If you’re like most people, the promises you made to yourself on January 1st and your enthusiasm to eat better, exercise more, and generally make better decisions, have all but faltered by now. Although your motivation and effort was well-intended, the strategy may not have been sustainable. Change is tough and taking a sledge hammer to old beliefs or implementing a radical strategy are not always the best ways to develop healthy, lasting habits.
To understand what works, it’s important to have a basic understanding of habits. Most behaviors, good and bad, become automatic or habituated over time. For example, tying a shoe is probably something you do without any thought whatsoever. You most likely can do it blindfolded. That is, essentially, habit. Similarly, reaching for junk food is a behavior that becomes reinforced and happens almost like a reflex. But healthy and productive habits like eating better or exercising more often, can be developed with proper care.
Here’s what to do:
- Watch your language. So often the way you think and talk informs and influences your actions and behaviors. For example, if you’re trying to eat healthier and you tell yourself, “Don’t eat junk food,” that will serve as a negative command. In much the same way if I say, “Don’t think about a zebra with pink and blue stripes.” One has to actually think about what a zebra would look like in order not to think about it.
- Think about what might stop you? Ask yourself, “What might possibly get in my way of doing this?” If you anticipate and troubleshoot possible resistance or stoppers then you can devise a way to counter them. By acknowledging an excuse before it happens, you’ll weaken it and it no longer will hold power over you. For example, if you want to go to the gym every morning before work yet you feel you’ll never get there, think of all the reasons or potential road blocks, prior to devising a schedule. “It’s too early,” “I’m too rushed in the morning,” and “I’m lazy” are just a few common stoppers. Counter them with an actionable plan such as “I’ll go to sleep 30 minutes earlier and get up sooner so I have time to exercise.”
- Start with small and easy. You want to set yourself up for success, not failure. Setting up small tasks that you can actually accomplish will help to reinforce behaviors that support the goal as well as provide you with a sense of control. For example, if you’re trying to get into shape and are embarking on an exercise program, introduce walking briskly for 10 minutes a day for the first week and then increase it from there. Or if you want to eat healthier foods, don’t start with a complete makeover. It will be too much to get used to all at once. Rather, cut out one unhealthy item and add something better such as an apple or vegetable.
- Use triggers to your advantage. Triggers typically are thought of as being related to a negative or unhealthy habit like someone who smokes only when they drink alcohol, or someone who eats chips while sitting in front of the TV. Just as a stimulus can trigger a bad behavior, it can lead to a positive behavior. Set up a new, healthy behavior while watching TV-maybe it is eating carrots, or stretching. This new, healthier behavior will soon become habit.
- Understand your motivation. People are motivated usually in two ways: 1.) to move towards something positive and desirable or 2.) to move away from something negative. For example, someone who wants to drop a few pounds, tone their body, and look great in a bikini is working towards something positive: looking and feeling good for swimsuit season. Whereas the person who is out of shape and leads an unhealthy lifestyle-but doesn’t do anything about it until his doctor warns him that his health is at great risk and he could drop dead-is motivated only by the potential negative consequence of not doing something. What’s your motivation? Are you moving towards something positive or away from something negative? The former is far more powerful and lasting.
- Make it convenient. Things that are easy are more likely to become routine. Brushing teeth, shaving, and grocery shopping for most people are habit. By organizing our lives we’re able to accomplish these mundane tasks without much resistance or problem. Imagine if you had to travel an hour to grocery shop? It would be harder to accomplish and stick with. That said, if you want to join a gym, make it close to home or work and get prepared by having the proper clothing and equipment. If you want to eat healthy, then prepare a few meals in advance.
- Start early. Most people have more energy earlier in their days after a night of sleep and are less likely to have excuses that could arise later in the day. Take advantage of this by scheduling new tasks in the morning. I recommend allowing 30 minutes in the morning for self-care such as exercise, stretching, or reading.
- Make it fun. By making a behavior fun you’re more likely to stick with it. We protest and reject hard, laborious, and unpleasant tasks and embrace those that are fun. If you dread the gym, then try to find a fun exercise program. Maybe it’s an outdoor boot camp, or biking along a scenic route. If you want to develop better eating habits but don’t like the taste of health food, then take a cooking class. These usually have a social component, are fun and provide good information for tasty treats.