Do You Have More Good Habits Than Bad?

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Do You Have More Good Habits Than Bad?

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What healthy habits do you have? Think about your day, beginning when you wake up. What do you do regularly that is good for your physical, mental or spiritual health? How did you acquire these healthy habits?

What habits do you wish you had? Have you ever set out to build a new habit — and failed? What do you think it takes to make good, healthy habits? Willpower? Incentives? A buddy?

In “How to Build Healthy Habits,” Tara Parker-Pope writes about research on forming good, healthy habits. The article begins:

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.

Ms. Parker-Pope presents several research-backed tips for forming new healthy habits. Here are excerpts from three:

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.

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.

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.

Reward yourself. Rewards are an important part of habit formation. When we brush our teeth, the reward is immediate — a minty fresh mouth. But some rewards — like weight loss or the physical changes from exercise — take longer to show up. That’s why it helps to build in some immediate rewards to help you form the habit. Listening to audiobooks while running, for example, or watching a favorite cooking show on the treadmill can help reinforce an exercise habit. Or plan an exercise date so the reward is time with a friend.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Do you have more good habits than bad? Tell us about some of your best and worst habits, and how you acquired them. How do they affect your life, in and out of school?

  • The article says that many of us try to create healthy habits the wrong way. How good are you at building new, healthy habits? Have you ever made bold resolutions without “taking the steps needed to set ourselves up for success”?

  • Which tips for building positive habits from the article do you find most useful and why? Which do you think would be hardest for you to successfully practice? Are there other tips you would recommend?

  • Have you ever successfully broken a bad habit? If yes, how were you able to accomplish it? What advice would you give others who might wish to discard the same bad habit?

  • What habits do you wish you had? Why? Is there one single habit you would most like to build or break? Does reading the article motivate you to try now? What tips and strategies would you employ to optimize your chances for success?

If you are inspired by the article, take the Times Healthy-Habits Well Challenge, a 28-day plan to nourish your body, mind and spirit, one daily challenge at a time.


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