Changing your habits

In this module we describe habits and how health promoting behaviours can be changed into new habits. Here you can also read scientifically based suggestions of what you can do to achieve the new habits that you want.

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Background: habits

Here you will find a lot of advice on health promoting behaviours and you might an idea of habits that you would like to change. However, most of us know that it's not that easy to incorporate new, healthier habits! Perhaps we attempt to exercise four times in one week, get up early in the morning or plan to study every from between 8 AM and 5 PM. But once the motivation decreases the exercise is postponed, we stay in bed and snooze and studying for the exam is left for another day. Thus, it's not so easy to incorporate health promoting behaviours, even when we know that that's exactly what we should be doing!

Introduction: changing habits

Why is it so difficult for us to do what we really know is good for us? Well, among other things because our day-to-day lives consist of a large number of little habits. By habits we mean behaviours that are automatically triggered by a certain context, since they have been repeated many times in that particular context. We have stayed home instead of exercising many evenings after a long day of lectures. We have stayed in bed when the alarm clock has gone off many mornings. And perhaps we have put off studying and met with friends instead on many occasions. These behaviours have then become our habits!

So, what are we going to do to break these habits that we know are not good for us in the long run? Below, we will go through some things that may be helpful for you to incorporate more health promoting behaviours in your day-to-day life.


How to incorporate new habits?

Tips: Steps to establish new habits

If you want to make changes in your day-to-day life to increase health promoting behaviours it might be wise to follow a plan that you are more likely to succeed with. Here are some tips on what you can keep in mind when you are adding a new habit to your life.

Perform the behaviour often and on a regular basis. The more often you perform the new behaviour in your day-to-day life and the more consistent you are in actually doing it, the more likely it is to become a habit. Thus, it is easier to make a habit of something that you can do several times per week (such as taking a daily walk after lunch) than something that you only do once a month (such as going to the climbing facility 10 km away). Plan for how and when you are going to perform the new behaviour, so that it becomes easier to make it happen.

Make a habit of something that feels good and is easy to do. You have a greater chance of developing a habit if the behaviour you are going perform feels good or meaningful while you are performing it, is possible to do in a comfortable environment, and is easy to do. It is therefore probably easier to make a habit out of studying one hour at the KI library after a lecture than to study eight hours a day in a noisy café.

Build up the habit in small steps. Once you have established your new habit you can continue to build on it, for example increase your study time from one to two hours/day or add some squats in connection with your lunch walk. And remember, you don't need to take up exercising, learn a new study technique, fix your sleep or make new friends all at once! It is common for people to want to get off to a running start when their motivation level is high, but you have a greater chance of establishing your habit if you have patience and take one step at a time.

Be patient. It is sometimes said that it only takes 21 days to establish a new habit, but it appears to be a myth (Gardner, Lally & Wardle, 2012). Different individuals need a different amounts of time to create new habits, but a new habit appears to become automatic after roughly 2-3 months if you perform the new behaviour often (van der Weiden et al., 2020).

Don't wait for motivation before you make a change. Start with a very small change that you are likely to succeed in (according to the tips above) and the motivation will increase as you notice that you are succeeding. It will also become increasingly easy to perform the new behaviour with time, and after just a few weeks you will probably notice that you don't need that much willpower to incorporate your new behaviour into your day-to-day life (Gardner, Lally & Wardle, 2012).

Referenser: Habits

Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. Br J Gen Pract, 62(605), 664-666. 

van der Weiden, A., Benjamins, J., Gillebaart, M., Ybema, J. F., & de Ridder, D. (2020). How to Form Good Habits? A Longitudinal Field Study on the Role of Self-Control in Habit Formation. Front Psychol, 11, 560. 

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