How to Build and Maintain Healthy Habits

Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Stacy Henigsman
Nutritionally Reviewed by
Felice Ramallo, RDN

Are you looking to learn how to build healthy habits you will actually maintain? The time preceding the holidays (and especially after) is often rife with articles dedicated to ways you can make big changes in your life, with recommendations ranging from crash-diets, to a complete overhaul of your current routine. We take a different approach to New Year’s resolutions.

If there is something in your life you are unhappy with, New Years is as good a time as any to start incorporating a positive habit. Just one positive habit, or several small ones compounded together, can help you achieve big-picture, long-term goals in the space of several months or a year. For instance, if you want to become fluent in French, spending just 10 hours per week for a year would put you at general professional proficiency! So let’s talk about how to decide what goals you want to pursue, how to craft (and stick to) habits that bring you closer to those goals, and concrete ways you can avoid the hamster wheel of picking up and dropping habits when they – understandably! – get difficult to stick to. Let’s dive in.

What is a habit, technically?

According to the dictionary definition, a habit is a “settled or regular tendency or practice that is hard to give up.” Notice how there is no mention of habits being inherently good or bad: though we tend to focus on habits that we admonish ourselves for, there are plenty of habits that we do not see as habits, but that are critically important for the smooth functioning of our lives.

Everything from brushing your teeth before bed, opting for reusable bags when shopping, showering, and paying our bills are examples of important, though mundane, habits. It is precisely because we don’t think about our habits very often that they are so powerful: we do them on repeat.

The good news is, once you start implementing a new habit and work it into your routine for long enough, it will no longer feel like work: instead, it will be just as automatic as your other ones.

How to make a new habit?

James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits (which we highly recommend!), created the term “atomic habit” to describe “a regular habit or routine that is not only small and easy to do but is also the source of incredible power; a component of the system of compound growth.”

In other words: to make a new habit, we need to make it the following:

  • Achievable
  • Small
  • Tangible

The smaller, more achievable, and tangible a goal is; the easier it is to adopt, keep on top of, and restart when you fall off track. No goal is too small. Make it ridiculously easy at first, and slowly build difficulty from there. Achieving something feels good, and will encourage you to continue.

It’s also worth noting that developing a new habit is a conscious task as well as an unconscious one: often when we ‘fail’ to keep habits, we blame ourselves for being lazy, undisciplined, or ‘bad’. We encourage you to put down these ideas. Not only are they not helpful, but they are likely untrue as well. If you have found it difficult to stick to habits in the past, consider the fact that maybe it is not you that is in the wrong, but that maybe you have the wrong process for creating and following a new habit!

As we alluded to earlier, to create a new habit we need to make it: 1) specific, and 2) easy to implement. Before we break this idea down further, let’s take a step back and decide how we make choices as to what habits we want to begin. What are our bigger goals?

Transforming goals into tangible habits

Goals can be split into the following categories:

  • Career/life mission goals
  • Relationship goals
  • Health goals
  • Social impact goals
  • Environmental goals
  • Friendship goals

And the list goes on!

Chances are, you already have a goal in mind you want to achieve, or even several. Maybe you want to make a career pivot, learn a new language, eat healthier, or build up more muscle. Whatever it is, you probably have a ‘picture destination’ in your head. That’s great! Even if it’s just a vague idea, like ‘become more well-versed in philosophy’, you can translate your goals into specific milestones, which can then be converted into habits. Let’s take an example:

  • General long-term goal:
  • Feel challenged and rewarded by the work I’m doing
  • Potential ways to get there:
  • Change jobs
  • Go for a promotion
  • Learn more skills
  • Supplement 9 to 5 job with volunteering or learning opportunities

In this scenario, let’s say you’ve decided you like the industry you’re in (software engineering), but you are worried about stagnating and getting too ‘comfortable’ in your current role, so you decide to pick up a new skill that will challenge you.

Once you’ve researched in-demand skills for your industry and ones that will help you in your career – in this example, getting more familiar with data storage – then you can base your habit off of your goal. First, though, let’s set a smaller, more specific goal. The key is to keep going until we unearth the strategy behind how we reach our goals.

  • Bigger goal:
  • Feel challenged and rewarded by the work I’m doing
  • Subgoal:
  • Build amazing projects that are easy to use, adaptable, and can be scaled by my organization
  • Subgoal:
  • Become really adept at understanding cloud infrastructure

Awesome! We kept asking ‘how’ when it came to our goals until we reached something more tangible: ‘become really adept at understanding cloud infrastructure.’

From there, you can start creating goal-oriented habits!

Coming up with good habits

If we follow on from the example we created above, a list of potential habits might look like:

  • Dedicate 5 hours per week to progressing on a Udemy course
  • Make connections with 2 individuals per week in the cloud space
  • Attend 1 professional event per month with a talk on this topic

Of course, this list will look vastly different depending on what your goals are! If you are looking to exercise more, a habit might be “go to the gym for 30 minutes, 3 times a week”, or if you want to stay in better touch with family, it could be “call my grandparents once a week to check in.”

Here’s some tips for when you’re creating your habits:

  • Make them achievable (think about what you honestly have time for, not what you want to have time for)
  • Make them specific and quantifiable, if possible (nail yourself down to a certain number or frequency so you know what you need to set aside time for each week)

Four concrete ways to start implementing a new habit

Start small

No need to go crazy and burn yourself out on the first day! Make the task as small as you need to, before you feel okay to do it. By this we mean, if your goal is to run regularly, but running a mile sounds like a lot for your first run – don’t run a mile! Set your initial habit as running 0.2 miles, twice a week. If that is too much, then set your habit of running that distance once a week. If that is too much, then go for a walk once a week!

Make the habit as small as you need to, and then start there. You’ll soon find that you’ll scale up your habit (e.g. running for longer distances, running for a longer amount of time) with practice.

Set reminders

When we first start a habit, it’s difficult to remember because it’s not automatic yet. Add reminders to your current routine so you can have your memory jogged to complete said habit that day. Here are some useful ways you can do that:

  • Add a reminder to your Google calendar
  • Set an alarm on your phone
  • Put a post-it note on high-traffic areas, such as your desk, mirror, or door
  • Have a friend text you to jog your memory

Strive for consistency, not perfection

Ever heard the saying, “perfect is the enemy of good?” Well, that is particularly true when it comes to habits. When starting a habit, we can fall into the trap of “I don’t have time to do [insert habit], so I’m just not going to go at all,” but we encourage you to second-guess this logic.

A 10 minute workout is better than no workout. A 5 minute meditation is better than a 0 minute one. Do whatever you can to tick off even part of a habit, and you’ll gain momentum, slowly seeing the results of your efforts as time goes on.

Keep yourself accountable in advance

We all have those spurts of discipline or motivation, when we feel really inspired to get things done. On the flip side, we also have moments where we’re tired or feeling overwhelmed by all the things we have to do. A good way to make sure you stick to a new habit is by signing yourself up for accountability in your moments of discipline.

In other words, present-you makes sure that future-you does what they say they are going to.

Examples of this may include:

  • Signing yourself up for a class on a Monday that you can’t cancel, scheduled for Friday
  • Finding an ‘accountability buddy’ and sharing your goals with them
  • For this to work best, discuss goals and habits, and then have a weekly check in!
  • Meal prep healthy meals over the weekend, so you are less inclined to reach for processed foods in time-tight situations throughout the week
  • Give yourself a time-out on your phone at 9pm if you want to go to bed earlier

Of course, don’t put yourself in situations where you sign up for a 1 year membership to an expensive gym if you’ve not been before, but consider small little insurances you can create that make it easier to follow through on your planned habits.

Habits to avoid

On the topic of sticking to good habits, let’s touch on habits that you may want to avoid.

Unfortunately, for decades there has been the normalization of crash-dieting. There have been variations over the years, ranging from the Liquid Diet to the Atkins diet to now the Keto diet. There will likely be others in the future that seek to financially capitalize off people’s (mostly women’s) “flaws.” Incidentally, these so-called flaws are invented by the same companies that promote the ‘cure’ product or diet.

We cannot emphasize enough how unhealthy these crash diets are for your mental health.

Diets themselves are not necessarily bad. Diets can simply refer to the principles and criteria around which you choose the food you want to consume (and for those with intolerances, diets that exclude certain food groups are non-negotiable). There are many diets – such as the PCOS diet, or the Mediterranean diet – which, as opposed to promoting insecurities and ideals of thinness, rather place emphasis on feelings of fullness, contentment, and self-awareness. As opposed to taking away, they emphasize adding: add more vegetables, nuts, fish, and whole-fats; eat when you are hungry; listen to your body and its cues.

So if you are looking to change your diet, exercise routine, or weight goals, we encourage you to approach these goals and their consequent habits from a place of self-love, not from a place of fear.

Four tangible ways to maintain your habit

Okay, so you’ve been practicing your habit for a week or more, you feel good about how things are going: how do you keep up your habit when life gets in the way?

Let’s take the example of someone who wants to change their diet and make it more inclusive of whole foods, while reducing processed foods. In this situation, for the first few months, they may want to:

  • Rely on inspirational quotes/mantras
  • It’s always good to have positive reinforcements to repeat to yourself when you have doubts. If you correlate having unsuccessfully started a new diet in the past, critical thoughts about body image can be damaging.
  • Positive affirmations like “I am beautiful as I am,” “I deserve to feel full,” and “I am listening to my body” can all be helpful. If you have any role models or artists who have positive affirmations or inspirational quotes, consider having them in the Notes app in your phone, or on a sticky note by a mirror.
  • Achievability
  • Now that you’ve been implementing your new habit for a couple of weeks, check in with yourself if your new routine is working for you. In the case of a change to diet, asking questions like: does my body feel energized? Do I need to adjust? Are there any foods that I’m craving more of, and if so, what? Can I adapt any of my favorite recipes to align more with my goals?
  • Be flexible with yourself here. Make optimizations to your habits if you feel you need to, and don’t be afraid to experiment.
  • Rewards
  • Rewards can be a good way to motivate ourselves to do things, and as a way to congratulate ourselves on a job well done. The key is balance. For instance, you could reward yourself for practicing yoga regularly by getting yourself a better mat (if you feel you need it), or you could have a routine of finishing your practice and then watching your favorite TV show. This tip can be particularly useful if you are finding it difficult to find motivation!
  • It is important to note that we recommend avoiding food rewards. Saving something special for when you do something can unconsciously keep that food on a pedestal, and maybe even lead into binge-restrict territory. Choose something like an activity or a reasonable purchase.
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Remember that your habits are meant to work for you. They’re not set in stone, and they can be amended at any time, depending on what suits your lifestyle. Be open to changing them, depending on the season of life you are in, and consider checking in with yourself every few months. Are you going through the paces, or is this habit still delivering long-term value for you? Is it helping you toward a current goal, or is it outdated? These are good questions to ask to make sure you’re spending your time when it is most valuable.

Universally good habits to consider adding, if you don’t have them already

Finally, we’ll end on some universally good habits that, evidenced by research, are excellent for your health and entail little or no cost!

  • Exercise several times a week
  • Eat more whole plant foods, and reduce your added sugar intake
  • Meditate for some time daily
  • Weekly journaling
  • Reading
  • Connecting with loved ones or with community

Allara Health provides personalized treatment that takes the guesswork out of managing PCOS, and offers a customized, holistic plan of attack that merges nutrition, medication. supplementation, and ongoing, expert support to begin healing your body.

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