Creating Habits that Last

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many individuals who are ready to create a healthy lifestyle for themselves. They've come to me with visions of their best selves and long lists of behaviors they’re ready to change in order to get there. While I find it amazing that my clients are ready to jump right in and tackle so many habits head on, science tells us we can’t focus on several things at once. To make sustainable changes, establishing one key habit at a time is the “secret sauce” to success.

Here are the ingredients for creating healthy habits that last:

According to Charles Duhigg, author of Power Habit, some habits matter more than others. Some even generate more positive habits. Let’s say you decide that one of your goals is getting more sleep. By implementing this habit, you realize that it opens the door to other positive and unintended outcomes such as waking up refreshed, eating breakfast and having a positive mindset.

Habits that create this ripple effect are known as “keystone” habits. In the article, Identify Your Keystone Habit, Dean Ware, Ph.D. states:

“This positive chain reaction means you can prioritize one keystone habit and focus only on that habit – chances are, other healthy habits will follow."

Because we are unaware of which new behavior will ultimately become a keystone habit, it's important to introduce several new healthy behaviors overtime. Next step is to work at them until they become a habit (and possibly a keystone habit!). According to Duhigg's research, Ware explains:

“Habits are not conscious decisions, but instead are routines. Once we start the routine, we go on autopilot and simply go through the steps of the routine – we don’t even think about it. This means that you need to establish a routine for the habit you want to add.”

So, for a habit to take hold, one must first establish it as part of a routine. Using a technique called “habit stacking” allows us to implement new habits that haven’t yet been hard wired into our daily routine. In the article Habit Stacking: How to Build New Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones, James Clear explains the brain-science behind habit stacking:

“Your brain builds a strong network of neurons that support your current behaviors. The more you do something, the stronger and more efficient the connection becomes. The basic idea is that your brain prunes away connections between neurons that don’t get used and builds up connections that get used more frequently. [...] You can add a new habit into this fast and efficient network of neurons more quickly than if you tried to build a new path from scratch. ”

The quickest way to make a new behavior a habit is to stack it on top of current habits. For instance, if your goal is to get more sleep, but your current nighttime routine is to shower, watch t.v., snack then get into bed, your new routine could change to: shower, brush teeth and then get into bed.

In blogger S.J. Scott’s book titled Habit Stacking, he writes:

“One Routine + Multiple Habits = Habit Stacking. Your goal is to simply focus on a single routine that only takes about 15 to 30 minutes to complete. All you have to do is to create a checklist and follow it every single day.”

So, if you're ready to create new habits and to find your keystone habit, follow the steps below to get started!

1. Make a list. Start by writing a list of several of your current good habits and bad habits.
2. Think about what you’d like to do every day. Write those behaviors below your list.
3. Choose one or two behaviors to focus on. Think whether those behaviors have the possibility of becoming keystone habits by imagining what other habits might ripple out from them.
4. Fill in this sentence: After/Before [current habit], I will [new habit].
5. Think small to start! Do your two habits only once or for just a few minutes each day to begin with (even if you want to do more).

Eventually, add more habits by repeating the steps above. If you start to slip out of a routine, you may be doing too much - step back and assess.

Duhigg, Charels, "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business."

Ware, Dean Ph.D. "Identify Your Keystone Habit." On December 14, 2012. Web. January 29, 2015.

Clear, James. "How to Build Habits by Taking Advantage of Old Ones." James Clear. August 11, 2014. Web. January 29, 2015.,

S.J. Scott. "Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes that Take Five Minutes." 22 April, 2014. Web. Janurary 29, 2015.