Habits require little cognitive effort and are more powerful than our intentions.

But how do we go about building better habits?

Habit formation can seem like an overwhelming task sometimes. The gap between “I’m lucky if I get to the gym once a week right now” and “I can’t imagine not going to the gym” can seem…years apart.

By breaking down the ins and outs of habit formation—cue, interpretation, action, and reward—and finding ways to use it to our advantage, we can pick and choose what behaviors we want to keep and which ones we want to kick to the curb.

1. Think About Your Goals, But Don’t Obsess Over Them

Everyone loves a good before and after success story, and it’s easy to focus heavily on our current “before” and the “after” we hope we’ll achieve someday.

However, being hyper-focused on a goal with a relatively short-term strategy to achieve it can be misinterpreted as the end all be all solution. 

Setting a goal can help you get clear on what you want, all the while focusing on it TOO much in a “all or nothing” way won’t help you get there faster.

Instead – let’s consider the habit loo[ we chatted about a minute ago; pulling the cue-interpretation-action-reward pathway by preparing ourselves for HOW to respond to specific obstacles and use them as opportunities for learning and growth when they come up.

One killer way to do this is to write some “if-then” plans

When your planning consists of vague thoughts about how you should “cook at home more” or “start going to the gym,” your chances of actually making these changes are quite low because they’re just statements; not plans or methods of action.

Get serious about planning. 

Take some time to write down what you want to achieve, but don’t stop there.

Next, think about the obstacles you’re most likely to encounter on the way to achieving your goals. Then to add a positivity factor, also write down any potential opportunities that may arise along the way. 

Next—and here’s the really important part—write down how you’ll respond to these negative and positive circumstances. 

If you find yourself at a restaurant with friends that has few healthy choices, what will you order and how much will you eat? (IF this happens…THEN I will…)

If you get a nasty cold and have to miss a week or two of workouts, what will you do while you recover? How will you change your routine and control as much as you can?

If you find you’re getting close to your goal weight and you get an offer to go on a week long work conference where you’ll be staying in a hotel,, what will you do?

Nothing ever goes perfectly according to plan, and it’s important that you make contingency plans for what you’ll do when you can’t stick to your primary plan…JUST IN CASE!

I know it may sound kinda extreme to pretty much plan out every option, but to simplify it first think about situations you run into on a weekly or monthly basis (girls nights, concerts, family beach trips). This will help you feel less forced to come up with the decision in the heat of the moment or feel like you’re just going to throw in the towel because its too overwhelming.

I know it sounds a bit “woo woo,” but this strategy is supported by many studies, even specifically when it comes to improving healthy eating and exercise behaviors…AND we use it all the time within The Inner Initiative’s clients protocols.

2. Start Small and Get Consistent, Build Better.

Making the shift to cooking all of your meals at home can seem like a big transition especially if you tend to eat out a lot. Rather than trying to make this a brand new behavior, try bringing it down a notch to making it a bit more specific and realistic!

Maybe it starts with looking up 15 minute meal recipes online on your lunch break so you have SOME ideas for when you go grocery shopping and so have some time to cook.

This small beginner task also helps create the beginnings of a habit loop:

Every time the clock strikes noon (a cue) you’ll begin to automatically think “time to eat” and “time to recipe hunt” (interpretation)

Your response will be to head to the cafeteria, eat lunch, and scroll through Pinterest or another similar website (action). 

At the end of each lunch break you’ll feel accomplished and excited for your next home cooked meal (reward). 

And your new habit is beginning to take shape.

It’s tempting to dive into the deep end and make major habit changes all at once, but this strategy isn’t best for most people!

Trying to ditch all your bad habits at once and build a host of new good habits may seem like the quickest way to success.

However, attempting so much change at the same time is more likely to leave you feeling overwhelmed, unable to keep up, and ultimately disappointed and back at square one.

Instead of overdoing it and not making it, why not play it safe and just build some momentum? Your future, successful self will thank you.

3. Combine Your Habit with a Temptation

If you want to make something a habit, pair it with something else you already do regularly (preferably something you enjoy.)

For instance, let’s say you’re currently trying to incorporate more steps into your routine for heart health and endurance, but you are not a big fan of long walks or treadmills. You could try pairing it with another activity you enjoy regularly.

Maybe you have a favorite TV show you watch every Thursday at 7 PM. Sounds like a great time to jump on the treadmill.

Or, maybe you love spending time outdoors or going to the park with your kids. What if you always plan a long walk outside at the park so you it’s in an environment that brings you peace and feels less like a task?

Or, maybe you could start doing cardio with someone you can talk to, so you can talk to someone else during your cardio workout (and get some additional accountability).

You’ll be much more likely to do something if it’s paired with something you look forward to already!

Although it’s tempting to make big changes right away when you’re excited to craft your new, healthy lifestyle, most people will see greater success by starting with smaller habits they can stick to consistently. And, if you’re struggling to make something a habit because you don’t enjoy it, try pairing it with something you enjoy to increase your chances of success

To end this chat about habits I want you to keep in mind that goal setting is only really helpful to the extent that it provides us with some clarity in what we want to achieve. After your goals are set, you should focus on creating “if this, then that” plans to help you overcome obstacles and take advantage of opportunities in support of your goals.

- Kaylin Hauge BS, CSCS

Disclaimer:  The author is not a physician or a registered dietitian. The contents of this article should not be taken as medical advice. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any health problem – nor is it intended to replace the advice of a physician.