6 expert tips for good habit formation

Follow these expert-backed strategies to form new habits and break old ones

It’s no secret that forming good habits has a positive impact on your life.

A 2018 study led by the Harvard Chan School of Public Health identified five all-powerful habits during adulthood – eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, keeping a healthy body weight, not drinking too much alcohol, and not smoking – that can add more than a decade to your life expectancy.

But you probably already knew this. Picking up healthy habits – such as daily flossing, stretching or meditation – and dropping unhealthy ones – such as eating whole packs of cookies in one sitting – is the hard bit.

To help, we’ve compiled six expert-backed strategies on how to form new habits, break old ones and develop an iron-clad action plan that will keep you on track today, tomorrow and long after that. 

1. Focus on one habit at a time 

You might want to get fit, binge less, sleep more and have a whole shopping list of healthy habits on your to-do list, but tackling them all at the same time is a recipe for failure, warns Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit.

'If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilising,' he says. Instead become laser-focused on a small number of habits at a time. Duhigg suggests working on one habit a month. 'It's worth spending a month to change one behaviour permanently,' Duhigg says. 'After all, you're going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade.

2. Make that first one count

Pick a keystone habit, says James Clear, author of New York Times best-seller Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones.

'This is a behaviour or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in line,' Clear says. For him, that keystone habit is weightlifting. Going to the gym creates a ripple effect across other areas of his life. He enjoys the primary benefit of exercise, and reaps a host of secondary benefits including better focus after working out, a tendency to eat better, better sleep and more energy the next day.

'I didn’t try to build better habits for my focus, my nutrition, my sleep, or my energy,' says Clear. 'I just did my keystone habit and those other areas all improved as well.'

3. Regular cardio is a good place to start

Research published by the University of Texas in Austin adds weight to Clear’s keystone principle.

Researchers found that after 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise three times a week for 15 weeks, formerly sedentary study participants were more inclined to choose foods such as lean meats, fruits and vegetables, while preferences for fried foods, sugary drinks and other unhealthy options decreased.

Several studies have also found regular cardio exercise boosts levels of dopamine and appetite-regulating hormones, so it makes sense to start moving more, before trying to eat less bad stuff.

4. Break bad habits with one good one

Scientists at Duke University found that habits leave a lasting mark on specific circuits in the brain, priming us to feed our cravings. They observed that an addiction to one thing can make you more likely to engage in other unhealthy habits or addictions as well.

This cumulative effect can be broken with simple behavioural strategies – even tiny changes – that can chip away at unhealthy habits. So, for example, if you want to stop skipping early-morning training sessions, you could ensure you follow a bedtime routine the night before.

5. Set micro-goals

A leading proponent of the micro-goal method is BJ Fogg, director of the Behaviour Design Lab at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything.

For Fogg, the first step is the most important, so you should make it as manageable – or tiny – as possible. For example, if your goal is to run a marathon, the very first step could be to run one mile, or even less, followed by slightly further on the second run, and so on.

Through this process of micro-goals and building a sense of achievement, the fear that was preventing you from forming the positive habit turns to hope. As motivation grows through accomplishing each micro-goal, you’ll experience a 'springboard moment' that leads to 'success momentum'.

Soon you’ll actively opt for ever tougher tasks until the point when going 26.2 miles will no longer feel like the insurmountable obstacle it was when you first laced up your running shoes.

6. Turn peer pressure to your advantage

Whether it’s training for that marathon or ditching booze for January, make sure someone is holding you accountable, says Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before: Mastering The Habits Of Our Everyday Lives.

'One of the best ways to build good habits and happiness effectively – also one of the most fun ways – is to join or start a habits group,' Rubin says.

This can take the form of joining a local running club or having a lunch-time gym buddy. It's easy to come up with excuses not to train, but it's much harder when it's more than just yourself who needs convincing.

Rubin says, 'For many, many people, accountability is the secret weapon of habit-change.' So tell your friends, tell your enemies, post your training schedule on Insta, and share your goals on TikTok. Who knows? Others might even be inspired to join you.