Build Healthy Habits When You Lack Discipline

You can develop good habits even when you lack self-discipline. Here are 5 steps to build a healthy habit.

Yep, I do go jogging nearly every day before breakfast. I always eat my vegetables. And I never fail to sing a cheery hello to my dog when I come home at the end of the day.

But guess what?

I’m not any more disciplined than the next gal.

These are my habits. They are what I do – and I do them without much thought.

Healthy habits make our lives easier. I’ll grant you that singing to Benny isn’t exactly a good health habit. And I’m not sure that it makes my life easier, but it does make us both feel good. So today, I’m counting it.

Healthy habits allow us to do what we know we should do without draining our mental energy. They work on our unconscious minds. Don’t think I wake up every morning and tell myself to go jogging. I don’t think about it all. It’s as routine as brushing my teeth. It’s as routine as singing to Benny when I come home. It’s simply what I do.

Healthy Habits Require Change

Healthy Habits Require Change
© Can Stock Photo / dark light

Imagine what your life could be like if you had a few more healthy habits in place. Taking a walk after dinner or after breakfast? Meditating after your shower? Biting into fruit each afternoon instead of mindlessly grabbing chips? You can achieve these goals and others even if you lack willpower and self-discipline.

Once you put the right system in place, habit can take over, allowing you to sail through your new healthy routines without much thought.

When I want to develop good habits, I remind myself that my effort today pays off big later on. It’s like writing a book or producing a product today and cashing in on royalties for many, many years. Well, without any actual money.

Here’s What Happens When You Develop Good Habits

  • Less mental arguing with yourself
    • I’ve done this way too many times! “Well, I didn’t miss any workouts last week. And I probably won’t next week. So I could get away with skipping my weight training session this morning.” Or “If I eat chips today, maybe I’ll just eat extra fruit tomorrow. Or I’ll skip crackers with my lunch. Or …” You get the idea.
  • You get healthier and feel better
    • Nothing better than that!
  • You stop worrying about whatever it was that made you want a new habit
    • Whew, I needed to dump some worry!

Healthy habits are automatic behaviors that make our lives easier while making our lives better.

The automatic part is key. It’s what makes life easier. Habits are beneficial because they give your brain a rest or allow it to work on other problems. You no longer use much brainpower to tie your shoes, back out of your driveway or log onto your computer because these behaviors became habitual. Imagine if they weren’t. Boy, our lives would be way more tiring than they already are.

Won't life be easier and better once you have another healthy habit in place! #healthyhabitsClick To Tweet

Habit Loop

I enjoyed reading The Power Of Habit by journalist Charles Duhigg. He explains that habits follow a 3-part pattern called the habit loop. First there is the cue, something that triggers a behavior or routine. Following the routine is the reward.

Are you a donut lover?

Your cue might be seeing a Hot Now sign as you approach your favorite donut shop. The routine is to pull into the driveway, park, order and eat a donut or two. The reward, a delicious taste, helps your brain remember this habit loop, causing you to repeat this behavior next time you see a Hot Now sign.

If you’ve offered a toddler a cookie at the supermarket, you’ve probably watched the habit loop take hold. Your toddler asked for a cookie the very next time you scooped him or her into the grocery cart, right?

Here’s a good way I put it in action with my kids: By giving my daughters fruits and vegetables with every meal, I taught them to expect fruits and vegetables with every meal. This is why I do a little happy dance when I get a call like this: “Mom, I bought Brussel sprouts. How do I cook them so they’re crispy?”

Get healthier the piggyback way. Piggyback a new habit onto an old behavior. #HealthyHabitsClick To Tweet

Purposefully Create Your Own Healthy Habit

Use knowledge of this 3-part habit loop to develop good habits. Piggyback your desired routine onto an existing behavior. If your goal is to walk after breakfast daily, piggyback your walk onto putting your breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. The cue is loading the dishwasher after breakfast. The walk is your routine. And the reward is the praise you give yourself for following through on your goal. Keep this up, and eventually you’ll have a new healthy habit.

I use the piggyback method for all types of habits, not just health habits. I remember to water my potted plants by linking the watering task to rinsing a milk bottle. I successfully linked flossing my teeth to taking a shower. I’ve piggybacked meal planning to grocery shopping, jogging to finishing coffee, strength training to finishing breakfast and so much more!

forming the healthy habit of strength training

I started with just a small behavior – 15 minutes using my TRX after breakfast.

5 Steps to Develop Good Habits

  1. Commit to a healthy behavior (the routine).
  2. Piggyback the desired behavior onto an established behavior or event (cue).
  3. Identify the immediate positive outcome (reward), which may come automatically. More likely though, the reward is self satisfaction. Pat yourself on the back, and hold onto those good feelings for a bit.
  4. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
  5. Guard your new habit as if your life may depend on it. Put safeguards around your time. Elevate this new healthy habit to a high level of priority. If you are short on time, engage in a modified version of your healthy habit to maintain it. Don’t have 30 minutes for your walk? Go for 15, 10, or even 7. Just go! The real value is the habit itself.

An Example:

  1. Commit: I will do at least 5 pushups every day.
  2. Piggyback: After opening the bedroom blinds in the morning.
  3. Reward: I jump up telling myself that I’m rocking it.
  4. Repeat: If you need a reminder, put a sticky note on your blinds.
  5. Make no excuses.

And blammo, you have a pushup habit!

While working to develop good habits, experiment with various cues and rewards. Keep it up until you find just the right mix. Often the most important reward is the praise you give yourself. Or maybe it’s the sweet look in my dog’s eyes and that crazy flapping tail. It may take weeks or months, but what you once struggled with will be second nature. And you’ll know that you have one more healthy habit to rely on!

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Jill-Weisenberger_about-image-2
Jill Weisenberger

I'm Jill, and I believe simple changes in your mindset and health habits can bring life-changing rewards. And I don't believe in willpower. It's waaaay overrated. As a food-loving registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and certified health and wellness coach, I've helped thousands of people solve their food and nutrition problems. If you're looking for a better way to master this whole healthy eating/healthy living thing or if you're trying to prevent or manage diabetes or heart problems, you'll find plenty of resources right here.

Leave a Reply

10 Comments

  1. Marlo on July 7, 2017 at 9:24 am

    Love this piggyback method. Thank you for explaining such a clear way to make a new habit. I can already see how it’s going to help me reach some of my goals.

    • Jill Weisenberger on July 7, 2017 at 9:26 am

      Yay! I’m so glad. Keep us posted on your progress.

  2. Brian on July 25, 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Great advice! Just to add, another researcher from Stanford worth checking out is B.J. Fogg. His work on “Tiny Habits” mirrors your tips, and he has some great TED talks available on Youtube.

    • Jill Weisenberger on July 25, 2017 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks Brian! Yes, please check out BJ Fogg. He has habits down to a science!

  3. Stephen Novak on July 26, 2017 at 2:13 am

    Awesome guide, I had never heard of Charles Duhigg before or his methods before but they are certainly interesting! I really like the piggyback method and am already envisioning how I can best fit it into my life.

    You sometimes don’t realize how much habits control your life until you step back and really look at how you spend your time.

    Anyway, thanks again for posting this!

    Cheers!

    • Jill Weisenberger on July 26, 2017 at 8:24 am

      So true! Habits do influence so much of our day. That’s why I like this method to intentionally develop good habits. Thanks for commenting Stephen.

  4. Timo on May 7, 2018 at 4:20 am

    Once again written great, how habits arise, how to add or remove ones. I have to think about my habits.

    • Jill Weisenberger on May 7, 2018 at 8:48 am

      Thank you, and yes indeed. We all need to consider our habits. That’s how we get to mold them instead of letting them be in charge.

  5. Vince on July 16, 2020 at 10:17 am

    Great and simple steps, to transition, from the lethargy of quarantine. . .to more vigorous health, when quarantine is over.

    There is a habit TRACKING app that lets you keep track of your changes, graphically.

    • Jill Weisenberger on July 16, 2020 at 11:46 am

      Vigorous, yes! What a great word. Tracking is super important for accountability. And for the feeling of a reward.

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Hi there! I'm Jill, a nutrition & diabetes expert and the author of 4 books.

Jill Weisenberger

I believe simple changes in health habits can bring you life-changing rewards.

And I believe willpower is way overrated.

Right here is where you can discover the mindset and habits to stick with healthy lifestyle choices most of the time - and drop the guilt when you don't.

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