What are healthy habits?


Last week we looked at how willpower or self control is a finite resource, and how we can use it to help us start good habits rather than rely on it to manage all of our behaviours. If you missed it, you can read it here.

Compared to willpower, habits are a much easier long term option for living an intentionally healthy, happy and more productive lifestyle.

So this week we are starting a 3 part healthy habit mini series...

What are healthy habits?

Habits are often referred to as either healthy (or good), or unhealthy (or bad). However, the habitual component of behaviour itself is neither healthy or good nor unhealthy or bad.

Research shows that habits are a simple (usually subconscious) neurological loop.

An automatic or unconscious action or behaviour begins after we encounter a certain trigger in a certain context. The habit is completed when the loop is closed with a reward.

Simply broken down in a diagram it might look something like this…


When we think about good or bad habits, we are actually referring to the behaviour loops leading to actions associated with these triggers, closed with a reward resulting in repeated automatic actions.

If we want to grow and develop certain behaviours, we can still think of these as ‘healthy’ or ‘good’ habits, and think of those behaviours we want to change or stop as ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ habits.

It’s also worth noting due to a negative bias, that it is common for us to notice our bad habits more than we notice the good ones, especially in other people!

What trigger, cue or context starts habitual behaviours?

Triggers can be internal or external. Here are some examples.

  1. The sun is shining and it’s the end of June. I notice Wimbledon on the tv (external)
  2. I’m hungry and remember there’s a packet of biscuits in the cupboard (internal). 
  3. I wake up in the morning (either external or internal, depending on an alarm clock or naturally waking up) and I go to the bathroom.

These triggers each lead to behaviours

  1. I’m inspired and phone a friend to play tennis
  2. I eat the biscuits
  3. I get in the shower and brush my teeth

The habits loops are then closed when the brain receives a signal or reward.

  1. My friend agrees and we book the court.
  2. I have a sugar rush to the brain, my taste buds are sensationalised and my hunger satisfied
  3. I have a tingling feeling in my mouth and I’m clean and fresh, ready for the day

These sorts of habits are important because so much of ‘what we do’ (our behaviours) in a day is habitual. In fact, research suggests that on average habits make up a whopping 40% of our actions!.

Although habits can be as simple as 1 - 2 -3, they aren’t always that easy to learn in the first place, and often require much short term pain, effort and support before the long term gain.

The very nature of the fact that we are created with habits that do override so much of our behaviour, means if we do learn to change our habits, we change our lives.

For example, If in scenario 2 when feeling hungry we instead reach for an apple or handful of nuts, we not only avoid the biscuit sugar intake and take a positive step in preventing becoming overweight or obese, but we also take in essential nutrients from 1 of our 5+ a day or our protein and healthy fats snack.

So there's a little introduction into what habits are, and you'll be pleased to know that's the science bit over for now!

Next week we’ll explore why we have habits, how they are helpful and why changing them is hard, before learning how we choose to have healthier habits in week 3.

See you Monday...

The content from these short posts are taken from our Intentional Health Programme. Please get in touch if you would like to find out more about joining one of these community programmes.

Please also share this post, and sign up below if you'd like to receive future Monday posts straight to your inbox. Sign Up Here