Create Lasting, Powerful Habits

Use these scientifically backed strategies to stay on track — for real this time.

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT | March 14, 2017

As Will Durant famously summarized Aristotle’s philosophy on excellence, “We are what we repeatedly do.” Our habits shape our lives, but forming good ones, shrugging off bad ones and inciting positive change — those are the tricky parts.

This month we sourced some solid experts and delved into the latest research to compile a comprehensive collection of advice that will help you create positive, life-altering habits — habits that could mean the difference between success and failure with your 2017 goals.

Are Habits Hardwired?

A habit by definition is a behavior ingrained by practice that enables you to perform very complex behaviors in a nearly automatic way — curling a dumbbell, brushing your teeth, driving to work. A large percentage of your daily activities are performed in the same situations at the same time, day after day, and habits arise from these repeated patterns of behavior.

Habits have a “neural signature,” meaning that when you’re learning a response you engage a part of your brain that supports working memory and allows you to make decisions — do this or do that. “When the brain forms a habit it changes at the biological level,” says Justin O’Hare, a researcher at the Calakos neurology and neurobiology lab at Duke University in North Carolina. “It changes the ‘rules’ for what makes you perform a certain action, and automates routine behaviors.” As you repeat a certain behavior in the same way and in same context, that information is recognized and shifts into a sensory motor loop, like being on autopilot, and functions largely outside your immediate realm of awareness.

But while most people think about habits as being negative (e.g., obsessive-compulsive disorder or an eating disorder), they can actually be valuable in that they free up your brain to think about other things, like planning how you’re going to ask your boss for a raise as you drive to work, notes O’Hare. However, even if a habit is deeply ingrained there is still a part of the brain that can shut it off: Intention and desire can change the outcome of a habitual loop as you make decisions about what to do in the future that might be different than what you did in the past.

This nonautonomous, controllable area is where ditching bad habits and/or establishing new ones comes in. And you can harness that power to make lasting, healthy habits and break unhealthy, unhelpful ones.

Be Patient

Just like you didn’t acquire 17-inch biceps overnight, changing a habit will take a little time.

“The key to making a new behavior part of your routine is committing to repetition,” says Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D., cognitive scientist and CEO of Bright Line Eating in Rochester, New York. “Despite popular belief it doesn’t take 28 days to form a habit — on average it takes 66 or more. So give whatever new thing you’re trying to add into your life at least two months of consistent repetition and you will eventually feel strange if you don’t do it.”

Strategy #1: Follow through again and again (and again)

“It isn’t a question of how hard it is to make a habit stick so much as making that commitment to repeat the new action over and over,” says Thompson. So if you want to rise early to go to the gym, for instance, get up when your alarm goes off. “Get up consistently and gradually it will become easier and easier until you’re even waking up a few seconds ahead of your alarm because your brain is cueing your body what is coming next,” says Thompson.

Strategy #2: Prepare to fail

Slip-ups are inevitable — you’re going to miss a WOD, you will eat a piece of birthday cake at the office, you will trip up somewhere along the journey. Patience is also necessary when you fail, because even though your mother might believe it, you’re not perfect.

“Think about habit forming as a learning process, of learning what works best for you and how to keep getting a little better at it when things in your life get nuts,” says Steven Ledbetter, CSCS, sports psychologist and CEO of Habitry.com. Don’t berate yourself or cannonball into a trough of French onion dip if you have a misstep — accept it and move on.

Ditch the Dope(amine) Addiction

Your brain is hard-wired to pay attention to pleasing things, according to neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University, and when you see something that you associate with a past reward, your brain flushes with dopamine. Furthermore, according to research published in the journal Neuron, forming a habit leaves a lasting mark on specific circuits on the brain, which in turn primes us to further feed our cravings or addictions. This explains why you simply can’t resist that gooey slice of pizza or that rich slice of cheesecake.

“A lot of bad habits unfortunately involve things the human brain finds very reinforcing like alcohol or drugs,” says O’Hare. “Since the act of partaking in these harmful substances can feel very rewarding, that act is reinforced strongly and is therefore more likely to be repeated in the future.”

Strategy #1: Semantics

“It’s easier to form habits for behaviors you like,” says Wendy Wood, Ph.D. and provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Therefore, she says, if you love cake and cookies it will be more difficult to form a habit to eat healthy foods that you don’t love.

“In my research I found that women who valued their health were especially likely to form healthy habits in a choice task,” says Wood. Success could be as simple as rewording your goal, so instead of saying “don’t eat junk food,” say “I choose to eat healthy foods.”

“If you want to habitually eat healthfully, you also have to choose foods you like,” adds Wood. Sounds simple, but a lot of people try to force themselves to eat things they know are good for them, but if you hate kale you’re probably not going to eat it no matter how good you know it is for you. Solution: Ditch the kale and eat spinach instead.

Strategy #2: Go cold turkey

Sometimes a really bad habit is best left on the table to wither and die. “Habits that trigger dopamine release — smoking, eating sugar, watching porn — are addictive,” says Thompson. “Over time the brain requires more stimulation to get the same dopamine response, and soon one is stuck in a cycle of drinking caffeine or smoking cigarettes or eating sugar just to feel normal.”

Thompson’s suggestion: complete abstinence. “Cutting back on smoking is still smoking; it will still kill you,” she says. “Allow the brain to heal for a minimum of six months to break that dopamine cycle.”

The Inconvenient Truth

A habit will be much easier to establish if it is easy to do. “When trying to form new habits, make the behavior you don’t want to do less convenient and the behavior you want to establish obvious, simple and impossible to ignore,” says Ledbetter.

This proves especially true when it comes to food, and researchers from St. Joseph’s Erivan K. Haub School of Business in Philadelphia and Yale University measured the placement of snacks in an office environment and how it affected consumption. They found that the closer an employee was to the snacks within the office the more likely they were to grab some and nosh.

Strategy #1: Out of sight, out of mind

If you’re arm’s reach from the kitchen at your workplace, ask to move your desk to another corner to avoid temptation and make unhealthy snacking less convenient. Also, stock your work station with healthy snacks that contain plenty of protein and fiber to keep you satisfied and full (convenient). At home, place your kids’ snacks in a cabinet or shelf that is dedicated only to them (inconvenient) and replace countertop cereal and cookies with fruit and veggies (convenient) to encourage healthy snacking.

Strategy #2: Rearrange your workout

If you want to make a habit at the gym, it should be (or at least seem to be) convenient in order for it to stick. For example, if you feel time-crunched at the end of your workout and always skip your intended mobility drills, change things around to make it more convenient: Perform the mobility exercises before you train or between sets during the workout itself so they seamlessly become part of your program instead of an afterthought.

Situational Snafu

Did you ever have that friend who “only smokes” when she drinks? Her habit of smoking arises within the context of alcohol. “Habits are context-response associations,” says Wood. “Once habits have formed, the response automatically comes to mind when we are in the appropriate context.”

“If you are in a context in which you routinely carry out a particular action, then you are detecting some cue in that environment that then drives an automated response,” adds O’Hare. Once in that contextual milieu, it’s easier to act on that habit than it is to resist it, making habits that much harder to break.

Strategy #1: Change your context

Typically, a cue that triggers a habit will not be something you can avoid forever; therefore, you’ve got to change your context that triggers the cue. If you always go to happy hour after work with your friends but have sworn off alcohol in order to improve performance and body composition, then (duh) stop going to happy hour and remove yourself from that context of drinking. Better yet, replace that bad habit with a good one — hit the gym, go for a run or do a WOD — and invite your happy-hour crew to come with!

Strategy #2: Change your response

You’re not always going to be able to change your context so in those instances you’ll have to change your reaction. “A habit has two parts: a cue and a response,” says O’Hare. “By changing the response to the cue you only have to change half the memory, thereby making it easier to implement.”

An easy way to replace a bad habit is to implement a good one, according to O’Hare, so when the cue arises, change your response to it. For example, when your alarm goes off (cue), don’t hit your snooze button as you usually do (response). Instead, listen to a song or a news bit and plan your workout while you lie in bed (new response), then get up and go do it.

Start Slowly? Try Full Throttle Instead.

You’ve probably heard that in order to make a habit of diet and exercise you should start small, tackling one change at a time in order to not get overwhelmed. However, new research in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that when it comes to making healthy lifestyle changes, initiating multiple habits at once can generate momentum in a domino effect — one habit change affecting another.

The study followed two groups of college students over the course of six weeks. One group was the control and continued their daily routines as always. The other experienced a complete lifestyle overhaul, or “multifaceted intervention.” They stretched, meditated, learned gratitude practices and stress management, and did Pilates, yoga and bodyweight training. They limited alcohol intake, slept for eight to 10 hours each night, ate more whole foods and fewer carbohydrates and kept a daily journal.

After six weeks, brain scans showed the intervention students had better focus, improved reading comprehension, better memory, and were happier and fitter overall. Compared with interventions in which subjects only adopted one new habit, the multifaceted approach showed 2.5 times greater benefits. Follow-up tests showed that the improvements endured and the students still scored high on mental and physical tests even though they weren’t training as much. This suggests that we are more adaptable than we think, and that our ability for neural plasticity is larger on the whole than previously believed.

Strategy #1: Go whole hog

If you’ve always wanted to make a habit of something like running or eating Paleo, try jumping in 100 percent rather than taking several, tiny steps. Start running every day, join a running club and sign up for a race right away. For Paleo, purge your home of non-Paleo foods, download 30 Paleo recipes to try next month, research Paleo restaurants in your area and prep only Paleo foods. The more committed you are to establishing a habit, the more likely you will be to achieve it.

Strategy #2: Play it safe

Not everyone is down with leaping into the deep end without a lifejacket, so if you’re more of the piecemeal type, then break your habit down into small, manageable chunks. Start running 10 minutes three days a week for two weeks, then add five minutes to your time for the next two weeks. Next month, perhaps add another day of running, join a running club or sign up for a 5K — take smaller steps to encourage adherence and over time establish your habit.

About the Author

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT

Oxygen Fitness Editor Lara McGlashan has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor, who specializes in health, fitness, and nutrition. 

Lara is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. Her sports background includes skiing, snowboarding, flying trapeze, yoga, competitive beach volleyball, dance, mountain biking, hiking and running, to name a few endeavors. She is currently exploring the world of CrossFit in her home base of Connecticut, where she lives with her 2-year-old son, Alex.

You can follow her on Facebook at LaraFitnessEditor.