Creating Healthy Habits: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to make the habits that will improve your life.

Habit stacking
The 'Valley of Disappointment'

How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

In the 1950s, a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz observed a curious pattern among his patients. After an operation, such as a nose job or amputation, it generally took them a minimum of 21 days to get used to the changes.


When Maltz realized that it took him around the same time to form a new habit, he shared his experience in his blockbuster book, *Psycho-Cybernetics*, influencing countless self-help professionals for decades to come.

The only problem? People turned his findings into “It takes 21 days to form a new habit”, while Maltz actually wrote that it takes “a minimum of about 21 days.”

Then, in 2009, Phillippa Lally, a health psychologist at UCL, conducted a 12-week study on habit formation. 96 participants picked a new habit to form and reported on their progress daily. Some chose easy habits like drinking a bottle of water with lunch, while others aimed for tougher challenges like running for 15 minutes before dinner.

While the average time for a new behavior to become automatic was 66 days, the results varied greatly, from 18 to 254 days, depending on the individual and the complexity of the behavior.

The Importance of Having Realistic Expectations

When we set out to create a new habit, we often want too much too soon. While ambitious targets may seem exciting, not succeeding can be demotivating and lead to feelings of failure.


To make sure your expectations are realistic, consider the following:

Firstly, focus on progress, not perfection. Celebrate your small victories along the way, and remember that progress is progress, no matter how small or slow it may seem.

Secondly, avoid comparisons. Don’t compare your progress to others. Everyone has their own pace, and what works for someone else may not work for you.

Finally, be patient and make sure your timeline is reasonable. Don’t expect yourself to achieve something in one day which would normally take weeks, months, or even years.

Setting S.M.A.R.T. Goals

The acronym S.M.A.R.T. stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.


Specific refers to goals being clear and unambiguous. They should be detailed enough that you know exactly what needs to be done. For example, a specific goal like “I will go running three times per week for 25 minutes at a time” is better than simply saying “I want to run more.”

Making goals measurable allows you to track progress over time. This could include counting the number of miles run.

Achievable means that goals should be within reach with a healthy amount of effort and dedication.

Relevant goals are those which align with your values, interests, and long-term objectives. If you want to improve your overall health, setting a goal to run a marathon is not relevant if you don’t like running and have no interest in participating in running events. A more relevant goal could be to try other activities that align with your interests and promote physical fitness in a way that you enjoy.

Finally, time-bound goals have deadlines attached so that there is an incentive for completing tasks within a certain timeframe.

The Importance of Starting Small

It can be overwhelming to make drastic changes at once. Breaking down larger goals into smaller steps is essential. These smaller, more manageable steps will then gradually build up into larger changes over time.

Here are some examples:

Want to eat healthier? Start by replacing one unhealthy snack per day with something nutritious rather than completely overhauling your diet overnight.


Want to become more organized? Instead of tackling your entire office or home at once, focus on one area at a time. Start with your desk or a single kitchen drawer and then move on to other spaces.

Want to run a marathon? Creating a habit of running ten minutes four times a week will most likely be a more effective start than immediately aiming for an hour every day.

An added bonus is that each small success will motivate you and make it easier to keep going in the long term.

Making Habits Stick With If-Then Plans

The ‘If-Then’ strategy, also known as ‘implementation intentions’, was first proposed by Peter Gollwitzer in the 90s.

It is based on the idea that forming an association between a cue and an action increases the likelihood of completing the desired behavior. For example, if you want to eat healthier then your If-Then plan could be “If I am on the search for a snack, then I will eat an apple first”.

If-Then plans are commonly used in health psychology.

The purpose is to make it easier to act in alignment with goals when faced with distractions and temptations. By deciding what you will do in advance, you lower the demands you put on your willpower and reduce decision fatigue.

The technique can be used for any type of habit but should always be tailored to each individual goal. Is your goal to shop less impulsively? Then your If-Then plan might look like “If I want to get something over $100, then I will wait 24 hours before buying.” Similarly, if you want to drink less coffee then your plan could be something like “If it is after 3 PM, then I won’t have any caffeine until tomorrow morning”.

Using Habit Triggers to Your Advantage

Habit triggers are cues that remind us of our desired behavior and increase the likelihood of completing it.


There are five main types: location-based cues, time-based cues, emotion-based cues, people-based cues, and action-based cues.

Location-based triggers involve associating a certain place with an activity. If you want to start meditating every morning then you could set up a meditation space so that when you enter that area it will act as a reminder.

Time-based triggers entail setting specific times throughout the day for certain activities. This creates structure and consistency.

Emotion-based triggers involve linking emotions with behaviors. An example would be taking a deep breath whenever you notice that you are feeling tense.

People-based triggers mean using other people’s actions as prompts. For this, surrounding yourself with people who have the habits you want is a good example. You can also join a group that is dedicated to your aspiring habit.

Finally, action-based triggers involve creating associations between certain tasks and activities.

The Power of Habit Stacking

Habit stacking refers to linking new habits to already existing ones so that the desired behavior becomes automatic and easier to maintain.


The practice is similar to If-Then plans where you decide beforehand what you will do in a specific situation; “If X, then Y.” However, with habit stacking, instead of pairing the desired behavior with a particular time and location, you link it with a current habit.

Some examples are:

“After I finish my morning shower, I will do ten minutes of stretching.”

“Before I eat my breakfast, I will spend ten minutes practicing a new language.”

Or “After I pour my morning coffee or tea, I will meditate for two minutes.”

By connecting a new habit to an old one that is already ingrained into your life and brain, you create a new automatic response that is easier to remember and complete.

Focus on the Gain Instead of the Gap

Focusing on the gain instead of the gap means comparing where we are now to where we started, instead of where we eventually want to end up.


‘The gain’ refers to all the progress we have made in comparison to our original baseline level, while ‘the gap’ is the distance between where we are today and where we ideally would like to be.

Focusing on what we are lacking can make us feel continuously dissatisfied with our efforts as we never seem to live up to our ever-moving ideal. In contrast, embracing the gain shifts our attention from what we still have to achieve to what we have already done. It helps to see the journey as an accomplishment in itself, rather than just a means to an end.

Embracing the ‘Valley of Disappointment’

The ‘Valley of Disappointment’ refers to the period of time when progress is slow or non-existent, and it can be a real test of our resilience and determination. This is especially relevant in the context of habit formation, where the initial excitement and motivation can wane as the reality of the effort and discipline required sets in.


One way to deal with the valley of disappointment is to adjust our expectations and embrace the fact that progress takes time.

Developing a ‘Continuous Improvement Mindset’ can also help to stay motivated. This means viewing mistakes or setbacks as chances to learn and grow rather than failures. For example, if someone slips up they could practice self-compassion by acknowledging the mistake but then refocusing on the progress they have made instead of beating themselves up. This type of attitude will ultimately be more beneficial in reaching their goals than engaging in negative self-talk or giving up altogether.

Maintaining Healthy Habits While Also Adjusting as Life Changes

Life is constantly changing, and we have to adjust our habits accordingly. This can mean finding creative ways to fit them into our new routine or temporarily altering them until things settle down.


Let’s say you have established a routine of meditating every morning at 8 AM, but you go on a holiday and find that your schedule is jam-packed with activities. This shift in routine can make it challenging to meditate. You could adapt by finding new ways to incorporate mindfulness into your day, like taking deep breaths before each meal or finding quiet moments throughout the day.

Or perhaps you have been consistently eating healthy, but a new relationship introduces you to a partner who loves to cook and bake indulgent treats. This change could test your willpower, but you can find a balance by perhaps compromising on portion sizes or exploring healthier versions of your partner’s dishes.

Remember that life changes don’t always have to interfere with our habits; they can also provide us with opportunities for growth and development.

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