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Mental Health Blog

What are Habits and How to Build Healthier Ones

March 21, 2022

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Most of our daily life involves engaging in a series of behaviors that we’ve formed over our lifetime. Whether it’s making our bed, fastening our seatbelt, brushing our teeth, going for a run, or packing our lunch, these behaviors that we do automatically we can consider habits.

Whether conscious of it or not, our habits determine if we’re going to be happy, moody, sleepy, well-rested, strong, or weak.

It’s our responsibility to get curious, and ask ourselves what habit patterns do I engage in on a daily basis that nurture the spiritual development of myself and others, and what new habits can I practice that will better my relationship with myself and others?

But before we dive into the art of habit building, let’s take a look at what habits are and how they’re formed.

What is a Habit?

A habit is a tendency to do something, whether harmful or health-promoting. A positive habit can help you reach your goals, develop personally and professionally, and feel fulfilled.

Driven by the reward-seeking mechanisms of the brain, habits are often triggered by a specific occurrence: waking up to the smell of coffee brewing in the kitchen might motivate you to jump out of bed.

Habits are automatic by nature, meaning that we don’t always recognize our own behavior. Studies show that about 40 percent of our daily activities are performed every day in almost the same situations!

The characteristics of an automatic behavior or habit are:

  • It’s efficient
  • You’re less aware that you’re doing it
  • It’s unintentional
  • It’s less controllable

Habits and Routines: What’s the Difference?

While habits run automatically, routines need practice.

If you’re hoping to incorporate a meditation or exercise plan into your morning routine, you’ll need to take intentional time and effort. You won’t start meditating or doing crunches on autopilot without setting aside the time, and engaging in your practice.

After practicing a morning meditation on the regular, you might wake up and meditate without thinking about it; this you can consider a habit.

What is the Habit Loop?

Habits start with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop,” a four-part process.

  1. Cue/Trigger: Your mind analyzes your environment for subtle rewards. The cue tells your mind that you’re close to a reward: triggering your brain to start a behavior.
  2. Craving: Behind every habit is a motivational force- those we call cravings. Cravings stem from a desire to change your internal state.
  3. Response: The response is the habit that you perform: a thought or an action stemming from how motivated you are and how challenging it is to perform the behavior.
  4. Reward: The end goal of every habit is the reward. The cue finds the reward, the craving desires the reward, and the response obtains the reward.Ex. You’re walking home from work and smell freshly baked cookies coming from your favorite neighborhood cafe (cue); you desire a chocolate chip cookie (craving); you buy a cookie (response); you walk home enjoying the taste of your favorite cookie (reward).

How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?

Though a contentious topic, researchers at University College London found that on average, it takes around 66 days before an automatic behavior forms into a habit.

Some habits, like reading a chapter of your book before bed instead of scrolling through Instagram, might take less time to form than others.

Why Build New Habits?

While it’s important to practice habits that help us live healthier lives, engage with others, and manage our responsibilities, brain science shows us that when we change our habits and engage in new experiences, we change the pathways in our brains. This process, called neuroplasticity, produces new connections as we learn, (2010; 2012).

Adopting new, healthier habits, like riding your bike to work or packing a healthier lunch, may even protect you from serious health conditions like obesity and diabetes.

How to Build New Habits?

Now it’s time to do the work.

  1. Build awareness of your habits and your environment
    Identify the people, places, smells, sights, and sounds of your environment that are linked in your mind to your current habits. Pay attention to your habits and identify one that no longer serves you. Notice your typical procedure of engaging in that habit. Make a list of your daily routines and steps.
  2. Choose which habits you want to keep
    Ask yourself, which habits you like and which habits you are willing to change.
  3. Attach a new habit to something you do daily
    Habit stacking connects a new habit to a long standing habit. If you want to start your day with a morning walk, instead of phone-time, put your phone on “silent” before you go to bed the night before and lay your sneakers next to the side of your bed. Or, if you want to add mindfulness to your commute to work, you might put your headphones in a zipped pocket and tune into the sounds around you.
  4. Get clear about what you want to do and how you will do it
    Be specific about the new habit you want to build. Access your lifestyle choices, and think of one small way that you could incorporate your new habit into your lifestyle.The implementation or if-then plan will help you stick to your habit. For instance, if you want to eat more fruits and vegetables, then you can toss an apple and a bag of carrots into your bag when you pack your lunch.
  5. Keep it simple
    Instead of choosing a new habit that gets you saying, “I wish I had more motivation,” choose a habit that is easy and doesn’t require that much motivation.Instead of kicking off your morning workout routine with a five mile run, opt for a 1 mile jog or fast-walk.Allow yourself to accomplish one small action first, and then increase from there.
  6. Practice self-compassion
    Building a habit takes time and effort, maintaining a habit can be even more challenging! Give yourself compassion for your decision to form a new habit, or break a bad habit.Avoid putting too much pressure on yourself to stick to your habit, everyday. Negative self-talk, like “I’m a failure,” or “I’ll never succeed,” will only set you back further.

Remind yourself that you are human. Habit formation and maintenance takes time and effort, and please, allow the journey along the way to be an enjoyable and interesting one!

About The Author

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Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting and nonprofit communications and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College. Nettie is a believer in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing and storytelling as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. Nettie is endlessly curious about all things mental and behavioral health.