Forming Healthy Habits One Step at a Time

Person relaxing and reading newspaper with cup of coffee in hand

Habits, put simply, are the small decisions and actions we make repeatedly. According to researchers at Duke University, our habits account for about 40% of our behaviors on any given day. Because such a large percentage of our behaviors are out of habit, we’d venture to say that establishing healthy habits and breaking negative habits are pretty important skills to cultivate!

The science behind unhealthy and healthy habits

Just like any behavior, some habits are positive and others are negative. Positive habits help us achieve success, while negative habits may deter us from meeting goals or becoming the kind of person we want to be.

As we work to form positive habits in areas like health, productivity, daily routine, or finances, thinking about habits scientifically could give us a leg up. Many behavioral psychologists break down habits into three stages, or components. 

1. Cue or trigger

A cue or trigger is something in your internal or external environment that cues you to take action. For example, an alarm when the clock reads 7:00 a.m.

2. Action

The action is the habit itself; the behavior you perform as a result of the cue or trigger. The action could be either positive or negative. For example, when you hear your 7:00 a.m. alarm, what do you do? Do you get out of bed or hit the snooze button?

3. Reward

The reward is the benefit you receive from taking the action. When your alarm goes off and you get out of bed, you are rewarded by getting to work on time. If you hit snooze, you are rewarded in a different way – with a few extra minutes of sleep. It’s up to you to decide which reward is more important!

3 smart ways to establish healthy habits

1. Start small

When we set lofty goals and expectations for ourselves, we’re more likely to fail. That’s why it is so important to start with small, realistic habits for ourselves.

For example, if you want to cultivate healthier work habits, you could start by making it a point to not check your emails on the weekends. Your reward for taking that action might be feeling lighter and less stressed, and that could motivate you to set other boundaries to improve your work-life balance.

2. Never miss twice

Consistency is more important than being perfect, so let go of the all-or-nothing mentality! If you tell yourself you have to go for a run every single day and you miss a day, you’ll be discouraged. But if you reframe your thinking and tell yourself that you’re still on track as long as you don’t miss two days in a row, you’ll be much less likely to abandon your quest. Never miss twice!

3. Practice patience with the 1% rule

So often we abandon habits because we aren’t getting to the ‘reward’ stage fast enough. To combat this feeling, apply the 1% rule, coined by author James Clear, and tell yourself you’re committed to just being 1% better each day.

Work on your healthy habits bit by bit, day by day. With enough repetition, your brain will begin to reap the rewards and your new habits will become second-nature. Remember, progress requires time and consistency, so don’t give up just yet!

Intrigued by the psychological concept behind habits and want to learn more? Here’s a great list of books that take a deep dive into forming lasting and meaningful habits:


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