The Power of Habit

“We are what we repeatedly do” – Aristotle

So you have decided to start a new healthy diet and a new training regime and you are rearing to go. The first week goes really well and you are feeling great. You are up early every morning, you are prepping your food and everything is on track. You can even notice a difference already. This healthy lifestyle is not as hard as you thought. This continues for 2 to 3 weeks and you feel great when all of a sudden you stay up too late one night watching tv or you have a few too many drinks on the Friday night and you’re not feeling great the following day so you skip your gym session as you are too tired and you leave your meal prep and you tell yourself you will do it the following morning, but it never gets done. A week passes and you still haven’t done your meal prep or got up for your workout. Before you know it another week passes, frustration develops and you decide that this lifestyle is not for you. Sound familiar?

If it does, don’t worry as most of us have been there at some point. Developing a new healthy lifestyle or improving any area of your life is not as easy as it sounds and if you want to have success then you need to develop the habits necessary.

There have been many scientific studies done on the habits of people so understanding how a habit works is important when trying to develop a new one. Firstly, a habit can be defined as a behaviour that is performed automatically because it has been performed frequently in the past.

To develop a new habit, the advice is untimately quite simple- repeat an action consistently in the same context until it becomes automatic and effortless. Think about the everyday habits that you already practice without thinking: wishing your hands after going to the bathroom, putting your seatbelt on when you enter a car and brushing your teeth before work. Such actions have been repeated every day for years and have become automatic for you. Developing some healthly habits can be the same.

Decades of psychological research shows that an action becomes habitual once it is regularly repaeated in a regular context. Some research has shown that it takes around 66 days to develop a habit. This will be not be as specific to each individual however by consistently performing a specific behavior for a period of up to 10 weeks will cement the new action into your daily routine. Don’t stress if you miss the occasional opportunity to perform your new behavior as it won’t seriously impair the formation of your new habit. Also, as you continue to practice your habit, it becomes easier and eventually second nature. In fact after a few months it will feel strange if you do not practice it.

When setting out to begin a new habit, it is important to understand the process required in it formation.

There are 3 different phases to habit formation :

  1. Initiation phase: This is the period in which the new behavior and the context in which it will be done is selected. It is important that you choose the target behavour yourself in this phase as progress towards a self-determined behvioural goal supports your sense of autonomy and interest
  2. Learning Phase: During this phase the habit develops its automaticity as the habit is repeated in the chosen context to strength the context behavior association. It is important that a particular context is chosen to carry out the habit. For example, after breakfast on Saturday you will do your food prep or when you get home from work you will go for a 30 minute walk.
  3. Stability Phase: At this point, your new habit has formed and its strength has plateaued, so that it now continues over time with little effort. Some research has indicated that it takes around 66 days for your habit to develop. Although this may seem very specific and quite a long time, reassured that practicing your new behavior becomes progressively easier as time goes on.

Motivation to succeed in your habit formation at the beginning is of high importance. It is also important that you choose a specific context in which to perform the action. This is essential and it will act as a daily cue for you to perform your action. The cue will act as your trigger to carry out your new routine. A common example of a cue is when then alarm rings in the morning. Choose a cue however that is convenient such as something that already exits in your daily life. This is important as you will not have to make any changes to your current schedule which increases your chances of success. For example, ?when you go for lunch or when you arrive home from work.

Once the cue has been decided on, the new routine or habit will be carried out. This is part of the learning phase and it is here where choosing your context and habit becomes crucial. The majority of people will address habit formation by adopting a variety of behaviors or new settings in order to maintain their interest. For example, they might sign up to a new gym at a new location, start taking a new type of class or decide to start eating a wider variety of fruit. While this may make things interesting, especially in the beginning, variations like this demand greater effort and less automaticity and basicially make things harder to maintain long term. Another important note to make is that you should choose a new habit as opposed to give up on an existing bad one. For example, instead of giving up on eating a bar of chocolate after dinner, replace that with eating a yogurt or a piece of fruit instead. Creating a new habit to replace an existing old one is much easier than breaking an existing one already.

The final aspect of the habit formation process in the creation of a reward that you revcieve upon completion of your habit. This is important especially at the beginning as it wil increase motivation. An example of a reward for a morning workout might be the feeling of endorphins you feel after your workout, the energy you feel for the entire day after doing a morning workout, or the knowledge that your workout is done before most people have started work. When I started creating the habit of getting up earlier each morning, my reward was a strong cup of good coffee as it was something I looked forward to and massively helped me get out of bed when I didn?t want to.

With habit formation the key is that you keep things simple. The simpler the action (drink water before every meal) the easier it will be to continue it. If you are someone who sits around quite a lot, start small by setting yourself a new habit of taking the stairs after lunch each day. Simpler actions become more habitual much quicker and when compounded over time lead to fantastic results. This is turn leads to increased motivation and leads to the development of pursing further health encouraging habits.

In short, to develop a new habit,  

  1. Cue: something or somewhere that triggers your body to do something automatically
  2. Routine: doing the action or habit itself
  3. Reward: the brain gets satisfaction from doing the habit.

Small changes each day compound over time. Developing good habits results in positive changes. Replacing bad habits with new ones from your daily routine takes time and is not easy in the beginning but stick with it. If you make a conscious decision to do something every day, it will soon become something that forms part of your daily routine.

The take home message here is that if you want to make changes to your health, fitness and wellbeing then start developing the habits that make health and fitness a part of your everyday life. Below I have mentioned a list of healthy habits that you may possibly adopt today. Adopting even just one of these can make huge changes in your everyday life.

Habits to stay in great shape:

View your training and exercise as something that is part of your life and not an everyday chore

Make being healthy and lean a priority in your life

Plan your meals ahead of time

Make protein a staple in your diet

View your food as an important part of your health

Eat sustainably and avoid fad diets

Get 7 to 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep

Eat lots of fibrous foods and lots of vegetables

Drink lots of water

In order to make a behavioural change into your daily life, my advice is to turn healthy actions into habits which is when you develop a an automatic response to a frequently encountered situation or context.

Before adopting a new habit, it is important to understand what it is. A habit can be defined as an action that is triggered automatically in response to a contextual cue that has been associated with its performance. On a more basic level, a habit is something that you do automatically when in a given situation. Some everyday examples include: automatically washing your hands (the action) after using the toilet (contextual cue), or putting on your seatbelt (action) after getting into the car (contextual cue). Decades of research by psychologists has shown that the more you do something in a particular context, the greater automaticity of this action.

A lot of research has stated that it takes 66 days to develop a consistent habit however this seems very specific however the majority of researchers state that carrying out an activity for 10 weeks will develop automaticity. Also, missing the occasional opportunity to perform the behaviour within this time frame is not the end of the world and does not seriously impair the process of forming a new habit, however remaining conistsent as possibly across the stages of habit formation is essential. Developing a new hanit undergoes 3 different stages

Book recommendation: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg


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I’m Kieran McMahon, founder of KMFitness

My mission is to help men achieve world-class body composition and fitness results and teach them how to retain these results for life.

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