Building Good Habits in Quarantine

Never in the history of the world has the PAUSE button been hit. Yet, here we are in this unprecedented time. Now that this button has been pressed, one of the things I want to challenge everyone is to adopt ONE healthy habit that can be built upon after quarantine.

How long does it take to build a habit?

The answer is it depends on you!

According to Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s blockbuster hit book, it takes about 21 days to form a new habit. He made this observation by observing that it took his patients about 21 days to adopt to an operational change on their body (eg a nose  job or a limb amputation). However, a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology studied people about 12 weeks and found that it took anywhere from 18 to 254 days, with an average of  66 days.

So if someone had to press me, I would say 66 days on average. Yet, I understand it can take longer (e.g. it took me about 180 days to break up with  my phone!)

How do habits even work?

Before we can understand how to form habits, we have to understand how habits work. One of my favorite books of all time is The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg. He established a system titled “The Habit Loop.” This breaks habits into 3 parts: a cue (a trigger that makes you want to perform a habit), a routine (the action you do automatically), and a reward (the payoff you feel you get).

The Habit Loop

For example, my current habit loop is the news on coronavirus and its dopamine relief.

Cue: I am feeling restless or anxious.

Routine: I automatically type in New York Times

Reward: I get an automatically dopamine rush from hearing about the news and updating myself.

This unfortunately makes me more anxious, so I continue to devour more news. Hours pass.

You can use this example for anything, for example social media. Social media is designed to take over our reward system.

The Social Media Loop

Cue: I am feeling bored (of work or just sitting around)

Routine: Check social media

Reward: I get a rush from seeing new content and learning something new that provides me with boredom relief.

Subsequently, this instant gratification creates a dopamine rush for my boredom that makes me crave more of it. The whole loop starts over.

So how do we change our habit?

The way to change the habit is to hijack the habit loop! 

To change a habit, you  must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine” – Charles Duhigg

You can keep the same cue, but you can replace the ROUTINE with something else. For example, instead of checking social media, grab for a book and learn something new for a few minutes. You’ll get the reward of boredom relief, and in addition, you’ll learn something new which is a big WIN!

Changing the ROUTINE may not always work. You have to keep experimenting with different healthy routine replacement (eg running, calling a friend, taking a walk, reading a joke) until you find one that sticks.

So now what habit?

I like to guide my actions through a wellbeing assessment.

As I am a physician, I have the most expertise in changing habits that affect HEALTH. This is especially important during this pandemic. The best way to fight this virus is to stay as healthy so that we can optimize our immune system to fight foreign invaders (eg virus).

HEALTH encompasses a few aspects:

  • Nutrition
  • Sleep
  • Exercise


My favorite recommendation is 30 grams of fiber per day from 30 different fruits and vegetables for 30 days. Learn more about nutrition, check out my post on the Healthy Plate.


Sleep requires a completely different habit loop. See here for more tips on how to optimize sleep.


Getting into the habit of exercise is one of the hardest thing to do. I often feel a lot of pain with exercise as I know many of you do also.

My challenge for you:

— Identify a habit that you really want to get rid of: what is it?

— What is your habit loop around this habit?

— What is your cue? What is your routine? What is your reward?

— What can you replace this routine with?

Keep this up until 4/30/2020. Let’s see how long this quarantine lasts for!