A Beginner's Guide to Forming Healthy Habits

By Michael Lloyd

November 19th, 2019 

There’s an overwhelming amount of information on the internet about forming healthy habits. For example, the American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week to combat heart disease effectively; also, several diets, including the Mediterranean diet, have been shown to combat many diseases including cancer and diabetes. And these are all wonderful ways to improve your health and fight progressive diseases. But for someone that does not exercise often, it’s hard to go from zero minutes a week up to two and a half hours a week. Diets are effective at helping people lose weight, but constitute a significant change in an individual’s life all at once and can produce quick results, but that much drastic change can be tough to sustain for extended periods of time to provide consistent, long-term results in someone’s life.


These recommendations are offered because they have been proven to help prevent the prominent diseases in America, and individuals are motivated by their desire to avoid the threats associated with these diseases, i.e., hospital stays, expensive treatments, and reduced overall quality of life. The problem has become how to get someone to change themselves in the long term? Healthcare providers offer these recommendations to patients to engage their slow or “System 2″ motivational process. Essentially people will stay motivated to add these habits to their life because they want to live a full and healthy life. The problems that result from this are that there is usually no one keeping up with them long term to motivate them to maintain these healthy behaviors, or that these behaviors may be too drastic of a change all at once that they do not get incorporated long term and lead to an eventual crash due to overworking.1


Research has started to look into targeting the faster “System 1″ process to sustain habits. This approach uses external cues to enforce repetition of smaller changes.1 An example of this would be: every day with breakfast, I will have a piece of fruit. It is the cue associating breakfast with your new goal of having more fruit that reminds you that you need to have fruit then. Once initiation of the action is ‘transferred’ to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. Fruit is loaded in crucial nutrients and antioxidants and has been shown that when consumed at higher amounts, there is a decreased incidence of cancer associated with that behavior. People understand that fruits are good for you, but only 1 out of 10 Americans eat enough fruit daily; showing that the long-term motivation does not resonate with most Americans.2 By adding an external cue to the process, it takes away the level of conscious effort it takes to complete the task; making it easier to maintain. 


Now that we’ve covered why taking this approach may be more productive, the next question becomes: Does it work? In a study on weight loss showed that the people that approached their behaviors with external cues lost more weight than those that wanted to lose weight, but did not have any signals to keep them on track.3


So now we know that external cues help to most effectively form habits, but why not just create a bunch of external cues for many habits to get the most out of this approach as quickly as possible? Staying motivated becomes the most important quality associated with these habits, and if you continuously fail at multiple things each day, it can lead to being more quickly discouraged. Then you lose motivation to keep up with the tasks, as it seems hopeless. Studies have shown that taking on smaller changes and occasionally failing on these habits do not impair the habit-forming process.4 Taking on one task can build itself into more habits and lead to long term, sustainable actions, promoting long term health.


In conclusion, using external cues to help form a habit has been shown to help keep people on track towards incorporating these solutions and on-boarding simple tasks more gradually. Letting these habits build on each other is more effective in promoting long-term health than trying it all at once, which can often be overwhelming.


1. Gardner, Benjamin, et al. Making Health Habitual: the Psychology of Habit-Formation and General Practice. The British Journal of General Practice : the Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of General Practitioners, Dec. 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3505409/#b9

2. CDC Newsroom. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 Nov. 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2017/p1116-fruit-vegetable-consumption.html

3. Lally, Phillippa, et al. Experiences of Habit Formation: A Qualitative Study.Psychology, Health & Medicine, vol. 16, no. 4, 2011, pp. 484–489., doi:10.1080/13548506.2011.555774

4. Lally, P, et al. Healthy Habits: Efficacy of Simple Advice on Weight Control Based on a Habit-Formation Model. Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 11 Dec. 2007, https://www.nature.com/articles/0803771

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