Habits are a huge part of daily life. In fact, research finds that between one third and one half of your actions every day are habitual. To ensure that your numerous existing habits are serving you — and to create new ones that will support your health for years to come — follow this guide to building, stacking, and integrating healthy habits.
The Foolproof Blueprint for Habit Creation
If you’ve ever struggled to build new habits, you’re not alone — and you’re also not destined to struggle forever. By following these steps, you can create new, healthy habits that are ready to be stacked and strengthened to weather life’s inevitable disruptions.
Embrace Your Aspirational Identity
The first step to creating rock-solid habits is to be intentional in embracing your aspirational identity. Research suggests that your interests and habits reflect your personal identity and, conversely, that your self-perception guides the ways you spend your time and energy. Ultimately, this means that you can build healthy habits from the inside out: Who you want to be will influence the actions you take in your daily life.
Start by envisioning the best version of yourself, i.e., your aspirational identity. For example, maybe you identify as a triathlete, and the best version you envision is a competitive triathlete. Once you’ve embraced your aspirational identity, it will serve to reinforce healthy habits. The key here is the framing: To be a competitive triathlete, you may need to train for an hour or two every day, meaning you’ll need adequate nutrition, sleep, and restoration.
When you break these Pillars of Health down into discrete tasks (“eat a protein-forward snack after working out,” “foam roll for 15 minutes,” “go to bed by 9 p.m.”) it can sound overwhelming. However, if you’ve embraced your identity as a competitive triathlete, the behaviors that comprise the triathlete lifestyle can become more cohesive and automatic. All you have to ask is, “What would a competitive triathlete (or fill in your aspirational identity) do?”
When you’re creating new habits, long-term goals and ambiguity are a recipe for frustration. Instead, you want to focus on smaller, simpler behaviors that you can accrue to build a larger habit. In essence, building habits is a cumulative process!
Small habits that are specific and attainable provide the greatest return on investment because they are low-friction behaviors, meaning they require only modest mental focus and physical energy, with fairly immediate rewards. Starting with simple actions that take only 30 seconds to 2 minutes will improve your chances of sticking with them over the long term, and you will eventually come to see your well-established habits snowball over time.
For example, maybe you have a long-term goal of completing at least 20–30 minutes of yoga nidra each day. Rather than trying to carve out this chunk of time at the outset, you could start by breaking it into several smaller increments. If you can stick with just five minutes a day for a week or two, then you can add a second five-minute session, and then a third. You’ll be up to half an hour of Restoration in no time!
Be Consistent to Form Habit Loops
Habits are not linear behavior patterns. Instead, each habit you create is a loop: A cue (like a push notification) triggers you to respond by taking a specific action (starting your Fasting Timer), which promotes a reward (you pour yourself a cup of your favorite herbal tea). The reward triggers a release of dopamine in your brain, providing positive reinforcement and training your brain to engage in that particular habit.
Early on in habit creation, your brain has not yet established strong neural patterns for the habit; it hasn’t firmly connected the cue and response to the reward. Therefore, consistency and repetition are needed to engrain healthy behaviors you want to build into habits. This is why small, rigid habits with distinct cues and rewards cultivate successful habit formation in the short term — they make consistency and repetition easier. (You’re more likely to repeat a 30-second habit multiple times throughout the day than a 30-minute habit!) Then, when you’ve successfully built a habit that remains consistent and automatic despite the change and variability of daily life, you’ll be ready to build upon it.
Layering (and Compounding) Healthy Habits
Creating new healthy habits is great. Doing it strategically — in ways that link the habits to give you even more “bang for your buck” — is even better.
You’ve probably heard that pairing or “stacking” an existing, enjoyable habit with a new, maybe not-so-enjoyable habit can help that latter habit to take hold. This is true, and it’s a great benefit of habit stacking. However, what you may not realize is that stacking habits can also yield synergistic benefits — that is, one habit intensifies the benefits of the other habit, and vice versa. Here’s an example:
Let’s say you enjoy breaking your fast with homemade smoothies full of protein-packed yogurt and vitamin-dense fruits. You also want to build upon your Activity Pillar, but you’ve had trouble being consistent. One solution is to break your fast with a smoothie after a moderate-to-vigorous exercise session. By doing this, the smoothie serves as a reward for undertaking the act of exercise, thus reinforcing your Activity habit. Meanwhile, the timing of that smoothie helps to replenish glycogen stores and synthesize protein so you avoid muscle breakdown and hasten recovery to be ready for your next workout.
Troubleshooting: What If You Miss a Day?
Nobody has a 100% track record with habits — they’re subject to the same unpredictable life circumstances as anything else. If you forget or forgo a habit because life got in the way, don’t beat yourself up. One day doesn’t mean your habit is gone! Tomorrow is a new day and a new opportunity to slip right back into the groove. Strong habits are resilient and will restore easily once your life circumstances return to normal.
However, if one missed day leads to consecutive days and then a week or more of skipping the habit, you can consider that habit broken. When that happens, it’s time to employ a different strategy, like a reset routine. This can be one action or a set of actions that help get those healthy habits back in motion. Keep it simple — something as quick and easy as a walk around your neighborhood can help get your Activity habit back on track.
Putting It All Together
Habits don’t exist in a vacuum; for them to stick, they need to be woven into your personal identity and lifestyle.Here are a few key strategies you can use to integrate your healthy habits with your lifestyle so they nest neatly within your routine.
#1. Decrease Friction
An example from the Nutrition Pillar is to prepare whole, minimally processed foods before you ever intend to eat them. This will make you more likely to reach for those healthier options, because they’re just as easy to grab as their less-healthy counterparts. (But make sure you follow or even pair that prep work with an enticing reward so it becomes a habit! Listen to your favorite music while chopping vegetables or have a guilt-free media scroll when you finish.)
#2. Notice Unintended Negative Effects
There are only 24 hours in a day, so check in periodically to ensure that a new health habit isn’t crowding out an old (but equally important) one. For example, if you notice that your new morning movement routine is causing you to compromise getting quality sleep, consider shifting your movement later in the day.
#3. Leverage Your Support System
Sharing your intentions with family and friends as well as using tools like Zero can help with key aspects of habit building, like staying motivated and accountable. When you build a community that supports your health goals, you are even more likely to accomplish them.
Habits are a way to automate specific actions of daily living and make them easier to accomplish. However, the fact that they become automatic means that they take considerable time and, if you want them to be healthy habits, intentionality to develop.
Take a look at your life and find healthy habits you’ve already developed. What new habits could you stack with what you’re already doing? What sorts of habits will support your aspirational identity, and how can you make them fit seamlessly within your lifestyle? By answering these questions, you’re on your way to building, stacking, and integrating healthy habits that will extend and improve your life.
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