Our daily habits can make or break our ability to live a long and healthy life. Learn what it takes to make lasting behavioral changes that will reward you for years to come.

In Part 1 of our Better Habits for Better Health series, we learned that our daily habits are among the most important factors that determine whether we will live long, healthy lives. To achieve sustainable improved health through better habits, a two-pronged approach is needed: creating new healthy habits while breaking existing unhealthy ones.

Making healthy habits

The three basic components of forming new habits are repeated behaviors, cue association, and rewards. When working toward positive behavioral change, keep these pointers in mind:

·      Take the initiative. Research shows that people who choose their own target behavior goals achieve better results because they have a sense of control and are more likely to maintain motivation throughout the process. Choose behavior goals based on your own personal values rather than trying to appease others.

·      Set SMART goals. Setting the right goals is essential for successful behavioral change, and the acronym SMART is often used to help with the process. For example, a SMART goal for losing weight can be:

o   Specific: A goal should be specific. Instead of “I want to lose weight,” you can decide, “I want to lose 1 lb a week.”

o   Measurable: A goal must be measurable. Find a way to regularly quantify how many pounds you have lost so you know when you have reached your goal.

o   Attainable: Aim for small, attainable behavior changes. As you achieve these small goals, your confidence will grow as you pursue more changes. Start by eating just one more fruit or vegetable per day or decrease the number of desserts per week by one. When you accomplish this, add on more small goals to keep advancing toward your final goal.

o   Relevant: Accomplishing your goal should be meaningful to you and should improve your life in a significant way. Maybe losing weight will decrease your risk for disease, boost your energy, or allow you to come off medications.

o   Timely. Your goal should follow a specific timeline. By when do you want to accomplish it? You can say, “I will lose 30 lbs by June 1.”

·      Be realistic about the time horizon. The time it takes to create a new habit is unique to everyone. Despite the popular belief that habits take 21 days to form, it can take up to 10 weeks for some, so keep up the effort and do not get discouraged.

·      Focus on a successful future “you.” So often we allow our need for immediate gratification to get in the way of our ability to form good habits. This is common for people trying to lose weight but struggle to maintain healthy eating. The key is to prioritize your desired outcome in favor of giving in to existing temptations. To do this, practice vividly imagining a healthy future “you” and indulge in how good it feels in your body and mind to have reached your goal.

·      Self-monitor your progress every day. Regularly and closely tracking your behavior, such as minutes of exercise or calories consumed, is proven to be highly effective for establishing improved habits. Simply log your activity in a diary or use a digital tracking tool to record your progress.

Breaking unhealthy habits

Adopting new healthy habits is critical for a better way of life, but existing harmful habits must be replaced or extinguished, or else relapses are likely to occur. Freeing yourself of poor habits requires deactivating the cues that trigger your actions. This can be done by disrupting the cues, modifying your environment, and self-monitoring closely.

·      Disrupt your cues. Add “friction” to the old way of doing things to weaken or even extinguish a cue. This will make a bad habit less easy to perform. For example, if you are trying to cut down on video game playing, instead of leaving out the controllers in plain view, place the controllers tucked away in a drawer in another room. This will require you to retrieve the controllers in a different place, adding on time to your habit and making it less convenient to accomplish.

·      Change your environment. Reduce the impact of unhealthy cues by changing up the environment where your old habit is performed. For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, hanging around people who are smoking will make your goal of quitting much more challenging. Taking advantage of natural periods of transition in your life, such as a move or a new job, is a great way to change the environment that triggers your unwanted habits.

·      Closely self-monitor. As with adopting a new habit, curbing a bad habit requires vigilant self-awareness of the cues that trigger your unhealthy ways. Self-monitoring will require you to consciously take control of any unwanted automatic behaviors by paying close attention to any missteps. When it comes to changing your behavior, rather than continually reminding yourself “don’t smoke,” which may lead to a relapse, provide yourself with a more concrete, positive action to take on instead, such as chewing gum every time the urge strikes.