The Trick To Making Healthy Habits

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About halfway through the pandemic, I set a goal for myself: I wanted to learn how to do splits. I was already pretty flexible, so I figured it was doable, but I didn’t want to injure myself and I knew I should take it slow. I found a PDF online that suggested thirty stretches every day to practice.

And I just … could not do it. I would either rush through the stretches and not make progress, or skip them altogether and feel guilty. The few times I did do them all as instructed, I resented how long the process took and worried about being late for work. So, after a couple of weeks, I decided enough was enough. I picked five stretches from the list, and vowed to do just those instead. And something magic happened: I stuck to it, and now, I can do splits.

The technique I’d unknowingly employed has a catchy new name — “snackable wellness” — but it’s also the age-old practice of breaking goals and healthy habits into smaller, more manageable pieces. As the wellness movement serves up increasingly lofty and time consuming recommendations, like daily dawn meditation sessions and nightly gua sha facial massages, it’s a relief to learn that some of the best things we can do for ourselves take the least effort.

“Some habits will form readily whether we consider them good or bad,” says B.J. Fogg, a behavioral scientist and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. “But this is because of the emotional attachment or reaction we have to them.” Fogg gives the example of late-night social media scrolling: We know it’s not good, but the content we see delights and entertains us, and so we keep doing it. “You may resent doing all that scrolling, but for your brain, it’s a net positive gain in emotion.”

According to Fogg, the reason I initially found it hard to stick to my stretches was that I didn’t have a positive emotional response or experience when I was doing it. And indeed, largely what I felt was guilt, even before I started the stretching sequence. Instead of forming a positive emotional connection with the practice, I was attempting to use dogged willpower, which doesn’t get most people very far. “You can simply use discipline and focus for a while, but usually it gives way to self sabotage,” says Fogg. “Or, you just give up and then criticize yourself.”

In other words, feeling good about yourself after you do something — even if it’s very small — helps it become a habit. In his book, Fogg gives the example of picking up one item of laundry and putting it in the hamper, and then congratulating yourself for doing so. “People are sometimes skeptical, and think that it’s taking the easy way out. But if you don’t lower the bar for yourself, it’s much harder to complete the task and feel positive about it,” he says.

Instead, Fogg suggests it’s more about recalibrating what success looks like. “If you’re able to feel successful just for doing a tiny thing, then it starts a process where your identity shifts. You start to think of yourself as someone who always puts laundry in the hamper or flosses their teeth or whatever it is. This has a much larger impact, because you start to behave consistently with this new identity.”

Aside from good habits around the house, this method is a great way to try new routines that previously seemed intimidating — and it’s becoming more mainstream. Allyson Rees, a senior strategist at trend-spotting agency WGSN, pointed to apps that give you minute-long meditations. “It’s a way to sample healthy practices without having to completely change your daily routine or lifestyle,” she says. When the barrier to entry is lower, you’ve got less to lose. “You can get creative with your daily routine, and fit in short activities such as deskercises, lunchtime walks and mini meditations — just creating new habits in trial-sized timeframes.”

Most people (including me, in the past) think that you have to force yourself to do something new and difficult — like block-book six weeks of early gym classes with the rationale that the sunk cost of having paid will make you do it. Likewise, installing an app that nudges you to stop scrolling might seem like the perfect antidote to late-night TikTok sessions. But neither of these techniques involve forming a positive attachment with a small, doable habit. They’re all about restriction, obligation and guilt. Instead, according to Fogg, you should start with something small: doing a few stretches every morning, putting your phone in the other room for an hour at a time, or walking to pick up a meal rather than getting it delivered.

And if you really can’t seem to make it stick? Move on. “The fact that you recognize you don’t like doing something is a victory,” says Fogg. “Focus on habits that you like. It’s not always a negative to withdraw. Let it go, and be free to pursue habits you really want.”

The Trick To Making Healthy Habits