How To Make Healthy Habits Second Nature — According To Doctors Who Know

Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor By Stephanie Eckelkamp
Contributing Health & Nutrition Editor
Stephanie Eckelkamp is a writer and editor who has been working for leading health publications for the past 10 years. She received her B.S. in journalism from Syracuse University with a minor in nutrition.
How To Make Healthy Habits Second Nature, According To Doctors Who Know

Illustration by Jenny Chang-Rodriguez

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On a daily basis, most of us are just kind of winging it. Tell us if this sounds familiar: You wake up, suck down a coffee, head to the office, and mentally plan to squeeze in a gym trip after work, followed by a happy hour with friends, followed by a healthy dinner at home. You have all the ambition and good intentions, but by day's end, only half of what you thought would get accomplished actually happens. You got tired, you got distracted, things took longer than anticipated, and damn it, there are just so many good shows on Netflix right now. Some days are better than others, but on the whole, there's not much consistency. 

This, of course, is exactly what happens with many of our New Year's intentions as well. You set a goal, or several (to meal prep, to make a green smoothie every morning, to finally freakin' journal), and you keep it up for a while, but then the initial excitement of making a change fades and, well, it doesn't stick—and this, in turn, often leads to feelings of stress, inadequacy, and downright annoyance with yourself.  

The problem is, we think that wanting to do something and knowing why we should do something is enough motivation to actually do that thing regularly—but it's not. Experts agree that repetition is the only way to make a new behavior truly stick and become a habit.

"Daily routines help to make behaviors effortless and easy," says Susan Albers, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Hanger Management. "Once we get into the swing of things, we have to put very little thought into the new behavior." 

In order to repeat something consistently and painlessly, you need to structure your life in a way that minimizes friction between your current habits and your new desired habits. To help make your 2020 goals a reality—and create a foundation for enduring health—we asked some of our favorite psychologists, physicians, and dietitians about why routine is so important, their go-to tips for making new behaviors stick, and what specific rituals help them personally thrive.

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Catch me up: What makes repetition and routine so important when you're setting a new goal?

The main, and perhaps most obvious, benefit of repeating healthy behaviors is that doing so makes these behaviors objectively easier to sustain over time. "Our brain is constantly searching for patterns and frameworks to help integrate new information," says Ellie Cobb, Ph.D., holistic psychologist. "And the most important aspect to helping the brain learn a new framework is with repetition and consistency."

In fact, decades of psychological research show that mere repetition of a simple action in a consistent context leads, over time, to the action becoming habitual within that context (for example, if you make a point to change into sneakers and go for a jog the moment you get home from work, eventually, you'll start doing it on autopilot). "Once initiation of the action is 'transferred' to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced," according to experts in the Health Behaviour Research Centre at the University College London. "Therefore, habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates. Habits are also cognitively efficient because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks."

The reason behaviors become habitual with consistent practice is that repetition can literally change your brain. "When we start engaging in a behavior, certain neurons will start firing together," says clinical psychologist Nicole Lippman-Barile, Ph.D. "And the more that they fire together, they wire together. So in the beginning, those first weeks you're trying to establish a new behavior, it's harder because you literally don't have the neural network or pathway in place to support it." But repetition strengthens these neural pathways—it's like creating a mental shortcut.

This, in turn, can not only reduce decision fatigue and procrastination, but it also has a positive ripple effect on your mental health. "Our mental state is more relaxed when we are operating within a familiar framework, therefore routines and predictability can actually streamline our lives and reduce our stress levels," says Cobb. On the flip side, your brain becomes anxious when it doesn't know what's around the corner. 

Simply having a regular rhythm to your life can come with health benefits.

This has been demonstrated in the research as well. A study from 2018 on Peruvian medical students found that stressors like an intense workload were associated with an increased risk of depression but that having order in their daily routine (in particular, having a consistent place and time to have their meals) actually decreased this risk. Similarly, a study from 2019 on adolescents found that having consistent meal and bedtimes results in greater emotional self-regulation and lower levels of epinephrine—a fight-or-flight hormone that's released during times of stress. 

Not to mention, when you do something daily or on a consistent schedule (say, intermittent fasting or denying single-use plastics any time you order food), it's hard not to get better at it, making it that much easier to achieve loftier long-term goals (like losing weight or living a zero-waste lifestyle). And when you master one healthy habit, it only boosts confidence, says Albers, helping you adopt other healthy behaviors as well. 

Simply having a regular rhythm to your life can come with health benefits. "A consistent daily routine is actually super important from a neurological perspective because our brains are such circadian organs," says integrative neurologist Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D. "When we are consistent with our sleep, meals, and exercise schedules, we can experience improved focus and attention, cognition, and energy, which allows us to meet each day and its challenges. Furthermore, a regular rhythm and routine will help keep our immune systems strong (immune cells have their own circadian rhythms as well), which not only protects us from various exposures but also serves to protect our central and peripheral nervous systems."

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How long do I have to keep up with a new routine before it becomes second nature?

So having consistent habits and routines is pretty awesome all around for well-being, but that's not to say the early stages of implementing a new behavior can't be a bit rocky. "With repetition, things can become automatic, but the unfortunate thing is that many people stop before it gets to that point," says Lippman-Barile. "They're trudging and trudging, and after two weeks, they just stop because they feel like it's too hard or it's not working—but really, you just didn't do it enough times for it to stick." 

So how long does it take for habits to feel less effortful and truly become an ingrained part of your routine? Estimates vary, but according to our experts, at least two weeks, most likely by two months, and potentially a bit longer.  

"One 2010 study found it takes two months on average before a new behavior becomes automatic, but there was a lot of variability in that range of time," says Lippman-Barile. "For some people, it was 18 days, and for other people, it took 200 days—so there's a range, and it's going to vary from person to person depending on what their system is in terms of developing this new habit." 

OK, so how can I start a new routine that will actually stick?

In summary, research shows that repetition of simple actions in a consistent context leads to that action becoming habitual (i.e., it feels automatic and requires fewer mental resources to complete). But it's in that space between that kind of sucks.

Fortunately, there are some strategic expert-backed hacks to make things easier. Before we dive into those, the first thing you want to do while contemplating your New Year's intentions and habit changes is to connect with yourself and reflect on what you truly need. "It can be enticing to try to adopt routines or habits that we read about, think we 'should,' or are told are beneficial," says Cobb. "But we have to truly look inward and understand ourselves and the context of our lives to determine what trend, technique, or tip will work for us." (So while everyone else might be going keto, maybe you're actually more of the intermittent-fasting-meets-paleo type.) 

Here's where to start: Sit down and write out everything you currently do each day over the course of the week. What are your nonnegotiables (e.g., coffee, work, walking the dog, family time)? What's not serving you that you could either scale back on or bundle with a healthier activity (e.g., Instagram scrolling, Netflix)? And what are a few new habits you want to work in (e.g., intermittent fasting, yoga, meditation)? Then, once you have an idea of what you need to do and what you want to start doing, the tips below can help you refine and slot these activities into your schedule with some level of consistency—to create your routine. 

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1. Make intentions specific and actionable. 

First, you want to make sure your habits are specific and actionable. For example, instead of an intention of "gaining muscle," you might want to consider, "practice 30 minutes of strength training at the gym at 7 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays." The first is just an intention; the second is an implementation intention, which may be easier to stick with in the long run. One study found that participants who were asked to set an implementation intention for working out ("During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [this day] at [this time] in [this place]") were 55% more likely to do so than those who were simply asked to track their workout habits. 

2. Practice "habit stacking" to create effortless routines.

Habit stacking is a slightly more strategic way to determine where and when to implement a new habit. It's a variation on an implementation intention—but instead of using a time and place as your cue, "you link a new behavior to an already established routine," says Albers. 

For example, she says, say you want to start meditating. If you drink coffee or tea every day, consider squeezing in a short meditation for those five minutes it takes your morning beverage to brew. You can even stack several habits in a row to create a more extensive routine, with each habit driving the next. 

Interestingly, I sort of started doing this and it's actually been incredibly effective. I'm the kind of person who "never has time to work out," but I'm also the kind of person who reheats the same cup of coffee at least three times each morning. So for every 30-second reheat, I make a point to do 10 squats while I wait. It's not a fancy routine, but it sticks (and my butt looks nice).

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3. Try "temptation bundling" to make new habits feel extra rewarding. 

Temptation bundling is another way to take advantage of something you already do regularly to help create a new healthy routine. In this case, you're stacking or combining something you "should" do but may want to avoid with something you love to do that isn't necessarily productive. Thanks to the boost of dopamine we get when we do something we enjoy, this practice gives a rewarding value to something that normally wouldn't feel rewarding.  

According to Albers, you can even combine habit stacking and temptation bundling. For example, if you really want to start reading more regularly but always seem to get distracted by Instagram or Netflix, commit to reading for at least 30 minutes every day directly after dinner (a habit stack) and immediately following that up with 30 minutes of social media scrolling or your favorite show (temptation bundling). 

4. Crowd out old unwanted habits with new ones. 

Turns out, the brain is really resistant to breaking old habits but good at creating new ones. So instead of trying to eliminate a negative habit cold turkey, try crowding it out with a new healthy habit. For example, instead of trying to use your energy to stop snacking on chips while you're working, add a different (but healthier) salty, crunchy snack like roasted chickpeas. "Eventually, the old habits fade away when the new ones take center stage," says Albers.

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5. Prime your environment to work in your favor.

Turning something into a routine part of your life is all about eliminating obstacles, so think about creating an environment that really supports your healthy habits—or that makes behaviors that interfere with your healthy habits more difficult, says Lippman-Barile.  

That could mean a lot of different things. Want to jog every morning? You could try placing your alarm and your workout clothes at the end of your bed, so you're forced to get out of bed and actually see them instead of simply rolling over and hitting snooze. Want to be more productive? That could mean making sure your desk is clear and organized, leaving your phone in the other room, turning off email notifications, and setting aside two hours every morning for totally uninterrupted deep work. Want to jump on the intermittent-fasting bandwagon and stop eating after, say, 5 p.m. every day? Move tempting snacks out of your line of sight, or put them up on a higher shelf just out of reach.

6. Have a "Plan B" routine for when life gets nuts. 

As mentioned above, deciding when and where you want to schedule a new habit is key since doing the same thing in a similar context is what really helps make it stick. But sometimes life happens and you need to switch things up—maybe you get intense period cramps and can't make your gym's HIIT workout, or you get home from work at 9 p.m. and can't fathom cooking your typical healthy dinner. In those cases, having an alternate Plan B routine (that still moves you in the same general direction) is a fantastic idea. That could mean preselecting a specific yoga video you're going to do at home for when you can't get to the gym or picking out a veggie-heavy takeout meal you can quickly order up from a local restaurant when you don't have the energy to cook. The key is figuring out what your Plan B routine will be from the get-go so you don't lose momentum when life inevitably throws you a curveball. 

How can I get back on track if I miss a day?

Inevitably, even with all the strategies above, your routine will go off the rails at some point—you'll go on vacation, you'll get sick, or you'll just be so overworked that something's gotta give. And while it can feel like a blow to your progress, it's likely no reason to stress. The important thing is how you move forward and what you learn from the situation.

"I remind myself to be curious, not critical when things get off track," says Albers. "I ask, what stood in the way of things going smoothly? This is much more productive than feeling 'bad' for falling off my schedule."

The truth is, a certain habit may not have been what your body needed on a given day—and the fact that you missed a day could also be a sign that you need to tweak your routine in some way to make it sustainable. "One of my favorite mantras is 'doctrine creates disconnect,'" says integrative dietitian Ali Miller, R.D., "meaning when you believe in a wellness protocol or plan as 'bible,' you may miss the feedback from your body that things aren't working or that you are getting more unbalanced. When my body needs something, I pause and redirect."

In general, you should also cut yourself some slack. "With any change, it's essential to give yourself grace," says functional medicine practitioner Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP. "No one is perfect, and your health journey is just that, a journey with ups and downs. Start slow, set realistic goals for yourself—not what you think you should accomplish—and remember that if you get off track, you can pick right back up where you left off."

And if it's simply a lack of motivation and straight-up laziness that's caused you to get off track (hey, we've all been there), try another strategy: Focus on how great you feel when you are successful with your habits. "I know I am more productive, a better mother, and I feel happier when I meditate," says women's health and hormone expert Jolene Brighten, N.D. "So if I miss a day, I forgive quickly and remind myself that tomorrow is another opportunity, and no one is ever served by judging themselves harshly. Then I focus on how good I feel when I am doing these practices as a way to get excited to get back in."

The practices that help health experts thrive & find purpose.

Some of the most successful people in the world have chalked up a portion of their success to specific routines—and many of the experts interviewed for this article were nice enough to give us a sneak peek into some of the routines they personally swear by for vibrant health and purpose. 

Ali Miller, R.D., integrative and functional medicine dietitian 

Taming the wild stallion of the brain is so essential for a successful balanced day, so on a chaotic day, I may set an intention of patience and finding calm throughout the day with a mantra like "I am capable; I am calm." Drinking water in the morning is a great way to drive lymphatic flow and support liver function. 

Will Cole, D.C., IFMCP, functional medicine practitioner

Fasting in the morning with a cup of Earl Grey tea is a daily staple in my life. I love that it gives me time to really meditate with my thoughts and preps my body for the day ahead. It's amazing that the simple act of skipping a meal lays the foundation for lowering inflammation without having to do anything complicated, and it's something I can do whether I am at home or traveling.

Another important thing I do is end my day by intentionally setting my phone aside when I am home with my family, so I can be fully present in whatever we are doing. I first noticed the difference in my stress levels when I did an eight-week smartphone detox, and it's something I've continued to implement into my daily life when I am home at night to keep my mental stress down.

Susan Albers, Ph.D., psychologist and mindful eating expert

My routine begins with quiet time. I am a morning person. I crave an hour of quiet before my household starts to buzz. Within that space, I mindfully sip matcha tea, make my to-do list, and scroll through social media once before the end of the hour. This mindful moment is my favorite way to start the day. Without that routine, my day starts off feeling frenetic and out of sorts.

One of the most important ways in which I make mindful eating a routine is by making sure to follow the mantra "When you eat, just eat." Before each meal, I religiously plug my phone into a charging station on the wall. This prevents me from becoming distracted by my text messages or email. Sitting down while I eat is an important aspect of mindful eating. To help to make sure this happens, I sit down in the same place at the table.  

Other routines are linked to my kids' habits. For example, during the hour my daughter plays tennis, I "habit stack" on her routine by doing my workout at the same time. Or when my son plays soccer, I use that hour to walk around the track instead of running errands. Linking my workout with another person's helps keep the routine going. 

Jolene Brighten, N.D., women's health and hormone expert

When I'm at home, I start my day with deep breathing and "morning cuddles"—time with my family (and the dog) when we chat about our day. I also aim to meditate daily and schedule "thinking time" during the week to contemplate my goals, life, business, etc. 

In general, my main goals each day are to take my supplements, make time for movement, eat vegetables, get space to be quiet and present, and spend time with family. I try not to be dogmatic about everything needing to be done in a set order but instead look for opportunities to meet the goals that help me feel best. The one thing I do try to adhere to every day is journaling first thing in the morning as a way to set the tone for my day, fill up my gratitude cup, and identify areas that likely need my attention that day. 

Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., integrative neurologist

Daily routines take work and will change over time. When I was in school, my routine was different than it is now. When I was single, my routine was different than it is now. And when I did not have children, my routine was different than it is now. But there have been a few things that have essentially remained stable in my routine over the years. Those things include my sleep-wake times, my mealtimes, my food choices, and my exercise times. I am asleep by 11 p.m. and up at 6 a.m. I eat plant-based foods. I run or do yoga in the morning because if I don't, I won't do it at all.  

Want your passion for wellness to change the world? Become A Functional Nutrition Coach! Enroll today to join live July office hours.

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