We all have that idyllic image of ourselves living a healthier life. Maybe you imagine yourself rising with the sun and going out for a run. Or maybe you imagine yourself finally eating a salad without grimacing. Then one day you decide, Today is the day I become a better me. And you celebrate this epic declaration with a hardy fist pump with your left hand while your right hand googles “how to form healthy habits”.

Unfortunately, your celebratory act is stalled when you realize that there are what seems like a bajillion articles written on this one subject, prompting you to wonder, How can I be healthier when just learning how to form a healthy habit is a hurdle in itself? 

We agree that learning how to form a healthy habit should be a simple process. That’s why in this article we’ve gleaned some of the most popular ways to form healthy habits, giving a comprehensive overview to help you figure out which approach is best for you.a


Before we dive in, let’s deconstruct what a healthy habit is. Remember that perfect image of a healthier you? Throw it away. If you bind yourself to what an ideal image of healthy should look like, you’re already sabotaging yourself. It’s great to get inspiration from healthy Instagrams or Pinterest boards, but keep in mind that what you’re seeing is the result of fasting, professional hair and makeup, lighting, and a lot of editing. Nobody ever looks that serene while doing hot yoga or going for a run.

Your healthy doesn’t have to look like you sitting in child’s pose drinking Gwyneth Paltrow’s latest goop concoction. Your healthy could be as simple and small as walking 10 minutes every day or meditating for 8 minutes every other week. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just as big as an accomplishment as the person running 6 miles a day.

1. Examine the “why”

Great for:

  • Everyone. Forming a healthy habit becomes easier when you understand why you want to become healthier. Spoiler alert – it’s not always what you think. Use this method on its own or pair it with another approach.

Why do you want to cultivate this healthy habit? If it’s because you read somewhere that you should should meditate or stand while you work, then chances are that you’ll give up in a few weeks. To be consistent, you need to connect the healthy habit to a desire that means something to you.

Change “I’m going to lift weights a few times a week so I can look like Ryan Gosling” to “I’m going to lift weights a few times a week because it’ll help me be an active parent.” The former is unattainable (Your genetics don’t care what celebrity you want to look like.) and you’re more likely to stick to the latter because it’s attached to something you care about – being a better parent.

2. Anticipate the screw-up

Great for:

  • People who’ve tried to make a habit stick 999 times without much success

This goes back to getting rid of that perfect image of what healthy looks like. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed, it’s that you’re going to mess this up in some way. Some days are going to busier than others or you’ll run out of willpower (we only have so much, after all). It’s a sobering realization, but it really takes the pressure off.

Many people give up the first time they make a misstep. So if you can redefine what success looks like to you with the understanding that messing up is an integral part of the journey to success, then you have a greater chance of sticking with your healthy habit.

Understand your “failures” then reframe your goals

First, you need to understand what’s behind those missteps by recognizing the situations that cause your goals to go belly-up (What’s known in the research community as The What-The-Hell Effect). Then, instead of avoiding those situations (which can be really hard to do), you need to reframe how you see your lifestyle change.  

In this article the PsyBlog shows how you can avoid the What-The-Hell-Effect by reframing the goal:

… the what-the-hell effect can be avoided by having longer-term goals and transforming inhibitional goals into acquisitional goals. Changing short-term to long-term is obvious, but how can inhibitional goals be turned into acquisitional goals?

One famous example is Alcoholics Anonymous. Alcoholics are trying to avoid drinking (an inhibitional goal) but they transform this into an acquisitional goal by thinking about the number of days sober. It’s like they’re trying to acquire non-drinking days.

The same principle can be applied to any inhibitional goal. Dieters can think about the number of days they’ve been good. Procrastinators can forget about their idling and concentrate on producing a certain amount of work each day.

The Back-up Plan

Having a back-up plan for all the worst-case scenarios that keep you from being a healthier you takes the stress out of messing up. So for on those days when you won’t make it to the gym, your back-up plan could be doing the 7 minute workout or a quick bodyweight circuit at home. Nothing can stall a habit like a missed day. With this approach, you’re still engaging in your habit even if it’s not the ideal situation.

Make forming healthy habits as easy as possible

Create an environment that makes being forming healthy habits as easy as possible. Author and 99u speaker Ramit Sethi did this with his gym habit:

When I sat down to analyze why I wasn’t going to the gym, I realized: my closet was in another room. That meant I had to walk out in the cold [to] put on my clothes. It was easier to just stay in bed. Once I realized this, I folded my clothes and shoes the night before. When I woke up the next morning, I would roll over and see my gym clothes sitting on the floor. The result? My gym attendance soared by over 300%.

3. The Three R’s

Great for

  • People who like the letter R
  • People who like structure.

The Three R’s is noted productivity expert James Clear’s take on Charles Duhigg’s “Habit Loop” in The Power of Habit. The thinking behind this method is that every habit follows the same three step pattern: 1) Reminder 2) Routine 3) Reward.

 via James Clear via James Clear

How can you implement this? By making your reminder something you already do on a regular basis.

Do squats or calf raises while you brush your teeth. Do a quick guided meditation during your subway commute. When your reminder is already a part of your daily routine, it’ll be easier to make that healthy habit an everyday thing.

4. The three step approach

Great for:

  • People who are trying to form habits they don’t enjoy
  • This woman

Darya Rose, Ph.D., neuroscientist and author, outlines this approach in this article.

  1. Identify Your barriers. No matter what approach you use, self-awareness is key to long-term success. In this case, understanding why you don’t like a healthy habit you’re trying to cultivate is the first step to actually doing it on a regular basis. Many people (including Darya Rose) don’t like meditating because they think they’re not doing it right which evoke the feeling of failure.
  2. Research solutions. Darya addressed her meditation obstacle by letting go of her idea of what meditation should be:

    This led to the most helpful insight I had about meditation: that the failures ARE the practice, and success is simply practicing regularly. This allowed me to let go of the judgement I felt during every session, and ironically made it easier for me to maintain concentration for longer. Meditation became far less tedious and more rewarding.

  3. Follow through to experience indirect rewards. Instead of rewarding yourself for following through with the habit, Darya recommends taking stock of the indirect rewards that are a natural byproduct of the healthy habit. So if you’re lacking the motivation to work out, reminding yourself of how good you feel after exercising is reward enough to keep the habit going.  

5. Deceive your brain

Great for:

  • Those moments when you have zero motivation

Sometimes you just need to trick your brain into creating healthy habits. This can look like using a bigger fork to help you eat less or using color theory to inspire the actions you want to take.

It can also be helpful to start as small as possible. You ever notice how your brain seems to resist big changes? Well, if you make your healthy habit small – replacing one sugary drink with a glass of water – your brain barely notices the change. And before you know it, that one glass of water becomes two glasses, then three glasses. But it all begins with that one small step.

6. Make it fun

Great for:

  • Your inner child

Associating a healthy lifestyle with suffering or drudgery could be what’s preventing you from making healthy changes, so make it enjoyable. Find a workout you love, like this Star Wars workout class. Eat healthy food that actually tastes good. Buy some cool gear if that’s what keeps you motivated. You can be healthy and have fun. It’s all about finding where that healthy activity and what you enjoy intersect.

7. Use your phone

Great for:

  • People that use their phone often (so… everyone)
  • People who are averse to structure

Leo Baubata, author behind popular wellness blog Zen Habits, recommends making the lifestyle change a seamless part of your life and then using your phone to make reinforce the healthy habit:

Instead of setting aside 20 minutes and a meditation space for your new habit … slip into it. When you’re getting out of bed, just pause for a few seconds and pay attention to your breath. That’s it, just a few seconds.

Put a message that says, “Breathe” on your lock screen…. Then, when you check your phone and notice this message, slip into your new habit.

This method is one of the simplest ways to help you cultivate healthy habits. And it involves many of the aspects of the other approaches (start small, trick your brain, use a reminder, tack the habit onto an existing part of your routine, etc).

The point is that you need to do what’s best for you. It could be one of these methods or a mixture of a few methods. One of these techniques might work for one habit but might not work for another. And depending on how your schedule fluctuates during the year, what worked in the fall might not work in the spring.

Don’t undermine your efforts before you even begin by thinking that there’s a wrong or right way to become healthier. There’s only one way – the one that works for you.

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