Warren Buffett once described bad habits as being “too light to notice until they are too heavy to break.”
Here is an excerpt from one of the latest articles in a series that has become one of the most popular among readers of The New York Times. It was written by who offers very practical advice. The key word is “build.” She explains how.
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We’re all creatures of habit. We tend to wake up at the same time each day, brush our teeth, have morning coffee and commute to work, following the same patterns every day.
So why is it so hard to form new healthy habits?
Behavioral scientists who study habit formation say that many of us try to create healthy habits the wrong way. We make bold resolutions to start exercising or lose weight, for example, without taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success.
Here are some tips, backed by research, for forming new healthy habits.
The Healthy-Habits Challenge is a 28-day plan to nourish your body, mind and spirit, one daily challenge at a time.
[Here are the first three tips.]
Stack your habits. The best way to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing habit, experts say. Look for patterns in your day and think about how you can use existing habits to create new, positive ones.
For many of us, our morning routine is our strongest routine, so that’s a great place to stack on a new habit. A morning cup of coffee, for example, can create a great opportunity to start a new one-minute meditation practice. Or, while you are brushing your teeth, you might choose to do squats or stand on one foot to practice balance.
Many of us fall into end-of-the-day patterns as well. Do you tend to flop on the couch after work and turn on the TV? That might be a good time to do a single daily yoga pose.
Start small. B.J. Fogg, a Stanford University researcher and author of the book “Tiny Habits,” notes that big behavior changes require a high level of motivation that often can’t be sustained. He suggests starting with tiny habits to make the new habit as easy as possible in the beginning. Taking a daily short walk, for example, could be the beginning of an exercise habit. Or, putting an apple in your bag every day could lead to better eating habits.
In his own life, Dr. Fogg wanted to start a daily push-up habit. He started with just two push-ups a day and, to make the habit stick, tied his push-ups to a daily habit: going to the bathroom. He began by, after a bathroom trip, dropping and doing two push-ups. Now he has a habit of 40 to 80 push-ups a day.
Do it every day. British researchers studied how people form habits in the real world, asking participants to choose a simple habit they wanted to form, like drinking water at lunch or taking a walk before dinner. The study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, showed that the amount of time it took for the task to become automatic — a habit — ranged from 18 to 254 days. The median time was 66 days!
The lesson is that habits take a long time to create, but they form faster when we do them more often, so start with something reasonable that is really easy to do. You are more likely to stick with an exercise habit if you do some small exercise — jumping jacks, a yoga pose, a brisk walk — every day, rather than trying to get to the gym three days a week. Once the daily exercise becomes a habit, you can explore new, more intense forms of exercise.