3 Keys to Creating Healthy Habits that Stick

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Habits are trendy these days, but I don’t think they’re going anywhere. I believe that our lives are ultimately the end product of our daily habits and routines.

I love this quote by Annie Dillard:

"How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing."

Our daily habits are responsible for a large part of who we become. This includes the habits that determine our level of physical health. If this is the case, we can probably all agree that healthy habits are worth forming.

The problem is, a lot of habits just aren’t “sticky”! As hard as we try, they just don’t jive with our lifestyle or our preferences. Ultimately, I don’t think these habits are worth bothering with, no matter how great they are for us. I think they’re a waste of time.

So which habits really are worth the effort it takes to create them?

Sticky habits.

I believe that there are 3 essential criteria for habits that are worth pursuing. These 3 criteria make habits “sticky” for years, decades, and even a lifetime.

If a habit that you’re considering does not meet these 3 criteria, you’re probably going to be fighting an uphill battle trying to create it. The good news is that potential habits can be tweaked so that they meet the 3 criteria and become sticky habits (more on that below)!

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Here are my 3 criteria for "sticky" habits:

1. Fun (or at the very least, not unpleasant)

The fun factor is why I’m such a huge fan of using dips for fruit and vegetables and preparing vegetables in ways that actually taste good! If your goal is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis for the rest of your life, enjoying the taste of them is essential!

As humans, we tend to stop doing things we don’t enjoy if we’re not being forced. I know I do!

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This is also the reason that I like to reframe exercise as “enjoyable movement” (I have Rebecca Scritchfield, RDN to thank for introducing me to this term). Several studies have shown that “feeling the burn”, sweating bullets, and maxing out are not necessary to derive the benefits of regular physical activity - just walking is enough! 

What matters much more is our consistency with physical activity. US government guidelines suggest a total of 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity and two sessions per week of resistance-based movement.

Enjoying an activity makes doing it consistently so much easier!

People often ask me what counts as physical activity. Personally, I consider anything beyond my regular “activities of daily living” (or ADLs for short) to be physical activity. ADLs that don't count toward our 150 minutes per week would include making dinner, doing laundry, taking a shower, or doing your regular work activities, to name a few.

Basically, exercise or "enjoyable movement" is typically something you do in your free time. And free time should equal “fun-time” in my book.

I don’t know about you, but an activity better be fun if I’m going to be using a significant chunk of my precious free time multiple times per week to do it. This is why I’m currently experimenting with different forms of exercise that I find enjoyable at this stage in my life:

  • Learning how to do Christian yoga. I started following Caroline Williams Yoga on YouTube a few weeks ago. Caroline has multiple free yoga videos, so I never get bored doing the same one twice! I love the fact that she incorporates Bible reading and prayer into every practice.
  • Training for another 5k with my husband (when it’s not over 85 degrees outside) - even if we don’t sign up for a race. We use the free C25K app on Jeremy’s phone.
  • Completing the number of sets and reps of the Tone It Up daily moves that feels right to me. They are completely free and updated every day on the Tone It Up website. I like the variety. :)

Another thing that should be enjoyable is drinking enough water. Here’s the thing: not everyone likes the taste of water. You might be one of those people, and that’s totally okay! Here's what I suggest: add berries, lemon/lime/orange slices, or mint leaves to your water each day and keep it in a pitcher in the fridge.

If you normally like carbonated drinks, try a flavored sparkling water, such as La Croix. That way it’s not the same old boring water every day.

Next, make sure you keep your water at a temperature that you enjoy drinking it!

I don’t know about you, but most of the time I think lukewarm water is pretty gross. I used to carry a water bottle around with me throughout the day and I kind of hated drinking from it. I don’t really enjoy drinking out of a wide-mouthed bottle (I have a “hole in my lip”, as my husband kindly puts it ;)) and my water was never cold. Ew!

Obviously, this was not a good water-drinking solution for me.

Now, I use a pretty, 20-ounce insulated Tervis Tumbler with a lid. It keeps the ice from melting so my water is always cold and I don’t have to drink out of a bottle. Double win! I enjoy drinking water soooo much more now than when I was using a water bottle, and my daily water-drinking habit is actually sticking! I’ve kept my water-filled Tervis close by almost every day for over a year. :)

2. Easy (or at least not inconvenient)

Okay. Next up on the list is ease!

I truly believe that we’re not all lazy - we just have a lot of stuff to do! Everyday life is a lot of work! The last thing we need is the pressure of building another complicated and inconvenient activity into our daily lives. This is why I believe that ease is another key component of a habit that actually sticks for the rest of your life.

If you’re trying to eat more vegetables and fruit, this could mean buying more ready-to-assemble salad kits (which I love) or buying your vegetables pre-cut at the grocery store. My friend, Jessica Kempf over at Budget for Health, has opened my eyes to the wonderful world of pre-shredded coleslaw mix. It’s so much easier than cutting up or shredding my own head of cabbage by hand before sautéing it in olive oil with apple-chicken sausage (my favorite way to enjoy cabbage) - though I have figured out how to shred cabbage and other vegetables in about half the time using the slicing attachment on my food processor!

For me, it also means buying fruits that are easier to grab and eat - like grapes, apples, and cuties (these are 10 times easier to peel than regular oranges). Another favorite is frozen steamer bags of vegetables. Jeremy and I like to dump them in a bowl after they’re cooked and drizzle butter-infused olive oil over them and sprinkle with salt and pepper - so much yummier than plain steamed veggies!

When it comes to exercise (a.k.a. "enjoyable movement" in my book), this means that I work out in my living room using YouTube videos and free weights, or simply go for a walk/run with Jeremy in our neighborhood. It’s so much more convenient (to me) than driving to a gym, checking in, and finding a machine that isn’t already taken. The easier it is to do something, the more likely we are to do it!

Again, it’s not that we’re all necessarily lazy. We’re just wired as humans to be as efficient as possible by putting in the least amount of effort to get the job done. You could say we’re actually smarter for it! :)

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3. Fast (they don't take up too much of our free time)

I feel like the average person is busier than ever in this fast-moving, ever-changing modern world.

We work 40+ hours per week (inside OR outside of the home), take care of our families, take care of our homes, participate in hobbies and professional events, keep up with friends and family, and complete regular old errands that can take hours out of our Saturdays (like getting an oil change or cleaning the garage).

The last thing we need is another time-suck on top of our already crazy schedules.

That’s why I believe that the third crucial component of healthy habits that stick for life is that they don’t take up too much of our time. For this reason, I think that anything that helps you save time while building a healthy habit is worthwhile!

For me, this means that doing a workout video on YouTube - which requires no time traveling to the gym - is easier to stick with.

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I also typically avoid any workout that’s over 40 minutes (unless I really love it), because it’s hard to convince myself to give up that much time in my day.

When it comes to smart snacking, I stock up on foods that are extremely fast to prepare. Nuts are my #1 go-to snack because all I have to do is scoop them up (with a quarter-cup measuring scoop that I leave conveniently close to the container) and throw them into a plastic to-go container with a lid. They don't require chopping or peeling and they’re easy and fast to eat - with no messy fingers or face (bonus points)!

We’re committed to planning healthy dinners every week and not eating out often (usually every other week or once a week for us). To make planning and preparing meals faster, I use and recommend eMeals, which is a program that saves me time, money, and brain power! It costs $5 per month for a choice of over 20 different meal plans (currently, we’re using the “30 Minute” plan). I get 7 recipes along with a shopping list delivered via email every week.

I choose 1-2 new recipes from the 7 eMeals options sent to me each week, which saves me TONS of time that I would have spent browsing through cookbooks and food blogs every week for recipes that look good and won’t take too long to make.

I also buy salad kits and frozen steamer bags of vegetables that can be thrown in the microwave, so it saves us lots of time on veggie prep.

These things make cooking our own food and eating healthy, balanced, and Mediterranean-based meals every week so much faster - and as a result, the habit has stuck with us!

2 tricks to make the Habit-Forming process easier

Now that you know my 3 criteria for healthy habits that actually stick, I want to share 2 of my favorite strategies for forming those sticky habits. There are 2 main tricks that I use almost every time.

Trick #1: Have an accountability buddy

I usually do things either with a friend or family member, or I at least have them keep me accountable. I recently decided to create the habit of praying for my husband daily, so I’ve been texting a friend (with her permission, of course ;)) when I pray for him each day. It’s helped me so much!

Another way I’ve recruited support is by training for a 5k (which I’m doing right now!) alongside my husband. There have been several evenings when I wouldn’t have completed my walk/run if I didn’t have him there to do it with me!

This trick is a game-changer for me. :)

Trick #2: Create cues for your new habit

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The next strategy I use is to create cues or reminders for myself as I’m getting into the groove of a new habit. A habit is something you do regularly without giving it much thought, like brushing your teeth or making your bed, but it didn’t start that way. You have to remember to do things A LOT in the beginning before they become second nature.

One way to easily remember is to create cues or little reminders.

A cue I created to remind myself to use olive oil when cooking is to leave the olive oil out on my counter where I see it (you always want to keep olive oil in a dark bottle, though, to keep it from being damaged and degraded by light). I keep butter in the freezer (for special occasions) and other oils out of the way in a cabinet for occasional use. This has made using olive oil in all of my cooking completely automatic!

Since I’m in the midst of creating the habit of praying for my husband every day, I set a daily reminder on my phone (using my phone's calendar app) that reminds me to pray for him every morning at 7 AM. This simple tweak that took less than 5 minutes to set up made a huge difference for this habit!

Your cue could be something as simple as putting a book on your pillow every morning to remind yourself to read a few pages each night before you go to sleep.

Another simple cue would be putting your running shoes right next to your bed where you put your feet down as a reminder to complete your workout first thing in the morning (Only if you’re into that kind of thing - a 6 AM workout is not at all my idea of fun, so it wouldn’t meet my 3 criteria for a healthy habit that’s likely to stick for me). ;)

These are just a few ideas, but the possibilities for creating simple cues or reminders are endless!

Conclusion

Lastly, I want to say that it’s perfectly fine to be a work in progress. All of us are!

For me, the idea of continually improving myself and creating new, “sticky” habits is fun - as long as the habits I create fit my criteria of fun, fast, and easy.

What’s one habit that you’re working on creating (or want to start working on!) that meets these 3 criteria?

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