How to Build Healthy Habits that Change Your Life for the Better

By Val Silver

Are you ready to build healthy habits that can change your life for the better?

Contrary to what it seems like sometimes, you can create new habits and break bad habits. Sometimes, it is easy to make a change of habits. Other habits are difficult to break, but it is possible.

In this article, you will discover what habits are, how they are formed and reinforced, four secrets to habit-making success, and a simple hack to make healthy lifestyle habits part of your daily routine. 

What are habits?

Habits govern almost every aspect of your life. They account for most of your daily thoughts and actions. These behaviors can be positive or negative, depending on how you perceive them and the impact they have on your well-being.

Habits are learned, automatic, repetitive thought and behavior sequences that are initiated by an impulse with little conscious effort. Thanks to habits, you don't have to think about how to walk, eat, or put on your clothing. Some habits, like jiggling your leg when you are nervous or saying "um" a lot require no conscious thought at all.  Other examples of habits include: how you talk, products you always buy, foods you always eat, smoking, the route you always take to work, and how you hold your body when standing. 

Many of your thoughts are habits - that’s right, you rarely have a truly original thought. The National Science Foundation reports that the average person has between 12 thousand and 60 thousand thoughts per day. Of those thoughts, around 85% are repetitive and negative. By design, all that habitual negativity generated by the primitive part of the brain is meant to help you survive. 

All habits are patterns or routines, but not all routines are habits. For example, you can take the same roads to work most days and go a different way once in a while without any mental distress. However, if you decide to pass up your morning coffee, you may continue to get the impulse to have a cup until you give in or distract yourself enough to forget about it. 

What causes habits to form?

Some habitual behaviors are evolutionary and genetic. They are programmed into the subconscious parts of the brain. For example, people are hardwired to make friends, to gossip, to help, collaborate, or compete (depending on circumstances), to avoid loss when comfortable, and react frantically when threatened. 

Many learned habitual behaviors are acquired and reinforced as children observe and mimic their elders, admired peers, and media figures. 

Practice makes learning automatic. With each repetition, neural pathways in the brain are develop and strengthen. You don’t have to add 1+1 to know the sum equals two. Once you have had enough practice, you no longer have to think about how to walk or chew or speak your language. You don’t have to think about the steps involved in washing the dishes, driving your car, or changing your clothing. This is good. Otherwise, everything you do would be cumbersome. On the not-so-good side, you may have learned that your dreams don’t matter, that you aren’t worthy, that adults abuse substances, and that if you don’t conform you will be humiliated, abused, or shunned.

The habit loop

Habits are formed and comprised of a four-step feedback loop: the cue, the craving, the routine, and the reward. Each time you repeat this loop, you reinforce it. The habit becomes stronger and more automatic. The same thinking creates the same results. 

the habit loop, build healthy habits
  • The cue initiates the habit loop. This is something you see or hear that you associate with the habit. The cue triggers the brain to start the behavior in order to get the predicted reward. 
  • Cravings are motivational force of the habit loop. You want this. What you crave is not the habit, but the internal state, or feeling, the habit delivers. Just like the cues, this varies from person to person. 
  • At step three, you carry out the response or the routine, whether it is a thought or an action, in order to obtain the reward. 
  • You get the reward. Your craving is satisfied. A reward can be food, water, sex, money, status, approval, satisfaction, power, a feeling of accomplishment, something you learned, etc.

For example: You see your favorite cake on the counter (cue). You want to eat the cake. You think about how good it will taste. Your mouth salivates (craving). You get a plate, fork, and knife. You cut the cake and sit down to eat it. You put it into your mouth and chew, forkful by forkful (routine). The reward is the tasty bite and the feel-good chemicals released in your brain.

5 Common Habit Myths That Keep You Stuck

Remember those repetitive, mostly negative thoughts you have every day? They stem from your nonconscious beliefs, including those you have about your habits.

Your beliefs about how to build healthy habits and stop bad habits can determine if you are successful in our efforts, or not.

The following five limiting beliefs and myths may be true in some circumstances and for some people, but they are not absolute truths when it comes to your ability to shape your future by changing your habits. 

Prefer to listen? The following video titled "5 Myths about How to Build Healthy Habits and a Simple Habit Hack" was made during a live training I (Val) held in my Midlifers on a Mission Facebook Community. 

 #1: It takes too much effort to change my habits. 

It is true that you need motivation, discipline, and will power to start a habit or to get on track again after slipping back into your old ways. You have to want it and be willing to put in some effort, especially at first. How much you motivation and willpower you need depends on how ingrained the habit is and how "entangled" it is with other behaviors.

However, this is only part of the picture. You also have a plan and strategies in place to help you be successful in the long run. 

Otherwise, when you get stressed, distracted, or bored with the change, your conscious mind - the part of your brain that controls motivation, discipline, and willpower - diverts its attention and energy to other priorities. Then, when you get triggered, your subconscious mind takes over. Before you know it, the habit loop begins and you repeat your familiar thoughts and behaviors.  

By the way, you aren’t sabotaging yourself when you slip up. Your powerful nonconscious mind is simply running a program just like a computer does. It isn’t trying to hurt you. Just the opposite. It’s just doing what it does. To change that and build healthy habits, you have to install new programs.

#2: It takes a set amount of time to form a new habit.

You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days or 33 days or 66 days to form a habit - depending who you listen to. And don’t miss a day or you have to start over. 

It is true that it takes time for a new thought pattern or behavior to become a habit. The neural networks in your brain have to form and get established. 

But it’s also true that you can drop, add, or change a habit in a day. Or  it could take several months. It takes as long as it takes. If you miss a day - especially once you have some momentum going, pick back up and keep going. Just don't make a habit of missing days if you want to wire in your new habits.

#3: Habits are what I do, not what I think.

Habits are what you do AND what you think about on a regular basis. Your brain is your habit-making and habit-keeping computer. It all happens in your brain!

Your subconscious beliefs, or programs, control most of your thoughts. You think the same kinds of thoughts every day, throughout the day, often without being aware of them. These thoughts make your body and conscious mind respond in a set way - unless you choose to override it - and that leads you to repeat the same patterns and actions.

This is great if you have a lot of positive thoughts that make you happy and keep you inspired, but that’s not usually the case. The problem is that our brains have a natural bent for the negative and the familiar - that’s by evolutionary design for survival. But it doesn’t work so well when you want to have better feeling thoughts, or drop bad habits, or get out there and try new things, when those desires are thwarted by thousands of habitual thoughts full of fears and doubts hold you back.

This is why it takes commitment and specific strategies, including having the right kind of support, to make changes and to stick with them. Otherwise, your habits can cost you your health and your happiness. They can keep you from enjoying your life and doing all the good things you want to do - those things that are important to you. 

#4: I'm too old to change. 

This is not true. You can learn and change at any age. Your brain is never too old to make new connections. 

The problem is that by the time we reach middle age and beyond, habits are well-ingrained. We had lots of years of practice.

When people say they are “set in their ways'' they are right. But they usually say that as an excuse for not wanting to change or being willing to change. This is easier than admitting that it is possible but they are afraid to try or would rather not. It is more comfortable to keep being who you are being and doing what you are doing, even if it is not in your best interest.  As a matter of fact, a lot of people refuse to make a change even when there is no doubt that unhealthy habits are putting their health and their lives at serious risk. 

Sometimes, it takes a real epiphany for people to wake up - like my aunt who finally quit smoking in her early 70s. For years, I begged her to stop. She’d say, “Oh honey, I’ve been smoking since I was 13, I can’t stop. But one day, she spit blood into the toilet and got so scared that she fell to her knees and told God she’d stop right then if He took that from her. And she kept her word. She never smoked another cigarette again. For some people, not even an epiphany moment or being hooked up to an oxygen machine is reason enough to break the habit. 

 #5: I can do it myself. 

Sure you can, sometimes. But if it was so easy to “do it myself”, then all our bad thinking habits and lifestyle habits would be a thing of the past. 

"I can do it myself" will keep you stuck when you are dealing with stubborn unhealthy habits that you need or want to change. These are the ones most of us avoid because they feel overwhelming and we have to overcome mindset stuff --all that negativity and fear. To make it even more difficult, you may be at odds with yourself; one part of you wants to change and the other part doesn’t - the dominant nonconscious mind.

A lot of times, this attitude stems from the fear of really having to change when you don’t want to. Or you fear you will fail and let yourself and other people down. So better not to tell anybody about it. 

“I can do it myself” is a way of shutting other people out. You don’t want their encouragement or their helpful suggestions. You don't want to be held accountable. Nobody wants to be watched, judged or controlled. And we shouldn’t be. We’re grownups. 

The problem with this mindset is that you make it a lot harder on yourself to succeed and increase your odds of falling back into old habits. You cheat yourself out of having the tools, the strategies, and the support system that can really help you. We all need support and we need the right kind of support - it’s how we’re wired. That’s why there are groups like Weight Watchers and AA. You can work with your doctor, a therapist, or a coach - so you have a better chance of being successful. 

If you would like to see if partnering with Val as your coach is the right fit for you, apply for a no-obligation, complimentary consult. 

How to Change Your Habits

Here are four super-important strategies for making it easier to build healthy habits and drop unhealthy habits. 

  • Keep it easy and simple. It is better to make tiny changes that you remember to do and stick with than big changes that overwhelm you and wear out your willpower and confidence. This may still require some planning and strategizing, depending on the habit.
  • Make your brain feel successful. Give yourself positive reinforcement every single time you do the new behavior until it becomes a habit. 
  • Be patient with yourself. You didn't form your bad habits in a day. It takes time to rewire your brain. 
  • Get help when you need it. Some habits take a lot of commitment, strategizing, and time to change. The right support system can make all the difference as you build healthy habits into your lifestyle. You are worth it. 

An Easy Habit Hack: Make an upgrade swap

If you want to create more healthy lifestyle habits and reduce some unhealthy habits at the same time, habit hacks can be a big help. 

This hack makes it easy to build healthy habits with just a little willpower and discipline needed. It works because you keep the same behavior. The only thing that changes is the food or product attached to the behavior. 

Here’s an example of making upgrade swaps. If you drink a morning 'cuppa' or two, switch to organic tea or coffee. This way, you get all the benefits of the brew without the chemicals.. Non-organic tea, and especially coffee trees, are sprayed with hazardous herbicides and pesticides. You don’t need to put more chemicals in your body, it has too many already. If the coffee or tea is fair trade, so much the better. Then you are also doing some good by supporting sustainability, good working conditions, and fair pay for workers. 

Here's another example of habits you can swap: If you’re in the habit of adding sugar or aspartame to your drinks, use a few drops of stevia instead. It doesn’t add calories or raise your blood sugar or insulin levels like sugar and fake sweeteners do. 

And then, instead of throwing the grounds in the trash, put them around your plants or throw them on the grass. Coffee grounds are a great natural fertilizer; earthworms love them, some unwanted insects and slugs avoid them. You are putting them to good use instead of making more trash. (There are other uses for them, too, some quite interesting.)

Together, these 3 easy swaps to build healthy habits add up to a win for you, a win for organic farmers, and a win for the earth. That’s something to feel good about. 

What is great about this strategy is that it is "once and done".  Make the upgrade and you don't have to think about it anymore. You can make many of these habit upgrades at once or phase them in. Easy and simple. 

This strategy can also be fun. Involve the kids or the grandkids. See how many positive swaps you can make as a family. Think greener, nontoxic, and healthier to get off to a great start.  You don't have to be perfect about it.  Make a swap you are happy with. Better a small habit upgrade than none. You can always upgrade again after that.  As you build more healthy habits into your lifestyle, they add up and make a  difference.  

One caveat: you might feel a little resistance come up when you make organic foods and green products if they cost more. When you figure it out, this usually amounts to only a few cents per use or serving. Remind yourself that the health benefits for you, your family, and the environment make it money well spent. 

Examples of healthy habits to start

Here are examples of how to build healthy habits using the habit upgrade hack.

Summary of How to Build Healthy Habits

You can build healthy habits. You can allay the fears, doubts, and reasons why you think habits are too hard to change when you replace myths and half-truths with facts.  You can get your mind on your side. You  can feel confident. Excited. Hopeful. With the right kinds of strategies, resources, and support, the process can be easier and more rewarding for you and your loved ones than you thought possible. 

Begin by deciding which healthy habits to start changing using the upgrade habit hack. This is a simple, yet powerful process. The benefits add up quickly because you can make many of these changes in a short period of time. Then you can use your motivation, willpower, and skills to make those more challenging habit changes when you are ready.

Related Pages

How to build healthy habits page: 04/2021

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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