Behaviour change can be challenging, I think we can all empathize with that. What makes something like exercising more or eating healthier especially challenging to change is that it is not a rare or one-time thing (e.g., getting a flu shot), it is a behaviour that should be engaged in nearly every day. If an individual is trying to reduce their time spent sedentary, that is a new way of acting that they will have to consciously think about every day. Often times the cognitive effort required to stay on top of a new behaviour every day is an important barrier to long-term change.

This means that, in the long term, a behaviour change must become habitual if it is to be maintained. A habit can be defined as a behaviour that is frequently engaged in, to the point where if mostly occurs unconsciously or automatically. Can you think of any of your behaviours that have become habitual? If you’re lucky, maybe you get up and go to the gym a couple times a week without even thinking about it. Or, maybe you bite your nails or can’t operate without your morning coffee. Working on a new behaviour to the point that it becomes an automatic habit is quite the challenge, and what HealtheSteps™ coaches work with participants to achieve.

So, if you are coaching someone to be healthier or trying to improve your own health, are there any tricks to facilitate this process?

One great strategy is called ‘habit pairing’. Because habit behaviours are generally under automatic or unconscious control, they are initiated in response to a cue or trigger. For example, in the morning you might walk into your kitchen and put the kettle on without even thinking about it. The cue/trigger in this situation could be walking into the kitchen in the morning, and the automatic (habitual) response is putting on the kettle. Habit pairing leverages the trigger – response process by piggybacking on an established habit and using that as a trigger.

For example, let’s say you are trying to improve the number of fruits and veggies you are eating on a daily basis. If you were unaware of habit pairing, you might just plan to eat an extra apple whenever you had time during the day. This isn’t really the best way to maintain a behaviour change, because the consumption of the apple isn’t really tied to a clear trigger. You may be totally motivated to eating that extra apple for a week or two, but after the novelty of the change wears out you might find it difficult to remember to get that extra fruit in.

Now let’s try planning a change using habit pairing – you know that every morning you are totally on autopilot: You get up, shower, make some coffee, etc. A smart move in this situation may be to put out a bowl of apples and oranges right beside the coffee maker. That way, you can work on making one of your established habits (making coffee) the trigger for a new behaviour change! This is a more efficient way of attempting to habituate a behaviour, because with repetition the new behaviour (eating fruit in the morning) will become assimilated into your regular morning routine.

If you are trying to make your own behaviour change, think about ways you can pair it to one of your existing habits! The best habits to piggyback on are the ones that happen about the same frequency as the new behaviour you are trying to habituate. For example, the coffee habit works well with the fruit behaviour because they both happen every day. If you are planning on making a change that doesn’t happen every day, maybe going for a run 2-3 times a week, think about a habit that matches that frequency. In this example, maybe putting your running shoes beside the garbage bins and going for a jog every time you take out the garbage could be a good solution.

Can you think of any other good examples of habit pairing? Tweet to us @healthesteps!