If you do something automatically in a certain situation, it’s a habit. You feel the impulse to do it every time, because well…that’s what you always do.
Habits may also be helpful with weight management. Think of the many things you do to help yourself lose weight and keep it off. Wouldn’t it be nice to add one or two of these healthy actions to your routine each day without having to remind yourself? You could do less planning and still make progress toward your weight-management goals.
How can you make it automatic?
You can take charge and create a habit on purpose. Keep in mind: More complicated actions can take longer to become true habits. To help you stay consistent, it’s a good idea to start small.
Think of one simple thing you may already do each time you’re in the same situation. For instance, washing your hands after using the bathroom. The habit didn’t form by itself. When you first started, you had to remind yourself, “Hey, I just used the bathroom: It’s time to wash my hands.”
As you did it consistently for a few weeks or months, the habit took over. You stopped thinking about it, and now you automatically go to the sink to wash your hands.
Let’s try it with a new habit:
Think of one weight-management goal you’d like to reach.
Eg, Drink less soda and more water.
Think of one small, repeatable action that can help you move toward that goal.
Eg, Fill up a large water bottle every morning to keep water handy.
Decide how/where/when you’ll do the new action. What can prompt you to do it?
Eg, Right after breakfast each day.
Note: whenever something prompts you to an action, it’s called a cue. In this case, finishing breakfast is your cue to fill up your water bottle. Read more about cues below.
Every time the cue occurs, do the new action.
Eg, Finish breakfast, then fill up my water bottle and carry it with me.
As you repeat this routine, it gets easier to remember. Every time you finish breakfast, you feel the impulse to grab the water bottle. The habit starts doing the work for you.
You may decide to start a different habit. Whatever you choose, it can follow the same pattern as the steps above.
Use your cues
There are many kinds of cues. Using our example of drinking water, think about which kind of cue might work with your routine:
Visual reminders: To help you drink water throughout the day, you can put a note where you’ll see it often, or put your water bottle beside the chair where you usually sit.
Time-based reminders: You might set a series of alarms on your phone to remind you to drink water at certain times.
Association cues: You can create a mental link between drinking water and another repeated activity. If you take your water bottle with you every time you take your dog outside, you may start to associate the dog walks with drinking water. Eventually, every time you take your dog out, you may feel the impulse to drink water.
Each cue starts out as a reminder to your conscious brain. The more you follow the cue with the action, the more the action becomes ingrained. Eventually, every time you experience the cue, you’ll want to do the action.
How long does it take to form a habit?
There’s no set amount of time that works for everyone. It depends on the kind of habit and how consistently you repeat the action. And of course, each person is different.
According to a small study published in 2010 in the European Journal of Social Psychology, with daily repetition, a habit can form on average in about 10 weeks. For some people, it may take more or less time.
Some habits require more effort to get started. Drinking water may be simpler and quicker. Carving out time for a daily walk may take more planning.
Consistency is key
There may be times when you’re in the process of forming a habit and something keeps you from following through after your cue. If that happens, it’s important to pick up the habitual action again the next time. Don’t break the habit before it fully forms.
How can you keep distractions and changes in schedule from throwing off your new habit?
|Set expectations with the people around you. Tell your kids, your spouse, or your coworkers about your plan to form a new habit, especially if that habit requires time. Let them know that you’re setting aside this time for yourself, and thank them in advance for not doing anything to throw you out of your routine.|
|Ask someone you trust to hold you accountable. They can check in with you and make sure you’re following through with your habit-forming plans.|
|Put your cues in place early. If you’re using a reminder cue such as a sticky note or an alarm, make sure they’re set the night before, so you don’t accidentally miss them. Setting your cues can become habitual too, just like your healthy action.|
Once a habit is formed, it has staying power. Most people who may skip a habitual action once can resume their habit the next time the cue occurs.
|Try it today!
Come up with a simple action and a cue, then follow through each day. Who knows how many healthy habits you can form?