5 Proven Steps to Build Healthy Habits Yourself

A woman writing in her journal

A habit is a behavior that’s repeated until it becomes automatic or done without any sense of awareness or motivation. The key to building healthy habits is to gradually shift small actions from intentional to automatic processes. 

We define a habit as…

…an action that we repeat so long that it becomes automatic. We don’t need to be motivated to do it anymore and we skip the usual decision-making process about whether we are going to do it or not.

You may know by now that even though the definition seems pretty straight-forward, habits aren’t formed very easily. So how exactly do you make controlled behaviors become internally guided actions? 

There are a few proven steps to building your own health and goal-driven habits. Follow these steps in the order below and you’ll be on your way to a new habitually healthy lifestyle. 

A man is sitting in his bed and looking out of the window

How to Build Healthy Habits: 5 Steps


1. Know What You Want 

The first step to building healthy habits is figuring out what habits you actually want to keep. To do that, you need to define your goals

According to research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, goal setting is a behavior change technique that serves as a fundamental component of successful interventions.(1) Researchers agree that you must engage in goal setting to maximize behavioral changes. 

Spend some time exploring what you want and need in your life at this very moment. Knowing this will allow you to move on to the next step — formulating a specific plan. 

2. Make A Plan 

Once you’ve pinpointed your goals, you’ll need to formulate a specific plan made up of realistic actions. Think about what small, sustainable steps you can take and repeat consistently to achieve your goals.

A study published in the British Journal of General Practice suggests that a “small changes approach” is an effective behavior-changing strategy.(2)

A group of people sitting on the breakfast table

Here are some examples of specific action steps you can add into your daily routine and eventually make habitual:

  1. Leave time in the morning for mindfulness – starting your day feeling rushed will throw off your mood and may shift your routine. Saving time in the morning for reflection, gratitude, prayer or meditation will set the tone for a successful day. 
  2. Sit down for a healthy breakfast – not everyone has the same appetite in the morning, so you can base your breakfast choices on your body’s needs. Generally, a breakfast rich in protein and healthy fats will provide energy and nourishment. 
  3. Drink a full glass of water before leaving the house. 
  4. Take a walk during your lunch break. 
  5. Have a snack in the late-afternoon – this is the time of day that many people begin to “crash,” so being prepared with a healthy snack to boost energy levels will help to reduce cravings. 
  6. Prepare your own dinner – cooking meals at home more often will help to reduce calorie intake and give you control of how to fuel your body. 
  7. Designate a time for exercise and be prepared – exercising at the same time every day will help make the action automatic. To support this step, be sure to be prepared with workout clothes if you’re away from home. 
  8. Read before bed – this will help your body unwind in the evening and support restful sleep. 
  9. Get at least seven hours of sleep every night. Stick to the same sleep and wake times, at least on weekdays. 

3. Be Consistent

Research shows that mere repetition of a simple action causes it to become habitual, because it’s activated after contextual cues.(3)

In other words, when you repeat the same behaviors after certain events, over time your brain will be ready for the behavior automatically.

A woman walking in the city

For example, if you take a walk after eating breakfast every day, the automaticity of this behavior will increase over time. This means that engaging in this post-breakfast activity consistently will allow your brain to automatically prepare for the walk, rather than relying on a decision to do it. 

A great way to get started is to choose some habits you want to add to your morning routine, such as meditation, drinking a glass of water after you wake up, and giving yourself a certain amount of phone-free time to start your day.  

How long does it take to form this kind of habit? Studies indicate that it’ll take about two months for behaviors to become automatic. So clearly, consistency is key! Once your actions are performed consistently for about two months, it’ll become second nature. 

4. Fight Through Setbacks

Setbacks can be expected any time you are working to achieve a goal. There will be days that you don’t follow your plan perfectly, you missed a workout, gave in to cravings, didn’t get enough sleep, and so on. 

Researchers in London indicate that “missing the occasional opportunity to perform a behavior did not seriously impair the habit formation process.”(4)
The automaticity of a habit returns soon after the action is resumed. 

Of course, the longer you go without performing these healthy behaviors, the harder it will be to achieve habit-status again. So it’s okay to have days here and there that aren’t as planned, but get back on track as soon as possible to keep the habit going.

A woman is laying on the yoga mat with her eyes closed

5. Allow for Down Time

All work and no play makes habits hard to keep. We want to work hard to stay healthy, but there needs to be some down time too. Allot a block of time every week that’s meant for relaxation and reflection. Remember to practice positivity and gratitude, and give back to your body for all that it allows during the week. 

This may involve taking a peaceful stroll outdoors, going to a restorative yoga class, getting a massage, or reading a book on the couch. Use it as a time to restore your body and mind for another week of wellness. 

In a Nutshell

Small changes can make a big difference in how you feel in your daily life. Try the 5 steps above to integrate some healthy habits. In the process, you may notice that you’re not just building good habits, you’re also eliminating bad ones. Stay consistent and before you know it, your days will be brighter and your goals will come into focus.

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Dr. Josh Axe

Josh is a doctor of natural medicine, clinical nutritionist, and author. He specializes in how the right nutrition has a positive influence on people's health. View all posts by Dr. Josh Axe »