We all know exactly how important healthy habits are to happiness and wellbeing.
Put simply, they are the little things we do on a regular basis that add up to form the bigger picture of what our lives look like. And the list of habits we can build goes on for miles and miles, which is a great thing. There’s doing yoga and drinking a green smoothie every day, lifting weights at the gym, keeping a gratitude journal, and so many more. We lead different lives and have different personalities, yet the road to thriving is open to anyone.
Building and maintaining healthy habits is important simply because they are the fundamentals behind success, regardless of who we are and what our goals in life may be. It’s hard to be our most vibrant, productive selves when we neglect a key component, such as getting enough sleep or exercise on a regular basis. Besides, many activities influence our lives in the most unexpected ways. For instance, I find that pushing myself at the gym helps me build the mental resilience needed to overcome challenges in other areas of my life.
As I mentioned, we often link habits to certain goals. We might want to start waking up earlier to fit more time into our day to get important work done. Or, up our intake of fruits and vegetables to clear up our skin. We journal to reduce stress and make more room in our minds for creativity. And the list goes on.
So, why do so many healthy habits fizzle out after a short time? After all, we know how a routine or activity can boost our personal growth and begin with seemingly no end to our motivation to keep going. But the situation of being right back where we started within weeks undoubtedly sounds familiar to many of us.
While the reasons for this are complex and vary from person to person, a lot of it has to do with a lack of foresight. Essentially, we don’t know what we’re getting into, what to expect and how to go about achieving the brilliant results we desire.
Before you start something new, whether an exercise routine or a change in the way you eat, do some self-reflection. Set yourself up for success by thinking about the new activity, why it matters and the roadblocks you could encouter. Below I’ve compiled a list of questions to ask yourself to streamline the process of building meaningful, healthy habits that stay with you for life.
1. Am I doing this for myself?
It’s great to be inspired by others. It’s great to connect and listen to people’s stories. Tuning into their experiences, we know why the habits are worth forming. Plus, many influences out there are willing to provide actionable tips and resources to help you achieve similar results.
But, you must be 110% certain that the habit matters to you, and you’ll be doing whatever it involves, first and foremost, to help yourself. In other words, you shouldn’t do something ‘just because’ someone on Instagram is doing it and/or to live up to standards that aren’t your own. Sure, waking up at 6 a.m. and going for a run is good for you. Starting the day with movement leaves you energised and motivated. And by waking up earlier, you can fit your health and fitness goals around your lifestyle.
However, society often links this type of habit to looking a certain way, and by implication – popularity, influence, and the like. You see thriving and happy women with 100k+ on the ‘gram putting on their running shoes while the world sleeps. As I said, it’s great if you feel inspired by them. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong with having ‘body goals’. But too many people jump straight in and copy exactly what someone else is doing with little further thought.
So, you must get clear on why the habit is important to you personally. Do you want to wake up earlier because you don’t like feeling sluggish and unproductive in the morning? Do you want to start lifting weights to build a strong, capable body? In other words, find your own reasons. Don’t do something to please your followers, or your friends, or an illusion of what you think will make you happy.
2. What is my ‘why’?
Leading on from the above: you’ll have a hard time sticking to the new habit if your ‘why’ isn’t immediately obvious. You need a central reason for why you’d want to go through the effort of forming a new habit. Changing our lives is tough, and we need incentives. To reach our goals, we need to be intentional with everything we do. There’s little point in investing time and energy in something just for the sake of it.
Start by identifying your goals and intentions, and think about how the habit could help you get there. Be specific. If it helps, write everything down on a piece of paper for extra clarity.
Some examples to illustrate:
Habit: waking up at 5:30 every day.
What goals will this help me achieve and how?
- Running a half-marathon – I’ll have time to train before work.
- Finishing things on time – I’m at my most productive early in the morning.
Habit: journaling for 5 minutes every day
What goals will this help me achieve and how?
- Overcoming anxiety – writing helps calm me down when I’m stressed
- Come up with new blog post ideas – writing without constraints unlocks my creativity
Habit: eating at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day
What goals will this help me achieve and how?
- Clear up my skin – I can eat fewer processed foods and more micronutrients
- Get stronger in the gym – I’ll feel more energised and motivated for my workouts
3. What is the long-term potential of this habit?
In other words, is this habit likely to be a temporary asset, or something you can see yourself doing years into the future?
This question analyses the true value of something. The best habits are sustainable and stay with you regardless of circumstance. They give you a sense of stability and keep you connected to your core values even if life as a whole takes a new direction. Sure, some habits and routines may be specific to ‘one-off’ goals (such as waking up half an hour earlier to train for a race or write an important essay). Building long-term habits, however, is important because they’ll lay the foundations for success in anything you attempt.
They’re the activities and routines that you can fall back on whenever things get difficult or stressful, thereby keeping you on track. For this reason, I’d recommend searching for long-term potential in any of your new routines, even the seemingly temporary ones: sometimes, you experience unforeseen benefits and keep the habit going once any deadlines pass!
4. Is it realistic and achievable?
Many of us tend so get excited about a new habit and jump straight into the deep end. Motivation is at its highest early on, and we want to make as much progress as soon as possible. But more doesn’t always mean better, and certain things are far easier said that done. We overestimate what’s possible, and run into too many difficulties during the implementation stage to keep going.
What are examples of unrealistic habits? Well, it may be anything that’s:
Too much, too soon.
As I mentioned, enthusiasm often leads us to ignore the realities of our starting point. I’m not saying it’s bad to be ambitious: in fact, not pushing yourself enough can lessen the value of a habit. But some intentions are not only impossible, but also dangerous and counterproductive. An obvious example may be someone who hasn’t exercised in years attempting five gym sessions a week.
Incompatible with your lifestyle.
Sure, when fully committed to something, you can make room for it in your life. But once again, you have to take into account your priorities and understand that you can’t do everything at once (more on that below).
Blatantly unsustainable and unrealistic.
Certain habits are impossible to maintain and/or needless. Here I’m talking about crash diets, three hour gym sessions, fifteen-step morning routines. Sure, you can do these things on a one-off basis. But are they actually healthy in the first place? And will you be able to keep going after a few days or weeks? The answer to both questions is most likely ‘no’.
Setting unrealistic intentions is one of the main reasons why people struggle to form new habits. They burn out before experiencing any of the benefits. To avoid this, recognise that slow and steady is much better than swinging to extremes, overwhelming yourself and at times, getting the opposite of the intended effect. For example: except for professional athletes, most people don’t need to spend two hours in the gym every day to reach their health and fitness goals. Plus, doing so is hardly possible on top of other commitments.
Be honest with yourself and understand what’s manageable at this point in time. If needs be, figure out the steps to build the habit from the ground up. Let’s say your intention is to eat less processed foods. Instead of cutting everything out overnight and overwhelming yourself, first get into the routine of preparing your lunches in advance. With anything, the best option is putting together a doable routine and striving for gradual progress, not overnight results!
5. Do I have a plan?
‘Prepare to plan, plan to fail’ is one of many personal growth-related clichés, but it keeps coming back to us because it’s so true. On one hand, we shouldn’t plan to the point where planning becomes procrastination. But building healthy habits – reworking our old ways into something new – is not an easy path. A compass or a guiding light helps far more than stumbling about in the dark.
Before jumping ahead into a new habit, think about how you’ll make it work. As I said, a plan doesn’t have to be overly complicated or detailed. It can simply be a starting point. For instance, if you want to consistently meet your five a day, start by saving recipes high in fruits and veggies on Pinterest, writing a grocery shopping list and scheduling a trip to the supermarket. Or, if waking up at six a.m. is the end goal, write the time you’ll wake up in your planner, taking off 15-20 minutes for each day.
6. What challenges am I likely to encounter?
Healthy habits enhance all possible areas of our lives, particularly over the long run. We all know why we should get regular exercise, eat healthy, stay hydrated, etc. But if they were easy to form, everyone would be drinking their green smoothies and fitting in at least thirty minutes of movement every day. I wouldn’t be sat here writing this post.
Sure, the vast portion of self-improvement should be enjoyable – which is why I emphasise sustainability time and time again. You don’t want to be doing something that makes you miserable, whether that’s a way of eating or an exercise routine that you dread. As a whole, living a healthy lifestyle must not be a burden. If it is, it’s neither healthy nor a lifestyle. Regardless of this we have to understand that we will encounter obstacles when overcoming the inertia of our old ways. In doing this, you won’t be one of the people who get caught out by and stumble at the first one.
What these challenges look like depends on the habit in question. I’ll give a personal case study. before I started journaling, I recognised that I might struggle to find enough time for it on a regular basis. Simply identifying the stumbling block paved the way for a solution: committing to ‘just’ five minutes before bed. Because of this, I overcame a problem straight away and am still going strong with my journaling habit.
Further common obstacles could range from unsupportive friends/family, to the fact that the initial motivation won’t always be there. Prepare yourself ahead of time. Have a plan of what you’ll do whenever they arise. This way, a minor setback won’t turn into an excuse to abandon the newly formed habit all together.
7. How will I keep myself accountable?
Accountability is the big reason for why you need a physical system to keep watch of your habits. It’s much easier to stumble when attempting to track in your mind. After all, habits aren’t really habits without regularity. You might miss out one this week, twice the next, and before you know it, you’ve fallen back to your old ways.
Plus, you’ll notice patterns and understand what other events in life or your emotions make it harder to stick to the positive activities. And seeing progress on paper will motivate you to keep going!
It might take a bit of trial and error to find a tracking system that works for you. Some people like the pen and paper approach, others make it digital through spreadsheets or mobile apps. Personally, I track my habits in my bullet journal because I can customise the layouts to my liking and attempt new ones to see what works best. Here is the bullet journal I use:
Let me know if you would like to see a more detailed post on tracking habits.
Sharing your intentions with other people is another method of accountability many find helpful. Be careful with this, because not everyone is well-meaning. However, if you can fully trust the other people involved, building a support network may be exactly what you need for whenever things get tough and you start doubting yourself.
People leap into the quest for self-improvement with utmost energy and enthusiasm. Yet, they give little thought to what’s realistic and what’s not, to their strategy, to potential obstacles. As a result, many habits don’t last beyond a week or two. It’s up to us to sustain them, because what we do daily shapes our lives as a whole. Whenever possible, we must reflect and plan, gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and what matters to us.