Why it’s nearly impossible to form healthy habits and what to do instead. - Charity Miles

It’s the new year, a time when many of us resolve to adopt healthier habits. Unfortunately, few of those habits will make it past February.

In the ten years since founding Charity Miles, I’ve become obsessed with habit design because I wanted to make an app that people would use habitually.

However, I’ve come to the opinion that it’s nearly impossible to form healthy habits.

This article examines why I believe that, and briefly outlines alternative frameworks for adopting healthier behaviors to reach our goals.

In case you’ve only got time for a quick hit, here’s the TL;DR:

  • Habits are easy behaviors, often cued by cravings that those behaviors can immediately satisfy.
  • Healthy behaviors are difficult and motivated by long-term aspirations that cannot be immediately satisfied.
  • That’s okay because you can still design healthy behaviors, routines and rituals that you will do reliably to reach your goals.

What makes a habit?

A habit is a repeated behavior done with little or no conscious effort.

There are different nuances for describing habits, as you can read about in popular books like The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg), Tiny Habits (B.J. Fogg), and Atomic Habits (James Clear).

As Charles Duhigg outlines in The Power of Habit, habits follow a particular pattern that goes like this:

  1. A cue prompts the behavior;
  2. The behavior (i.e. the habit);
  3. A reward reinforces the behavior.

The more you go through this cycle, the more practiced you become at doing it which makes it easy to perform with little or no conscious effort. 

More importantly, the reward reinforces the behavior, teaching your brain: If I want this reward, then do this easy behavior. 

Can you make tiny healthy habits?

One way to foster healthy habits might be to make them tiny.

B.J. Fogg is the head of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on behavior design and habit formation. 

In his book, Tiny Habits, Fogg prescribes a model for making habits– you guessed it– tiny.

For example, according to Fogg, if you want to make a habit out of doing pushups every day, set out to do just 1 pushup a day. You can always do more if you want, but the goal is to do just one.

By making the habit tiny, you remove as many barriers to action as possible. You make the behavior easy to perform with little or no conscious effort. 

Then, prompt the behavior with a cue.

According to Fogg, the best way to do this is by anchoring the behavior to an existing routine.

 For example, anchor your 1-pushup habit to another routine like this: “After I finish washing the dishes, I’ll do one pushup.” Washing the dishes becomes the cue to do your pushup.

Finally, according to Fogg, reward the behavior by celebrating immediately. After you do your 1 pushup, celebrate with a fist-pump or cheer to yourself. By feeling good, we reinforce the behavior. “We change by feeling good,” says Fogg.

This is a dramatic oversimplification of Fogg’s book, so I encourage you to read it for yourselfTiny Habits is a best seller, and Fogg has personally coached over 40,000 people with this model. 

Fogg has also been a big influence on me personally, and I’m grateful to consider him a mentor.

However, I can’t say that I’ve successfully created any tiny healthy habits. Here’s why…

What really makes a habit?

As James Clear explains in his book Atomic Habits, it’s not enough to prompt a habit with external cues, and then celebrate your success.

There must be a tight nexus between a habit’s cue and its reward. According to Clear:

  • A habit’s cue must be or create a craving;
  • The habit is what we do to satisfy the craving;
  • That satisfaction of the craving is the reward that reinforces the behavior.

By “craving”, we could also mean a pain, itch or discomfort.

Mundane cravings, pains and itches– like boredom, anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness, FOMO, curiosity and hunger– are great cues for fostering habits because we experience them often, and you can relieve them with easy, mindless behaviors.

When a behavior immediately relieves the craving that prompts it, it habit-wires our brains to learn: If I experience this craving, do this easy thing to get relief.

Conversely, if a behavior does not immediately relieve the craving that prompts it, it will likely be insufficient to create a habit.

For me, anchoring a healthy behavior to an existing routine doesn’t satisfy any real craving– other than perhaps a desire to keep my commitments. 

Therefore, even though I feel good for doing so, I don’t experience the same habit-wiring pain-relief that I would feel for satisfying a craving like boredom, hunger, anxiety or uncertainty.  

Understanding these nuances helped me understand why it’s so hard to form healthy habits.

Why it's nearly impossible to form healthy habits.

Habits are usually easy behaviors prompted by cravings or discomforts that they can immediately satisfy.

By contrast, healthy behaviors tend to be relatively difficult and motivated by longer term aspirations that cannot be immediately satisfied.

One counterexample to this is brushing your teeth. Brushing your teeth is the easiest way to relieve the daily discomfort of morning breath.

But this may be the exception that proves the rule.

For example, whereas most people habitually brush their teeth every morning, most people don’t habitually floss their teeth because doing so doesn’t immediately relieve a craving or discomfort. (Other than perhaps the guilt you might have about lying to your dentist about flossing.)

So what can you do?

However difficult it is to forge healthy habits, understanding these nuances can help you disrupt your unhealthy ones.

For example, let’s say you want to end your unhealthy habit of scrolling social media at bedtime.

First, you could proactively try to make that behavior more difficult. For example, buy an old-fashioned alarm clock so that you don’t bring your phone into the bedroom. 

However, as author (and my friend) Nir Eyal writes in his book, Indistractable, the key to disrupting unhealthy habits is to understand the cravings that prompt them. 

The next time you find yourself mindlessly scrolling social media at bedtime, ask yourself: What were you feeling? Bored? Anxious? Lonely? Curious? 

Is there another, healthier way to scratch that itch? If so, try to make a rule for what to do when that itch inevitably arises: “When I feel bored after 9PM, I will ______.”

Then proactively make that behavior easy to perform when the itch inevitably arises. For example, if you fill in the above blank with “read a book”, make sure to have an interesting book ready on your bedside table.

Create cravings for healthy behaviors.

Since cravings cue habits, we might try to create cravings for healthy behaviors. 

Though this is admittedly difficult.

If you’re handy in the kitchen, perhaps you can develop a repertoire of healthy recipes that make you crave healthier foods. 

Personally, I haven’t experienced that yet. (Did you know that sauteeing your kale in coconut oil makes it easier to scrape from the pan to the trash? 😂)

However, there is one example I encourage you to try: If you want to create a habit for going to sleep early, then you can create a craving for it by making yourself really tired at your desired bedtime.

There are some obvious ways to do this:

  • Forego caffeine past noon;
  • Eat dinner early;
  • Avoid TV and social media that winds you up;
  • Take a magnesium supplement after dinner;
  • Make your bedroom and bed as calm and inviting as possible.

I think the most reliable way is to wake up very early to exercise – preferably outside.

There is a lot of research showing how getting direct sunlight into our eyes early in the morning helps to set our circadian rhythms, which makes us tired earlier in the evening.

Less scientifically, I can promise you that if you wake up by 5AM to workout, you will be very tired, and crave sleep by 9PM. 

Going to sleep is the easiest way to satisfy this craving!

This creates a virtuous loop where waking up early makes it easier to go to sleep early, which in turn makes it easier to wake up early.  

Unfortunately, it’s also easy to fall out of this loop if you start to sleep in – which I sometimes do on vacation.

Also, unfortunately, I cannot think of many other ways to create cravings for healthy behaviors. (Can you? Please let me know.)

But that’s okay because…

Habits are only one kind of behavior.

Just because a behavior isn’t a habit doesn’t mean you won’t do it.

Here I come back to B.J. Fogg and his eponymous model for behavior design. 

According to the Fogg Model, there are three elements that must be simultaneously present for you to do something:

  1. Ability – you must be sufficiently able to do it;
  2. Motivation – you must sufficiently motivated to do it; and
  3. Prompt- you must be effectively prompted to do it.

Therefore, if there is a healthy behavior you want to foster, you should first increase your ability to do it by making that behavior as easy as possible.  

For example, if you want to run before work, lay out your clothes the night before so it’s easy to get dressed when you’re still half-asleep.

Second, increase your motivation to do the behavior by making it as enjoyable as possible. Run in a beautiful place. Enjoy the sunrise. Listen to good music. Don’t over-exert yourself. Run with a friend.

Finally, design effective prompts to do the behavior. For a morning run, set your alarm. (Or a double alarm for some of us.)  Or, for other behaviors, you might prompt them by anchoring them to another existing routine.

Which brings us to…

Routines!

When most people say that they want to form healthy habits, they’re probably not thinking of habits in the nuanced, relief-craving way described above. They probably just mean that they want to form healthy routines.  

Routines are repeated sequences of behaviors that are performed regularly or in a particular order. 

A routine can involve habits, but it can also include other types of behavior. 

Unlike habits, routines can involve behaviors that require a lot of conscious effort. Also, routines don’t require the immediate cue-relieving rewards that habits do to reinforce them.  

However, we stick to routines because they help us avoid uncertainty and the pain of having to think hard.

Have you ever used your GPS navigation while driving on a familiar route? Sometimes it detects traffic and recommends an alternative route.

The recommendation will save you time, gas and aggravation, but you don’t do it. Where is this taking you? Does it go through a bad neighborhood? Are there more stop lights? What if you get lost? What if it’s wrong? 

All of this uncertainty and mental effort matters. You’d rather sit in traffic than deviate from your routine.

That’s how sticky routines can be!

But sometimes, you need a little something extra. In those cases…

Make it meaningful...

A ritual is another kind of repeated behavior. However, unlike habits, rituals are performed with a lot of conscious, unnecessary, effort. 

A ritual is a series of actions or behaviors that are performed in a specific, predetermined way, often (but not always) as part of a religious or cultural tradition. Rituals can serve a variety of purposes, such as expressing devotion or gratitude, celebrating important events, or marking the passage of time.

Rituals often involve the use of symbolic objects or actions, such as candles, incense, music, or prayer, and they may be performed individually or in a group setting. Rituals can be deeply meaningful and provide a sense of belonging, connection to others and purpose.

Here you might think of chanting “Ohmmmmmmmm” at the beginning of a yoga class, or saying Grace before a meal.  

Or, for example, before I run, I have a very specific ritual for how I get dressed, tie my shoes (right foot first), queue my music (always a Bruce Springsteen concert) and think of my grandfather as I start my Charity Miles.

Each of these things adds symbolic work to the task at hand.

This may seem counterintuitive in the face of the aforementioned guidance to make desired behaviors easy.

However, research also shows that we overvalue behaviors that require effort– especially if that effort is irrational, unnecessary or symbolic.

An oft-cited example here is the IKEA effect, a phenomenon where people place a higher value on objects that they have personally assembled or put together, such as furniture from IKEA. 

This is because the process of assembling the object creates a sense of accomplishment and pride in one's work, which thereby increases the perceived value of the finished product. 

Healthy behaviors like exercising often have this effect because the effort is inherent to the task at hand. When you finish, you usually feel a sense of accomplishment.

Rituals take this even further because their symbolic behaviors are usually irrational and unnecessary to the task at hand.  

Researchers think these irrational and unnecessary behaviors create a cognitive dissonance which causes our brains to impute a deeper sense of enjoyment or meaning to them. After all, why else would we go through all the trouble?

With this in mind, try adding some unnecessary but personally meaningful symbolism to the healthy behaviors you want to adopt.

For example, if you want to eat more salads, create a ritual for preparing them. Light some candles. Put on some music. Say a prayer for a different family member as you chop each vegetable…

Tell yourself a story with the salad.

The most powerful stories are the stories we tell ourselves.

Anytime you do a behavior– whether it is a habit, routine, ritual or otherwise– you’re telling yourself a story about who you are and what you value.

You ate a salad instead of pizza for dinner? You told yourself a story.

You woke up early this morning to run? You told yourself a story.

You went to bed early? You told yourself a story.

As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits, “Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”

In my opinion, this is the biggest impact we have with Charity Miles.

Because, each time we open our Charity Miles, we tell ourselves a story about who we are and aspire to be: the kind of people who go the extra mile for our own health and to help others.

This identity then shapes all the other big and small decisions we make in our day. What do we eat for lunch? Do we bring reusable bags to the grocery store? Do we treat the people in our lives with compassion?

Next time you are at the crossroads between a healthy and unhealthy behavior, let this identity be your compass.

Ask yourself: “What would a healthy person do?”

Or better yet: “What would a Charity Miler do?”