Building Healthy Habits That Stick

Healthy behaviors begin with healthy habits, which take time and intention to establish. Daily habits and thousands of small decisions determine who you become over time. Time often moves faster than we think it will, especially when we're hesitating to commit to changes that can lead to greater fulfillment and happiness.

No matter what type of goals you have or how lofty they may be, healthy habits and consistency are key! Accepting early that success is not a linear trajectory, but a series of failures and triumphs, is another key to success.

What doesn't work is setting unrealistic goals, being inconsistent with your effort and intent, or expecting immediate results, whether in fitness or in life.

So how does a person go about setting a reasonable goal? How does the daily routine incorporate itself into the equation? How can you be sure that the healthier habits you adopt become lifelong behaviors?

Finally, why does any of this matter?

What Is A Habit?

Let's start here. What do we even mean when we talk about "healthy habits"?

A habit is a behavior that you repeat regularly, sometimes as part of a routine and sometimes as an unconscious behavior.

For example, you might have an unconscious habit of biting your nails or touching your hair when you're anxious. I have an awkward habit of squinting when I'm thinking deeply, which is probably uncomfortable for the other person when in a conversation.

Some examples of intentional habits are those parts of your morning routine that you do consecutively, regularly, or maybe, without even considering them. You may have built the habit of going to the gym at a certain time, eating at a certain time, or watering your houseplants every Tuesday. These are all examples of habits.

Why Are Healthy Habits Important?

Healthy habits are important because our habits become our behaviors, which become major determining factors in our overall health. The health you enjoy in late life will directly result from today's habits.

Healthy behaviors take time to establish, and some of us enjoy greater privilege in establishing these behaviors than others. For example, folks that live below the poverty line or may not have access to nearby gyms, nutritious food, or free time to invest in themselves are disadvantaged. Women, who complete 75 percent of the world's unpaid labor (managing household finances, childrearing, cooking, cleaning, and similar responsibilities), often struggle to allocate and justify time dedicated to health, recovery, or self-care.

Here's why that needs to change.

Firstly, no caregiver can provide thorough, effective care to others without caring for themselves. Burnout is real, and our children and families often model their behavior after ours. Do you care about what your child's/niece's/nephew's/cousin's quality of life will be in adulthood and late-life? Then show them how to prioritize healthy activities and self-care.

Second, healthy habits today can prevent chronic disease in the future, including those that you are at higher risk for. Scientists now understand that the vast majority of gene expression depends on environmental and behavioral factors. What does that mean? It means even if you're high-risk for a condition because it runs in your family, your choice, habits, and behavior over time will determine most often whether or not you experience those illnesses.

Lastly, if you're not building healthy habits, you're probably perpetuating some unhealthy ones. If you're not actively working toward better health, then you will watch it decline as you age.

This brings me to my next topic.

How To Recognize Habits That Aren't Serving You

Throughout the years, I've known many people whose habits contribute to their failures over time. Whether health, interpersonal, or professional, your habits become who you are.

For example, let's assume you're in the habit of buying a coffee every morning from the same coffee shop.

This is a habit. Is it a "healthy" one? Is it "unhealthy"?

For starters, let's consider the coffee. What's in your coffee? Lots of cream, sugar, and calories that are sabotaging your macronutrient balances and caloric goals? Let's assume the coffee is black, and it's the only one you have each day.

I put "healthy" and "unhealthy" in quotes intentionally. Those words are ambiguous and very poorly defined. In fact, it's my belief that we shouldn't use them at all.

So when you're deciding whether a habit is "healthy" or not, consider whether it's bringing you closer to your life goals. If it isn't, it's contributing to your failure.

To come back to the coffee example, ask yourself whether that habit is serving you. Does the caffeine help you jumpstart your morning work or workout without making you jittery, tired, or agitated later? Does your interaction with the barista help you build confidence, learn about humanity, or brighten someone's day? Do you pay it forward? Maybe you're cold or indifferent toward the people around you, and the coffee disrupts your sleep. Is this habit serving you?

Understanding which habits are serving you and hindering your success can be a complex task. But don't worry, it's possible.

And it all starts with goal setting.

Goal Setting: Choosing A Goal You Can Stick To

Setting goals and taking small, sustainable steps toward those goals each day will help you decide which habits are working for you and which are working against you. Consider your habits in contrast with your goals and keep the habits that bring you closer to them.

Whether you have a clearly defined goal in mind or have no idea where to begin, don't be overwhelmed. There's a simple and effective way to set goals that you're likely to keep, which is why you've probably heard its corny acronym before, especially if you work in the corporate world:

The S.M.A.R.T. goal.

SMART goals are goals analyzed through a template that ensures your goal is possible and can reasonably be attained. The acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound. Using these parameters to pin down your actual goal is the first step to success.

If you run into trouble defining your life goals, consider what you would like to have done with your life before you leave. Brainstorm ideas and continue brainstorming or researching until you understand what it would take to get there.

It might seem overwhelming, so make sure you commit after knowing what would be required to meet your goal. Then, break your goal down into smaller goals.

Maybe you want to become a pro-bono lawyer for a human rights group but have only a few college credits under your belt. Do some research and clearly understand the time and resources your goal would require. Are you willing to invest 6+ years and tens of thousands of dollars in meeting this goal? Even though most of your services will not provide you with the financial means you need for a comfortable life, will it fulfill you?

If yes, congratulations. You're ready for the next step.

How To Handle Accountability

Once you have a clearly defined goal, it's time to set the wheels of health habit formation into motion. This begins with breaking your goal into smaller, time-bound goals.

If a law degree is what you need, research what that entails. What would you need to do in the next year to begin working toward that goal? What about the next month? What can you do this week to take a small step in the right direction?

A healthy habit I try to work toward is mindful, focused writing for a larger manuscript I'm working on because someday I hope to be a published author. To meet that goal in the next two years, I need to be working toward a smaller goal of 35 pages per month. That means to stay on track, I have to be in the habit of writing at least one page per day.

Keeping accountability for your long-term goals means checking in with yourself on a regular, short-term basis. To determine my short-term goals, I wrote out my 20-year goals, broke those into 10-year goals, and so on. I keep this outline on my refrigerator and check in periodically to ensure I'm still on track.

If you have trouble with accountability, try setting yourself up for success in a way that will appeal to you. For example, you might celebrate small wins, use colorful stationery or a whiteboard to track your progress or ask close friends and family to check in with your progress from time to time.

Journaling is another great way to maintain accountability and build a healthier lifestyle. Not only can it be a very therapeutic experience, but it can also help you look back on your behaviors and experiences in order to better identify what daily obstacles you can remove from your life and what triggers "bad" habits, or habits that are keeping you from reaching your goals.

Meal tracking apps, workout notebooks, and other habit tracking apps are also great ways to track your progress, keep yourself accountable, and celebrate small victories.

When all else fails, hiring an online coach can be a highly effective means to an end. Make sure your coach has the credentials they need to help you succeed and appeal to whatever intrinsically motivates you.

Habit Forming Tips

Lucky for us, behavioral scientists have essentially cracked the code for the habit-forming process, and it's simpler than we think.

It takes intention. Repeat the behaviors that you need to repeat in order to meet your goals. Can't seem to get into the habit? Then approach small parts of that task that are manageable for you and continue repeating those behaviors until they become a habit.

Sometimes when I know I need to take advantage calm weather and go for a run, I just don't want to. So I start with something I can manage, like getting dressed, putting my shoes on, and c