These 5 simple steps will help you build healthy habits for life

Everyone wants to build healthy habits. But it seems like building healthy habits is soooo much harder than building unhealthy habits. Can you remember that last time you thought to yourself, “I think I’d like to pick up a unhealthy habit?” Of course not! We don’t (usually) intentionally decide to develop bad habits. They happen. But how? And why?

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Habits

Building good—let’s call them healthy—habits is WORK. building unhealthy habits is usually fairly easy, and sometimes even fun. Why? It’s all about the REWARD. Good habits usually require delayed gratification. You don’t typically see the benefits right away. While unhealthy habits sometimes offer instant gratification or pleasure, with a delayed onset of consequences.

For example, binge-watching Friends every weekend is a lot more fun than cleaning your house. But after several weeks of doing so, you begin to the see the consequences of not having cleaned your house. This is a trivial example, of course. But I want to make the point that unhealthy habits are easy to build because they’re usually rewarding in the short term. On the other hand, healthy habits require more time, effort and sacrifice on the front end. And sometimes, you don’t know how or when the habit will pay off.

A well-known study observed children’s ability to delay gratification. Researchers offered children a small reward immediately or a larger reward if they could wait 15 minutes while the researcher left the room. Only a third of the children were able to delay gratification to get the larger reward (a couple marshmallows). Even from a young age, it’s hard to resist short term pleasure for long term rewards (of course, we are talking about more than just marshmallows here)!

Building healthy habits isn’t easy but it is worthwhile

Furthermore, the main difference between healthy habits and unhealthy habits is the return. Of course, healthy habits do pay off. And when they do, they continue to do so. While unhealthy habits, at some point, result in unwanted consequences that continue to compound over time. This is especially applicable to nutrition and fitness, where you can see and feel the rewards or consequences of your choices. Of course, we all know that eating pizza and donuts every day is not going to get us our dream body, but oftentimes it’s easier to stick with the unhealthy habit because we don’t want to face the pain of change or risk disappointment if we don’t see the results in the way or the time frame that we want. BUT–the risk of disappointment is far inferior to the possibility of transformation!

So why even attempt to build healthy habits? Because the payoff is great! Whether it’s advancing in the workplace, losing weight, or even building friendships, the process of building the habit itself will improve your life. Only by taking the steps to build healthy habits will you have the opportunity to change.

Okay, now that we’ve covered how hard it is to build healthy habits, let’s talk about how, despite this fact, it is attainable and truly simpler than you’d think. The key is understanding. Of course, it is going to require sacrifice, time and commitment, too, but at the root of healthy habits is self-awareness.

How to build healthy habits in 5 simple steps

  1. First things first: in building healthy habits, You MUST understand your motivation style. I cannot stress this enough. Knowing how you’re motivated will determine how and why you build habits. I highly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s books: The Four Tendencies and Better Than Before. She breaks down the different motivation styles and helps you decipher how you are motivated to build habits. This will set you up for success in building healthy habits. Once you understand this, you will have greater success in building and maintaining healthy habits. If you can’t commit to reading a book right now, you can take this short quiz to discover your motivation style.
  2. Secondly, think about what your “why” is. Why do you want to change and what do you stand to lose–and gain? You have to want to create the habit to actually follow through with it. So, thinking through why you’re building this healthy habit will foster commitment to change.
  3. Next, find accountability. Having someone to keep you accountable will make all the difference in building healthy habits. He or she can ask you questions, give you encouragement and offer advice throughout the process. Even better, find someone with a similar healthy habit goal and partner up with them! Having someone do it with you–whether it’s going to the gym, going to church, or doing yardwork–will give you more motivation. Moreover, once you establish the habit, having someone do it with you or who at least knows your intentions will keep you going.
  4. Shift your mentality about rewards. We are human, and we want to be rewarded for our efforts. The problem with this mentality is that building healthy habits is not an instant gratification thing. It takes time to see the benefits and experience the satisfaction of building a healthy habit. This requires a mentality shift. Instead of seeking a reward for building a healthy habit, think about the reward as being the habit itself. For example, if you’re trying to establish the habit of doing volunteer work, the reward is giving back to your community as well as the positive feelings that come with being generous toward others.
  5. Lastly, it’s crucial to think about potential roadblocks to maintaining your healthy habit and establish safeguards. Whether it’s a vacation, a move, a crazy week at work, or your kid’s activities, life will throw plenty of roadblocks your way that will threaten to wreak your healthy habit. But, if you anticipate these, you will be prepared to stick to your habit despite your circumstances. While you may not always be able to predict the timing and type of roadblock, you can be assured that they will indeed happen from time to time. Along these lines, come up with a game plan for when life throws you curve balls. This could be having healthy meals prepped in the freezer for when you have a hectic week at work. Or, this could be signing up for fitness classes when you know you’re going to struggle to stay motivated–like in the middle of holiday season.

Starting is the hardest part

What are you looking to change? Something I frequently tell my clients is that “starting is the hardest part.” You will experience some discomfort, and it will cost you time and effort. But, when the going gets tough (and it will), think about your why, what you stand to lose if you quit, and what you stand to gain if you press on. If you are seeking to build a healthy exercise or nutrition habit, check out my posts on How to Create an Exercise Plan that Works and How to Start Eating Healthy and Stick to It.