How to develop healthy habits that will improve your life (and how to get rid of toxic habits!)

Have you ever taken the time to question your habits? To step back, look at your own habits, and question why you have them? Furthermore, have you thought about what these habits may be doing for or against you? You may be surprised.

I came across this idea when I was reading some of Professor Dan Ariely’s work (Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, Fuqua School of Business, Duke University). Ariely writes about how habits are developed, and emphasises the importance to step back and question these habits. Apparently habits are created stemming from an initial positive experience, and that experience may have occurred as a relatively random decision in the first instance. The example he gives is the habit of buying a morning coffee, every day, from a particular cafe.

You may have walked past a cafe one day, and decided – on a whim – to buy a cup of coffee there. With that first coffee you’ve had a positive experience: the coffee tasted warm and good, the service was friendly, and you left feeling satisfied. From that first cup of coffee from that particular cafe, you begin the habit of returning daily to buy a cup of coffee. Over time, the habit becomes ingrained and it becomes a part of your daily routine.

But wait; stop for a second. Why are you visiting this particular cafe every day, and following through with this habit? If you think back to what kicked off this habitual act, you may remember that it was a fairly random decision made without much importance attached. In fact, you may not even remember the first time you went to the cafe. Over time it’s become a habit that you fulfil daily. In one way, you’ve become enslaved to this habit.

It’s good to stop and question why you are honouring this habit. What is it costing you? Are you missing out on trialling other cafes in the area? In fact, do you even need that coffee?

A coffee a day may be a relatively small expense, but it adds up over time. And just think about other habits you may have that are not necessarily helping you. Do you have a habit of ordering pizza delivery every Friday night? Do you enjoy watching mindless television every weeknight when you get home from work, to “de-stress”? Do you buy yourself a pastry for breakfast every Monday morning as a reward for starting a new week of work?

It’s worth looking a little deeper into these habits. What are they costing your wallet? What are they costing your health over time? And, what might you be giving up for these habits? Looking at the example of watching mindless tv is a good one: you may complain that you don’t have time to work on your dream goals, but then you justify spending a few hours five nights a week to watch television that won’t fulfil you or improve your mental capacity. Even just two hours every weeknight adds up to 10+ hours per week: that’s more than one complete day at work, every week. That’s definitely worth looking further into.

So, what habits do you have? Here’s an exercise suggestion for you: grab a sheet of paper and a pen or pencil, and spend around 5 minutes thinking through your regular habits. It may help if you think about the many spheres in your life, e.g. work, friends, meals, entertainment, exercise, sleep. What habits do you follow in each of these spheres? Are these habits helping you or harming you? If any are harming you, what will you do to start a new habit?

Here’s a tip: create habits that help you in the long term. Ariely provides some great lessons in exactly how to do this. The theory is “reward substitution”. Here’s an example.

You are aware that to live a longer and healthier life, you need to exercise regularly. You are aware that in the long term you will have a far lesser chance of developing cardiovascular disease, should you choose to run after work. How do you achieve completing that run as a habit? You may be dreading the discomfort of getting outside and running around, especially after you’ve worked a full day. Plus, the goal of a longer and healthier life may just seem so far away that it’s hard to grasp in the present.

How do you do this?

The reward of regular running is a longer and healthier life: a long-term goal, which is hard to see today when you’ve just returned from work and you’re feeling exhausted. The alternative choice of just flopping yourself down on the couch after work is immediate and probably seems more appealing. So, the trick is to substitute the reward. That is, rather than focus on the long-term reward of a longer and healthier life, create a reward that you will receive straight after you return from your run. For me, what tends to work is knowing that I can drink a vanilla protein shake after my exercise (they are delicious!). If I force myself to get out there and go on that run, I know that I have that delicious reward available as soon as I get home.

As you work out what reward substitutes work for you and motivate you, you may find that you will develop habits that benefit you.

Try it for yourself. What habits do you have that are unhealthy or making you unhappy? What habits are holding you back from achieving your goals? What habits would you like to develop that are going to be good for you? Work out which reward substitutes will work for you, develop a system that will make these habits stick, and get into them!

/ Daisy

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