Young woman sat holding a mug whilst journalling. Journalling may help when trying to build and reinforce healthful habits.

Building habits and staying consistent  

How many of us try to start a new healthy habit? Although we may begin with plenty of motivation and enthusiasm, after a while the consistency begins to wane, we slip back into previous ways and the new habit falls by the wayside.

Many people may start a new exercise regime, eating plan or take up meditation for example, but after a few weeks can really struggle to maintain the initial momentum. The same can be the case for taking supplements, we start off diligently and then forget every so often or forget to reorder and then we miss a week or so and are back to where we started.  

Like many healthful activities, benefits are best seen when we stay consistent, so why is it so difficult to keep on track? This blog looks at some of the psychology behind building habits and gives practical tools to how we can stay consistent when trying to achieve our health goals.  

Habits & the importance of consistency

A common health goal for people is to start exercising more, for example they may think of taking up running. Unfortunately, if someone goes for one run it is highly unlikely to have a long-term benefit to their health and they won’t see the rewards such as feeling fitter and stronger.

The benefits of running are seen over time where the individual has built running into their routine, creating a new habit. However, the habit is most easily created when the activity is seen as a reward (more on this later) – so if after time, rewards are not recognised, this is when the commitment to the activity can drop off.

If someone starts running and they begin to find it easier each time, feel fitter and healthier, it is more likely that the behaviour becomes consistent, and the habit is formed.  

The same can happen with supplements, it can take a while to build up intake and achieve optimum levels within the body. The time it takes will very much depend on the individual’s starting point, health status, lifestyle, diet, and ability to absorb nutrients.

Additionally, targeted supplements aimed at rebalancing the body can take more or less time to have an effect, which is often is associated with the length of time that someone has been experiencing symptoms.

I am often asked “how long will it take for supplements to work?”. A very general rule of thumb in naturopathy is that you should expect interventions to take a month for every year that the condition has been present. Therefore, staying consistent with supplement intake and building this into a habit is important for efficacy of supplement and nutritional interventions.

Skip to Key Takeaways

Why do we build habits?

A habit is something we do automatically, they are an essential part of our existence. If we had to think about everything we do, every time we did it, it would use up too much energy, time and brain power, restricting our ability to develop and learn new things. If we think about the task of brushing our teeth, most of us no longer have to actively think about it, we just do it, although this wasn’t necessarily the case when we were younger, it has now become a habit.  

How habits are built

Some habits can be really easy to build, such as sitting on the sofa, watching Netflix and eating chocolate, these habits tend to feel good in the short term and are easy to do. Whereas others may be more difficult (depending on the person) such as meditation, exercise or eating healthily, so why is this? Firstly, lets look at how habits are built.  

There are 3 factors involved in habit formation1: 

1. Cue 

A cue is something that initiates the habit, this is usually a time or place but can also be a feeling or emotion. For example, the sitting on the sofa etc, mentioned above, may be triggered after dinner at the end of a stressful day as a way to unwind (both a time and emotional cue).

Awareness of the cue can help to break an unhelpful habit, but creating a cue into routine can also help to build new habits.  

Early morning can be a good time to install a habit if possible. People who want to start exercising do things such as leave their trainers by the slide of the bed which trigger them to get going as soon as they wake up (visual and time cues). Or journaling or meditating whilst waiting for the kettle to boil in the morning.

When it comes to ensuring you regularly take supplements, I often recommend having them with breakfast (most are best taken with food – obviously avoid if not) and then having breakfast is the cue for this habit. A good way to have supplements with breakfast is to add them to a smoothie, a great hit of nutrients all in one! This can be a fun experiment to work out what cues are best for you when trying to build consistent habits.  

2. Behaviour

The behaviour is the activity or habit itself. When building a habit, it is important to think of what you are trying to aim for, while a goal may be lofty (although better if they are specific and realistic-below) habits need to be more definite to be able to be consistent with them.

When we think of the running analogy the goal may be to run 10K in an hour – this is not the habit, the habit may be to run 3 times a week or every morning. When trying to meditate the goal may be to feel calmer, this is difficult to measure and so the behaviour should be more specific such as meditate for 5 minutes every day. It is a good idea to have a goal in mind (it may simply be to live more healthily) to help with motivation.  

3. Reward

Many habits may be difficult to build initially as rewards aren’t immediately seen. If we think of the first time we reverse a car into the drive, it took some concentration and effort and when complete there was a sense of reward. This is seen as a spike in the activity in reward centres of the brain. Eventually we no longer have to concentrate on this task and do it almost automatically, however a reward response in the brain is still observed.  

If we start a new healthy habit, we may not see an instant reward as the benefits build up over time. Therefore, it is useful to jump start the brain as seeing certain behaviours as rewarding, by giving ourselves a reward at the end of the behaviour.

These rewards can be simple such as after adding supplements and making a healthy smoothie you sit down and enjoy it, or a long shower after a workout, a minute to pause after meditation or exercising with a friend (so the reward is social interaction), it doesn’t matter what the reward is as long as the brain recognised it as one.

Eventually the habit can become a reward in itself, increasing exercise, meditating or taking supplements makes us feel better so we continue to do these activities. However, sometimes the brain can stop perceiving habits as rewarding, this is often when the behaviour wanes and people feel they have lost willpower or motivation. For example, your long shower may now feel like a chore as you need to get to work quickly. In this case it is useful to add in a new kind of reward so that behaviours continue to instil the habit. 

Routine

Incorporating behaviours into your daily routine can certainly help to build them into a habit, mainly as it will strengthen the cues.

When deciding to add in certain behaviours it may be useful to think about when is the most convenient time to do this, how can it fit in with my day and what cues and rewards can I use to support this?

The beginning or end of the day when we are not so consumed by work, family or chores can be a good time, but this will obviously depend on each individual. It is important to make it as easy and convenient as possible so to reduce resistance from our energy efficient brains, who find it difficult to believe that certain behaviours may be rewarding, particularly if they take effort.

Habit building is where you add something to a habit that already exists which can be helpful as it often has the same cues, such as journalling after meditation, or eating a healthy breakfast after a workout.

Setting goals

Goal setting is an important part of staying consistent. However, it is important that these goals are specific and realistic, and that desired habits inform these goals. If goals are too unrealistic then it is difficult to maintain motivation and hence consistency.2 If they are non-specific such as I want to feel better, then it is difficult to quantify and therefore stick to. The goal may simply be the habit itself in which case that’s great just make it specific and realistic, and remember the cues and rewards! 

Journaling  

Journaling itself may be a behaviour that for some is difficult to build into a habit. However, if it comes easy to some, or is already a healthful habit, it can be great tool to help build more habits into life.

When journalling regularly we can begin to recognise patterns and improvements or declines in wellbeing.

Journaling may help to reinforce a healthful habit as it helps individuals to be actively aware of the benefits and rewards of staying consistent in their behaviours.

Additionally, journalling itself has multiple benefits to wellbeing especially helping to reduce stress and anxiety. A gratitude journal is a great way to support mental wellbeing.3 

Keystone habits

Keystone habits are healthful behaviours that inform further healthful habits.4

Exercise is a very common keystone habit. For example: you get up in the morning and exercise, this causes you to make healthier food choices and possibly add additional nutrients through supplementation, you feel more focused and motivated at work, come home and are more engaged with your family, you feel more relaxed and sleep better, so wake up raring to go an exercise the next day.

This is an excellent positive cycle and any one of the habits mentioned above may inform the other. You practise this, you feel better so you want to continuing practising this and hence the keystone habit is formed.

The myth of willpower?

It may be a bit harsh to call willpower a myth, as there are lots of scientific studies discussing it, but people wrongly assume that all they need is willpower to maintain a healthy habit.

Aside from those few that are very self-controlled, willpower is often not enough to sustain long-term behaviour changes. Once willpower is gone many people fall of the wagon and blame it on a lack of self-control.

The brain needs to recognise behaviours as rewarding to allow the behaviour to endure.  

“Many people believe they could improve their lives if only they had more of that mysterious thing called willpower. With more self-control we would all eat right, exercise regularly, avoid drugs and alcohol, save for retirement, stop procrastinating, and achieve all sorts of noble goals.”5 So why don’t we? 

Willpower is great when everything is going well, we feel good so are content to add things into our day. However, when we are under stress, time limited and pressured, it feels like there is no time or desire for healthful behaviours, even though they may help support the stress.

Under these conditions willpower fades as does the behaviour. But, if the behaviour is strongly instilled into a habit it is more likely to prevail.  

Some psychologists have defined willpower as the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.5 They may also consider it to be a limited resource capable of being depleted.

It is incredibly difficult to build habits on willpower alone, particularly if those long-term goals are a long way off, instead it needs to be built into routine and provide regular albeit small rewards to allow for long term change.  

Self-compassion

Even the most supportive habits and structured routine may not mean that everyone can engage in healthful behaviours every day. It is essential that if you miss a day or two you don’t become demoralised but treat yourself with compassion.

Often when we “fall off the wagon” we give up completely and feel that we have failed. Being aware of how you feel and being kind to yourself are important to help get back on track without judgement. A day or two will not make a difference to your long-term goals and by noticing what caused the change can also help us readjust cues and rewards. 

A study looking at dietary behaviour change found that participants found self-compassion, goal-setting and self-monitoring were essential for promoting dietary change.6

Science also suggests that rather than being driven by self-criticism or shame, individuals who practice self-compassion are more likely to be motivated by a genuine desire for personal growth and well-being.

 

Key takeaways: 

  • Staying consistent with health goals can be challenging, therefore it can be useful to build them into a habit.  
  • Habits are an essential part of life that allow us to use less energy when performing routine tasks.  
  • Habits have 3 factors: a cue (something that triggers the behaviour), the behaviour itself and a reward (something which triggers as positive rewards response in the brain). It is important to pay attention to the cues and rewards in order to maintain the behaviour and build the habit.  
  • Building new healthful behaviours around the daily routine helps to recognise cues and instil them as a habit.  
  • Ensuring there is a reward that the brain will recognise as such helps to reinforce the behaviours and further build the habit. If the behaviour begins to wane it can be useful to think of a new reward for that behaviour. Some behaviours provide rewards in themselves such as feeling fitter after running, but this can wear off so giving your brain a treat afterwards can boost the habit.   
  • Keystone habits are habits that instil further healthful behaviour. Exercise is often seen as a keystone habit as people make healthier choices on days they exercise.  
  • Practising self-compassion, gratitude or journalling has been shown to improve healthful behaviours and habits.

References: 

1. How to Make New Habits Stick, Why You Can’t Break Old Habits and The Secret to Great Communication with Charles Duhigg – Dr Rangan Chatterjee. Accessed May 16, 2024. https://drchatterjee.com/how-to-make-new-habits-stick-why-you-cant-break-old-habits-and-the-secret-to-great-communication-with-charles-duhigg/ 

2. Weinberg R, Butt J, Knight B, Perritt N. Collegiate Coaches’ Perceptions of Their Goal-Setting Practices: A Qualitative Investigation. J Appl Sport Psychol. 2001;13(4):374-398. doi:10.1080/104132001753226256 

3. Roche K, Mulchan S, Ayr-Volta L, et al. Pilot Study on the Impact of Gratitude Journaling or Cognitive Strategies on Health Care Workers. J Pediatr Health Care. 2023;37(4):414-424. doi:10.1016/J.PEDHC.2023.02.002 

4. Bjorvatn K, Ekström M, Pires AJG. Setting goals for keystone habits improves labor market prospects and life satisfaction for unemployed youth: Experimental evidence from Norway. J Econ Behav Organ. 2021;188:1109-1123. doi:10.1016/j.jebo.2021.06.013 

5. What you need to know about willpower: The psychological science of self-control. Accessed May 16, 2024. https://www.apa.org/topics/personality/willpower 

6. Rahimi-Ardabili H, Vartanian LR, Zwar N, Sharpe A, Reynolds RC. Efficacy and acceptability of a pilot dietary intervention focusing on self-compassion, goal-setting and self-monitoring. Public Health Nutr. 2020;23(15):2746. doi:10.1017/S1368980020000658 


Thanks to our Clinical Education Manager, Helen Drake, for this blog. If you have questions regarding the topics that have been raised, or any other health matters, please do contact us using the details below:

nutrition@cytoplan.co.uk

01684 310099

Find out what makes Cytoplan different

Last updated on 22nd May 2024 by cytoffice


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