Creating Lifestyle Changes for Better Health: 8 Ways to Form Sticky Habits
What makes a habit “sticky?”
In the dance of daily life, our habits shape the rhythm of our existence. These repeated behaviors can have a profound influence on our well-being. The quest to create “sticky” habits–resilient routines that stand the test of time–is a central component of personal growth.
Why do these types of habits matter, and what does science say about their significance? Let’s have a deeper exploration of habit formation and uncover the fundamentals of how to cultivate certain habits into not just fleeting routines, but positive changes that endure. And–how they can help unlock a more fulfilling and purposeful life.
What is it about positive habits that help us?
Committing to actions that are healthy for us, whether they be with food, movement, sleep, mindfulness, money, and more, obviously helps us by simply being good for our well-being. But there’s more to it, as science can tell us.
Positive habits can lead to changes in the brain’s structure and function, with regular repetition of behaviors strengthening neural pathways.1,2 You, essentially, “rewire” your brain.5 This can eventually make it easier to adopt and maintain new habits and routines. Or even quit less than healthy habits.
We can also get that nice feeling that’s triggered when you finish a habit or task that is healthy for you. Whether it’s finishing your full oral health routine and having a clean, healthy mouth, or completing a 20-minute yoga routine. Dopamine is released, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, reinforcing that behavior. Eventually, the habit can stick without needing the dopamine.3
Our brain and cognitive function can be enhanced by keeping healthy habits. Certain positive actions, like quality sleep and regular physical activity, have been shown to improve brain functionality.4 The benefits can include better memory, focus, and overall better cognitive performance.
So, overall, healthy habits are, well, healthy for us–both in body and mind. But how can you successfully form those actions into regular habits and make them “sticky?” Getting and staying healthy in an environment with 24/7 screentime, non-stop work and responsibilities, and fast food around every corner can be a complicated and challenging process.
8 strategic ways to make changes “sticky”
Start out making tiny changes that are easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Even if you wish to make big changes in your life that these new habits will help establish, gradual adjustments are more likely to stick than drastic ones. If you have a goal of writing a full-length book, try not to make your initial goal the whole book. Instead, split it up into multiple goals, an outline, drafts of chapters, etc., with each being realistically attainable within a certain timeframe.
Clearly define your habit, or what it is you would like to change. Instead of a general goal like "exercise more," or “eat healthier,” create a specific habit that you would like to begin. Exercising more can become “take a 15 brisk walk every day.” Being specific with the new actions you would like to take helps in creating a clear action plan. You can increase goals, like the walking one, when your initial target is achieved, and you’re easily getting your 15 minutes in.
Set Realistic Goals
It’s easy to think that you have to dive in with an all-or-nothing attitude when it comes to making change. But, setting overly ambitious targets can lead to frustration and may discourage you from sticking to the habit. Make sure your goals are achievable, even if it’s only in the short term. You can level up any of your habits once you maintain the current goal.
Stack Your Habits and Use Triggers
Associate your new habit with an existing behavior or a specific cue. This helps in integrating the habit into your routine effortlessly. Remembering to take your supplements could be easier when you take them right after brushing your teeth, something you (hopefully) do every morning. This is also known as “stacking habits.”
Track Your Progress
Keep a record of your efforts. This could be a simple checklist, a habit-tracking app, or a bullet journal where you create your own habit-tracker system. Recording your progress helps you stay accountable and motivated. It can be satisfying to see your goals being checked off day after day.
Be Patient With Yourself
Habits take time to form. Research suggests that it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic.6 Be patient and stay committed. When you have setbacks and miss one or more days, don't criticize and be hard on yourself. Instead, analyze why it happened–what changed in your routine to cause you to miss or skip? From there, you can make adjustments to your plan if needed. Use setbacks as learning opportunities.
Celebration is essential for your success, even if a small one. Positive reinforcement can make the habit more enjoyable and increase your motivation to continue. If treats work for you, ensure they don’t sabotage your other goals relating to food and nutrition. Rest, relaxing with a book, and getting quality time with someone special to stream your favorite movie are all great ways to celebrate that don’t cost you money or extra calories.
Share your goals with friends or family who can offer support and encouragement. Set up a specific system for how you would like to get reminders and support, help, and reminders from people that you know have your back. Sharing your progress with your group or circle (or even one person) can give your successes even more impact when others celebrate with you.
Plan for What’s Next
When you have completed one goal and successfully integrated that habit into your daily life, consider what you need to do to maintain your change. After you celebrate and congratulate yourself, that is. Then you’re ready to level up. Select another goal, and restart your process. Don’t forget to start small with goals that are brand new!
Habits turn into long-term health benefits
Engaging in positive habits consistently over time contributes to long-term health benefits. This can include a reduced risk of issues that sometimes come as we age, improved longevity, and an overall higher quality of life.
Remember that consistency is crucial when trying to form habits. By making gradual changes and staying committed, you increase the likelihood of your habits becoming a permanent part of your lifestyle. Good luck!
1 Begega A, Santín LJ, Galeano P, Cutuli D, Sampedro-Piquero P. (2017). Neural Plast. 2017;2017:9506181. doi: 10.1155/2017/9506181. Epub 2017 Oct 16. PMID: 29123928; PMCID: PMC5662798.
2 Baladron, J., Hamker, F.H (2020). European Journal of Neurosciences. doi.org/10.1111/ejn.14730
3 Wickens JR, Horvitz JC, Costa RM, Killcross S. (2007). J Neurosci. 2007 Aug 1;27(31):8181-3. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1671-07.2007. PMID: 17670964; PMCID: PMC6673057.
4 Alnawwar MA, Alraddadi MI, Algethmi RA, Salem GA, Salem MA, Alharbi AA. T (2023). Cureus. 2023 Aug 16;15(8):e43595. doi: 10.7759/cureus.43595. PMID: 37719583; PMCID: PMC10503965.
5 McLachlan, S. (2021, Dec 22). “The Science of Habit.” Online at healthline.com.
6 Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. (2012). Br J Gen Pract. 2012 Dec;62(605):664-6. doi: 10.3399/bjgp12X659466. PMID: 23211256; PMCID: PMC3505409.