yourself after a tough practice? Be creative and find what motivates you.
  • Cut the self-blame: Negative self-talk can act as punishment and interfere with feelings of reward. So what if your “down-dog” looks more like a sloth? Try to focus on your progress rather than the absolute achievement.
  • Measure improvement: Paying attention to improvement and celebrating (even small) successes can be instrumental in sustaining your efforts over time. Great tools include fitness apps or online forums where you can log workouts and take note of your achievements.

Even when following the above recommendations, adopting new habits is never without challenges. On the difficult road to self-improvement, it might be worth remembering that, as Charles Duhigg said in The Power of Habit, “change might not be fast and it isn't always easy. But with time and effort, almost any habit can be reshaped.”