Man jogging along road

"Once we're clear about what we hope to accomplish by forming our new habit, we're ready to make a plan to put into action."

There is a lot of discussion about forming healthy habits to promote mental health – and for good reason. By establishing healthy habits, we create a strong foundation to fall back on when depression tries to knock us off our feet. 

Habit formation doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be effective. In fact, making a few small changes to your daily life can have a huge impact and set you up for success.

Here are some tips to help get you started:

Set yourself up for success

When we’re depressed, it’s not unusual to let our healthy habits and routines fall by the wayside. And we can often pick up new, unhealthy habits as we struggle to cope. This can lead us to feel like we have to change our entire lives around in order to “get healthy”, but trying to make too many changes at once is unrealistic and overwhelming.

On the days when it’s tough to simply get out of bed, overloading ourselves with a long list of unrealistic goals is likely to do more harm than good. That’s why it’s important to choose a specific area to focus on when you’re just beginning to introduce new habits into your day or week.

Narrow down your focus

When fighting depression, it’s tempting to set a very general goal like “I want to get better”. Aiming to get better is a worthwhile pursuit, but it’s also very vague, making it difficult to work toward or measure. We need to set clear, specific, tangible goals in order to lay out the steps needed to reach the goals and assess the outcomes of our actions.

We need to try to break down what exactly we mean by “get better” and work backward from there.

  • Do you want to feel more energetic? Then maybe you could to focus on improving your sleeping habits.
  • Do you want to feel less isolated? Maybe you could prioritize building more social engagement habits.
  • If you don’t know where to begin, our Self Check and Stress Test can help you figure out which areas to prioritize.

Create specific, measurable, and realistic goals

There are a number of different strategies we can use to break down goals. One of the most popular ways to do this is by creating what are called SMART goals.

SMART goals provide a framework to give ourselves the best chance of success. SMART stands for:

  • Specific – narrow down as much as possible (who, what, when, where, why)
  • Measurable – allow us to track our progress or measure the outcome
  • Achievable – are challenging, but realistic
  • Relevant – matter to us and are worthwhile
  • Time-based – are time-limited or have a deadline 

Once we’re clear about what we hope to accomplish by forming our new habit, we’re ready to make a plan and put it into action. 

To demonstrate, let’s take a look at the general goal: “I want to get more exercise.”

  • Increasing our level of exercise is a good goal, but this phrasing leaves us with more questions than answers. What kind of exercise will we be doing? When and where will we do it? How often will we exercise? How will we know when we’ve reached this goal? 

Now let’s turn this into a SMART goal: “I want to go for a 30-minute jog during my lunch break every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next four weeks.”

  • See how this goal is much more useful? It offers a precise plan for how we will increase our exercise, making it easier to stick to. It’s also measurable and time-based. At the end of four weeks, we can count the number of times we went for a jog, which then allows us to determine if we are making progress, adjust our goal as necessary, and continue to grow.

The tips below can help ensure the sustainability of new habits and wrest control of our lives back from depression. 

1. Start (really) small

It’s common to feel an initial surge of motivation when we set a goal of forming a new habit, leading us to expect too much of ourselves far too soon. When that initial burst of energy inevitably runs out, our motivation may burn out too, causing us to abandon new habits as quickly as we picked them up. 

Failure is very discouraging, and biting off more than we can chew often sets us up for it. Research finds that simpler tasks become habits faster.[1] That’s why it’s important to start small when creating new daily habits.

For example:

  • We could start our new jogging habit by running for 5 minutes per day, and then gradually increase the amount of time as we settle into the routine and improve our aerobic fitness.

2. Try habit stacking

Habit stacking is when we add a new habit by connecting it to an existing habit we already have.

It works by taking advantage of habits and routines that are already wired into our brains, requiring less decision making about when and where to do them, and making it a lot more likely that we will stick with them.

For example:

  • One way to implement our new jogging habit using habit stacking would be to say, “when I get home from work and change out of my work clothes, I will immediately change into my exercise clothes and go for a jog.”

3. Make it easy and convenient 

Starting new habits is hard. It requires commitment, motivation, and time set aside in our busy days to try to improve an area of our lives. To make forming a new habit easier, try to make it as convenient as possible and eliminate minor obstacles that could get in the way. Think ahead to the small micro tasks related to a new habit that could leave us feeling overwhelmed when it comes time to take action.

For example:

  • This could mean planning our jogging routes in advance, leaving fresh running clothes out the night before our morning jog, and keeping our running shoes in a place where we can easily see them and slip them on.

By making it easier, we’re reducing the number of excuses we can use to not do our habit, so we can follow through even when our energy or motivation is low.

4. Make it fun

We are much more likely to stick with a habit if it’s something we genuinely enjoy. This may seem obvious, but we often forget this simple principle.

Take for example, the goal of ‘getting fit’. The first thing that comes to mind for many guys is to sign up for a gym membership. But for a lot of guys, the gym feels more like a chore than an enjoyable hobby. There are plenty of other ways to get into shape that may be more appealing, such as joining a local basketball league, taking up cycling, rock climbing, swimming, or hiking.

Enjoyment is one of the most powerful motivators, so take the extra time to think about what you enjoy and choose accordingly – before taking on a new habit.

At the same time, certain habits are simply more unpleasant than others, yet we know they need to get done. For example, most of us don’t find doing laundry or washing dishes to be very fun, yet we still do them because we know these tasks are essential. To make these habits more enjoyable, we can add something fun to them, like listening to our favourite podcast while we do the dishes.

By adding something we enjoy to an otherwise boring or unpleasant task, we come to associate our new habit with the positive feelings we get from the thing we like, making it more appealing to continue doing. Initially we might dread doing the dishes, and only do them so that we can listen to our podcast. But with repetition over time, we may realize doing the dishes isn’t too bad, and actually look forward to the nightly ritual.

For example:

  • To make our new jogging habit more fun, we could opt to run at in nearby park instead of the local running track, and/or listen to a favourite podcast or playlist while we jog.

5. Make it social

Humans are social creatures by nature, and we can use this hard-wired affinity for being in the company of others to our advantage when creating and sustaining new habits.

By doing it with others

This means trying to do our new habit with another person or a group of people. Doing things with others can help motivate us by way of encouraging others and being encouraged by them too.

For example:

  • One way of making our jogging habit social would be to meet up and jog with a friend or join a local running group – groups like these exist for the very reason of capitalizing on mutual motivation and encouragement.

Or by letting others know

Not all habits make sense to do with other people. If you live alone and want to start a cooking routine, or improve your sleep habits, you will most likely need to do these things on your own. However, we can still reap the benefits of making our new habit social by telling others about it. Doing so places a healthy amount of pressure on ourselves to maintain our habits because we know that others have expectations of us or will hold us accountable.

One way to do this is to simply tell a friend or family member about the habit you are trying to form. You can also share your progress with a wider community – there are plenty of websites, apps, and online forums where people share their progress with different hobbies or habits.

For example:

  • We can post about our runs on a social media app like Instagram or Strava.

6. Reward yourself

Many healthy habits are good for us in the long term, but feel like too much work in the short term. Even if we know we are doing something for our own benefit, it can take a lot of time before we see improvement, making it easy to get frustrated and off track.

That’s why it’s important to reward ourselves when creating new habits. When choosing a reward, avoid picking one that could diminish our progress. For example, if your goal is to eat healthier, it would be counter-productive to reward yourself with a dessert. Instead, try rewarding yourself in another way, like treating yourself and a friend to a movie.

For example:

  • We could reward ourselves with a favourite healthy smoothie when we get back from jogging, or buy ourselves new running shoes as a reward for reaching a specific goal.

7. Be consistent

The more consistent we are, the more automatic our new habit will become. If we plan to do a new habit at some point during the day but do not set a specific time, it is easy to tell ourselves “Crap, I missed it, I guess I’ll wait until tomorrow,” then repeat again the next day.

Try to identify regular blocks of time in your week that could reasonably accommodate your new habit, then do your best to stick with this schedule. Creating schedules for our habits makes our lives easier by saving us the mental energy it takes to fight procrastination and minimizes the chances of rationalizing why we can’t find time for our habit on any particular day.

For example:

  • To be consistent with our new jogging habit, we could plan to jog at the same time every day as soon as we get home from work. 

8. Foster flexibility

This may seem contradictory to our advice about being consistent, but consistency and flexibility actually go hand in hand. Being consistent is helpful because once a habit becomes a routine, it requires less energy to complete. But life will inevitably get in the way at times and we will eventually need to change plans or miss a day.

For some people, breaking a streak of consistency feels like failure, and it can completely throw them off and disrupt their motivation. That’s why it’s important to remain flexible. Rather than focusing on streaks, it can help to count percentages. So maybe we miss a day here and there, but we can commend ourselves for keeping up with our habit 90% of the time. Creating backup plans can also foster flexibility, so that slight hiccups, like bad weather or a canceled class, don’t get the way of sticking to our habit. 

For example:

  • Instead of skipping a jog on rainy days, we can set aside a backup plan to hit the gym and jog on a treadmill.
  • On days when we aren’t feeling quite up for jogging, maybe after a late night or busy week, we can go for a brisk walk instead.

9. Track your progress

Tracking our progress allows us to monitor and celebrate our successes, which is a powerful motivator. Often, the more progress we see, the more motivated we become to stick to our new habit. 

There are many different ways we can track our progress, from apps to spreadsheets to good old fashioned to-do lists pinned to the wall. Try to find a method that makes you feel excited about reaching your goals and that makes sense for the habit you are trying to create.

For example:

  • We can track our runs and monitor our jogging progress using a smartwatch or an exercise app like Strava (which allows you to record the routes and distances of your jogs).

Learn more about tracking your progress with our article on Long-term Strategies to Keep Up with Healthy Habits and Fight Depression.


References

  1. Verplanken, B. (2006). Beyond frequency: Habit as mental construct. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45(3), 639-656. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466605X49122 

For more tips on forming habits, see our guide to Building Healthy and Sustainable Habits to Fight Depression.

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