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How To Make Healthy Habits Stick

Encore! Encore! Turns out, 300 repetitions may be the key


by Sarah Mahoney

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I love my good habits. Some of the little ritualistic routines I’ve developed are the most satisfying parts of my day, whether it’s writing my daily to-do list (which I compose the night before), or the songs I hum when I walk with the dogs each morning.

Because I’ve had such good luck building these habits, whether they help with health, happiness, or time management, it baffles and frustrates me when a new one I’m trying to create just won’t take. If I can make drinking more water habitual, why can’t I remember to do sit-ups every morning? Or why am I unable to get in the groove of pulling something out of the freezer to thaw for dinner?

Turns out that developing new habits (or breaking old ones) is harder in midlife, says Wendy Wood, Ph.D., provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. “Habits are the easy, automatic response,” she tells Life Reimagined. “To do something that is not a habit requires making decisions with thought and energy. And the many demands in midlife leave people with little extra cognitive resources or energy to make decisions about their diet or exercise.”

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For most of us, that means falling back on bad habits, like ordering the bagel with cream cheese instead of an egg white omelet, or watching one more episode of Pawn Stars when we know we should go to bed.

Here’s how to make healthy habits a natural part of your life:

Make easy changes first Hate vegetables? Focus on eating more fruit. If you loathe the gym, then garden more. Healthy behaviors you can see yourself continuing have more meaning than something you’re unlikely to stick with. “You won’t benefit from eating healthfully for a week or going to the gym twice,” Wood says.

Be prepared for repetition, and lots of it Forget about that old “21 days to form a habit” rule of thumb—it was never true. One study, she says, found that people “had to repeat a behavior almost 300 times before it became a habit. So, it might take you 300 nights of walking your dog before you have a habit, something you do automatically.”

Create the right context Performing the new behavior the same way each time is also important. “To form a habit, repeat something in the same situation over time,” says Pippa Lally, a research psychologist at University College London who researches habit formation. Meditating in the morning one day, at lunch another, and in the evening on the third day will confuse you. (Turns out meditating “is a tricky behavior to form a habit for,” she says, “as it requires attention. However, the initiation of meditating could become a routine.”)

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Take advantage of life changes There’s good evidence, Wood says, that linking new habits to changing circumstances will help make them stick, whether it’s moving to a new house, the start of a new school year, “even going on a long vacation. These changes alter familiar circumstances and thus disrupt old habits. But pretty much any time in which you are exposed to a new environment can be good for starting new habits.”

Photo Credits: Apple: Oleksiy Maksymenko/GettyBrain: Ian Hooton/Getty