How to Build Healthy Habits

Our habits set us up for failure or success. Where did they come from? And how can we build better habits in 2021?

Photo: Mike Reisel

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After you read the background on how habits are built and the psychology behind our habits, check out our collection of short guides to breaking down the steps for creating new habits in a few key areas.

Every morning when you get up you probably hit your alarm without thinking about it, roll out of bed, and grab your slippers and a robe. Maybe you walk into the kitchen and start making coffee before you’re even fully awake—hitting the light switch as you go without consciously deciding to turn on the light.

These are your habits.

“A habit is a choice you make at some point that you stop making and continue doing,” said Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit. A habit is a behavior that becomes automatic, with little or no conscious thought.

At some point, when you were learning to ride clip-in pedals, you had to think consciously about it every time you unclipped on the bike and tried to stop. You had to consciously think about leaning to that side and putting your foot down. It was a choice. And everyone who’s ever tried to learn how to ride clip-in pedals knows sometimes, while you were turning that routine into a habit, you’d mess it up—you’d lean to the wrong side, tip over, and fall. But over time, after lots of practice, it became an automatic action. Unclip, lean, put foot down. Now, you probably don’t even think about it. In fact, thinking about it might make it hard to remember what exactly it is you do subconsciously, which foot you always unclip with.

Of course, not every habit is a good habit or even a neutral one. It’s also a habit when you automatically reach for the extra beer or glass of wine after dinner, or when you hit the snooze button each morning and roll over to go back to sleep. But those habits you’d like to lose are just as hard to stop as it is to unlearn how to ride a bike. At this point, they’re automatic.

How do we build healthier habits? And how do we get rid of the ones that aren’t helping us towards our goals?

Not every habit is a habit

Let’s start by pointing out: Not everything can become a habit. Not every questionable thing you do is a bad habit. Not every good choice you make can become automatic and easy. Some choices are just choices.

Nir Eyal, an expert in behavioral science and author of the book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, cautions against using the term habit “as shorthand for there’s something difficult I want to have done, but I don’t want to actually do it.” Some goals and actions, he said, take deliberate practice and conscious thought—and always will. We have a tendency to think if we can make something a “habit” then it’ll simply become easy. The danger is that when it doesn’t work we feel like a failure. But completing an Ironman or running a PR will never be easy. “It’s OK for that to be difficult,” he said. “The difficulty is part of the growth.”

That being said, a huge portion of your day-to-day activity is made up of subconscious actions—i.e. habits. By some estimates, 30-40% of your day is taken up by habits, things you do without thinking about them.

And while certain parts of your day, even things you do regularly, aren’t habitual, Duhigg said any good pro athlete makes as much of their training and racing as habitual as possible. For example, he said, Michael Phelps always warmed up the same way, listened to the same music, did the same routine as he walked out on deck before a race. Or think about triathlon: How many pro triathletes will tell you that not doing the workouts on their training schedule is never really a choice—getting out the door is automatic? Pretty much all of them. They’ve trained themselves to make that a habit.

While you may never be able to make a “habit” of running sub-18:00 5Ks, you can create healthy habits to help you set up for a PR. You can make many of those daily choices to get out the door, to eat healthier, to get to bed earlier—all the systems you need to perform better in triathlon—automatic.

“Habit is a powerful word,” said Matt Dixon, head coach and founder of Purple Patch Fitness and an advocate for building habits into your training.

Where’d you get that habit from anyway?

In order to build better habits, you need to understand a little bit about how your’s were formed. It might not seem like an evolutionary advantage to hit your alarm without thinking about it, but it is. In your brain there is a group of nuclei called the basal ganglia, which is where habits are formed and controlled. The benefit of habits, from an evolutionary sense, is that once something becomes an action without requiring conscious thought you don’t use up cognitive energy or time on it. Brain energy takes energy—it burns calories, it requires processes in your body to be working, and it takes time. While we largely aren’t hunters and gatherers anymore, back in the day automatically doing the things that would save you from a wild animal could be the difference between life and death.

But we mostly aren’t evading predators out in the wild anymore, so where do our habits come from?

In order for a habit to form it has to start as a routine, something you consciously do, until eventually it becomes something you unconsciously do. This happens through what is commonly known as the “habit loop.” The habit loop goes like this: trigger, action or behavior, reward. Repeat. “Every habit starts as a routine, but not every routine becomes a habit,” Eyal said.

For example: When you walk in the kitchen in the dark in the morning, the trigger is that you can’t see. The action is that you instantly flip on the light. The reward is that now you can see!

Of course, it might not always be clear what the reward or trigger for an action is. Think about more complicated actions: Why do you always reach for the coffee pot? Is the reward that you feel more alert or that you like the taste or is it something else? Many of our habits have been built up by what we’re going through internally.

“They come from our conditioning and our environment,” said Vanessa Foerster, a mental endurance coach. For any number of reasons, these are the ways we have (subconsciously) determined are the most efficient ways of thinking and acting, she said.

To get philosophical for a second: What that means is “our habits are attached to how we identify,” she said. For instance, if we tell ourselves “I’m not a morning person,” then we believe that and we act accordingly.

To actually change a habit, then, requires figuring out what our real motivations are, diving into that habit loop, and changing the triggers, behaviors, and rewards.

The great habit building experiment

“For most of us, we know what to do already,” Eyal said. We know we should eat more vegetables; we know we should stop doomscrolling the internet and go to bed; we know we should stick to our training plan. So why don’t we do it?

If you want to start a new habit from scratch, the process is relatively straightforward: Figure out the trigger, do the action, get some kind of reward (internal or external). If you want to break an existing bad habit, then it can be a little more complicated because you need to break that loop.

“You need a new behavior that corresponds to that cue or trigger,” Duhigg said, which means you need to be deliberate about figuring out what the old reward was—which can be challenging—and finding a new routine or behavior that provides the same reward. Just replacing a cookie with kale chips probably isn’t going to give you the same reward, so it probably won’t stick.

“Think of this as an experiment,” he said. It might take some trial and error to figure out why you’re doing a habit, maybe what you thought was the reward wasn’t the reward.

Or, as Eyal said: You need to sit with and think about the discomfort. Triggers can be external (e.g., the notification sound on your phone triggers you to pick up your phone automatically) or they can be internal (e.g., you’re bored, so you go get a snack from the kitchen). Most triggers are actually internal—when we’re lonely or anxious or stressed it triggers a habit or behavior (eating more or biting our nails or scrolling Twitter). Figuring out what that is is key to changing a habit. “What is the discomfort you’re trying to avoid?” Eyal said.

That’s it, that’s all you have to do: Figure out the reward, figure out your motivations, change the behavior caused by the trigger. Repeat until a new, better habit is formed. But that doesn’t mean it’ll be easy. “Just knowing what to do doesn’t mean it’s easy,” Duhigg said. It’s hard to change habits. It takes trial, error, work—and maybe even professional help—to get to the root of your behaviors.

illustration of how building healthy habits creates a foundation for triathlon success
Photo: Mike Reisel

The steps to changing and building habits

So how do you get started changing your habits and building some good ones?

1. Take Stock

“You don’t know about your habits until you make yourself aware,” Foerster said.

What: Duhigg calls it identifying the routine or diagnosing the habit loop. You can start by simply making a list of some of your common habits and then checking a box for every day you do them.

How: It’s not just a question of evaluating your habits, you also have to evaluate the other parts: the reward. This is where connecting your habits to your overall goals and to your why is important. Dixon has his athletes go through the process of figuring out their purpose.

Why do you want to do a 70.3? Maybe your answer is: to lose weight and get healthier. Why do you want to be healthier? To be around for your kids and see your grandkids. Boom, he said, there’s your real purpose. Now when it’s time to go to bed early or wake up early to get the workout in, you have a reason and a deeper motivation. Those habits then get you to the 70.3, which is the pathway to getting healthier and staying healthy as your kids grow up. This is part of the reason you sometimes see pictures of people’s kids on their bike’s top tube in transition.

“Ultimately, the goals we want to change are just a series of habits,” Foerster said.

2. Take Action

What: Once you’ve evaluated what you want to change and why, then it’s time to take action and build on your existing habits and triggers. Eyal suggests that most of us know what we want to do and why we should, but things distract us or get in our way. And the opposite of distraction is traction, he said—any action that pulls you towards your goals and values and what you want to be doing. “Make time for traction,” Eyal said—meaning plot it in your calendar.

How: If you want to get your workouts in first thing in the morning, then you need to build time for that into your schedule. Dixon has his athletes look at their week every Sunday evening for 15 minutes and figure out what commitments they have for work and family, and then plot around how much time they have for training.

You should also work with your existing triggers and build on keystone habits—the most fundamental things you do that are deeply ingrained and upon which many other things are built. If you can start small and snowball from those keystone habits, then it can make changing other things easier down the road. If you don’t reach for the extra glass of wine late at night, maybe you go to bed a little earlier and sleep a little better, then it’s easier to not hit snooze in the morning and to get your whole workout in with enough time to get to the office. The one caveat: This doesn’t mean there’s some magic small thing that will suddenly make everything else easier.

3. Cement Habits

What: The other part of building on existing triggers and existing habits is to think through what you need to put in place to make your new habits stick.

How: Turning off notifications on your phone will help you not get distracted. Stocking your fridge with healthier food will make it easier to not reach for the cookies. Getting a friend to commit to working out with you every morning will help get you out the door—accountability helps new routines stick. But you have to think these things through in advance and modify your existing routines.

4. Reward Yourself

What: “Find the micro-decisions you can celebrate that get you closer to that person you want to be,” Foerster said.

How: That means if your goal is to qualify for Kona, and in order to get there you’re trying to stick to your training plan—all green boxes on Training Peaks, or whatever online training software you’re using—then first your goal is to make sure you don’t hit the snooze button and miss workouts. If right now you’re hitting the snooze button three or four days a week, then you should celebrate if you make it through a week with only hitting the snooze button once. And then celebrate getting through a month. Celebrate that it was mostly green boxes on Training Peaks, and then celebrate that you went through a whole training block without missing a workout. Celebrating the micro-goals and small process helps you stick to the plan, instead of giving up because you weren’t perfect.

And how should you celebrate?

Foerster does a dance party with her dog, because the physical manifestation creates a bigger dopamine hit—but you should celebrate however it makes sense to you.

5. Adjust, Repeat

What: You should also adjust and evaluate along the way. This is a key part of the process Dixon has his athletes go through: define your purpose, define your path, do it, redefine and course correct. It’s the part that Duhigg talks about as an experiment: maybe you didn’t get the “why” of the habit just right or you didn’t build up the system around your existing triggers to make it easier to stick to. That’s OK. You can always adjust.

How: There’s a reason the third Monday in January is known as Blue Monday—because that’s when most people wake up to start that third week of the year and they’re tired and the habits they wanted to form haven’t become easy yet. So they quit. They don’t make it through the adjustment phase.

The problem, Foerster said, is most people try to change too many things at once—eating better and losing weight and no more drinking and working out every morning—and they “jump six steps ahead.” That rarely succeeds. Instead, start small, with just one concrete thing—I will eat at least two servings of vegetables every day, and I will do it by adding a handful of salad to my lunch, and I bought the salad and stocked it in my fridge—and then build from there.

And don’t expect to hit some magic number of days and then the habit sticks. While studies have found anywhere from 21 to 90 days, it depends very much on the person and the routine. Dixon tells his athletes to get through one whole season sticking to something before considering it ingrained.

How do you put these steps into action? We’ll be breaking down some common areas in which people want to build better habits, and how to take these steps over several weeks—doing one step per week every day. Check out these guides and work on just one area at a time.

Foerster will also be joining us for a live Q&A on Jan. 19 around how to build better habits, where you might be struggling, and how to set yourself up for success. Stay tuned.


Commit to Commitment

There is a last step kind of thing you can use—a commitment device. But, Eyal said, this can also backfire, especially if you haven’t gone through all the steps of understanding your why, your reward, and your triggers.

A commitment device is any kind of artificial tool that commits you to your habit. For instance, Eyal hated working out, but he knew he was overweight and unhealthy and needed to get active. He’d gone through all his self-analysis of why and his triggers. He’d planned out what he was going to do (just 30 minutes of any activity every day—push-ups, jogging, jumping jacks, anything). So then he created a commitment device. He put a calendar on his wall with a $100 bill on every day and a lighter sitting next to it. And he could either burn the calories each day or burn the $100 bill. “In three years, I’ve never burned the $100 bill,” he said.

But a commitment device doesn’t have to be as dramatic as a flaming Benjamin. You could just publicly commit to your goal or get a friend to sign a pact with you—accountability is a proven method. However, many studies do suggest putting money where your goals are makes you more likely to stick with them, so your commitment may be buying yourself some reward if you hit certain micro-goals along the way or making a bet with a training buddy.

Warning: If you didn’t already do all the other steps—figuring out your why, evaluating your habits, looking at your triggers and rewards—then this won’t help. The first time you hit that decision point (burn the $100 or not), you’ll just say “well that’s stupid, forget that.” And it would never become a habit.

Tips to making habits stick

  • Start small. Choose one behavior and focus on it for a long time.
  • Build on what you already do.
  • Create the structures for your habits to succeed.
  • Do it daily—even if what you’re doing is small, studies show a small action every day can implant the routine into your brain.
  • Reward yourself for hitting small goals along the way.
  • Adjust and analyze. Figuring out why your habits are your habits may take trial and error.

Common mistakes

  • Don’t try to change too many things all at once.
  • Don’t try to change things too quickly.
  • Don’t think everything can become a habit.
  • Don’t expect there to be a magic number of days to hit and then, boom, it’s a habit.

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