One of my patients recently told me that after years of making New Year’s Day resolutions – which typically failed days later – she would start her resolutions on March 1. And why not? I liked her creative approach to addressing an age-old problem –she was reframing a legacy of annual fails by shrinking their power and giving herself time to consider the path forward, on her timeline versus society’s. But, as we all know, converting healthy thoughts into healthy habits, especially ingrained ones, is easier said than done. But as the saying goes, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. So, what’s on your health upgrade to-do list? And what’s your plan to make those new habits stick? Here are a few thoughts to help inspire and motivate you to start laying the groundwork for making positive changes in the months ahead:
Learn how you learn – and focus on successes.
When working on developing a new health habit, one size rarely fits all. You need to pick what works for your needs, tendencies, and tolerances so you can establish the habits that work for you – and succeed at maintaining them. Think about how you learn, how you take in information, your physiological needs, personal preferences, what phase of life you’re in – and use that specific intel as you develop the new habit. Then, think about past achievements; when you’ve overcome a problem; or simply discovered a new skill or talent. Remember those successes. Too often we focus on what went wrong rather than the hundreds of things that worked. Look at the common threads from the wins and apply those lessons to the road ahead. Don’t discount your fails though – they’re an important part of the learning process – and don’t let past fails interfere with creating a healthier future. as Medicine Cards authors Jamie Sams and David Carson have said, “Honor the past as your teacher, honor the present as your creation, and honor the future as your inspiration.”
Get your head in the game – and keep it simple.
A classic derailer of the best intentions? Trying to take on too much, too soon. When you’re working on developing new habits, focusing your energy is part of the process. Work on developing one or two new healthy habits at a time, and feel good about your growing skills. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to change everything all at once. Pull one corner of your life together and be OK with other aspects being less than orderly, for now.
If, for example, you’re having a bad romance with dietary bugbears like sugar, processed foods, alcohol, etc., perhaps quitting all of them at once isn’t the best path forward for you. Think triage – as in, which is the most urgent, and then work your way down the list. For example, if you’re cutting out sugar, start reducing the amount you use every day. If it’s needed, swap in healthier alternatives like raw stevia, and then, eventually phase it out so in time, you’ll grow accustomed to the taste of real, whole, unadulterated food. To help you get going, check out these sugar-kicking tips.
Haven’t gotten much exercise recently? Going to the gym 7 days a week will very likely put you on the express track to injury and giving up. While the go-hard-or-go-home approach may work for some, most of us need to pace ourselves. Commit to working on one habit you want to upgrade at a time. Try tapering off one substance or bad habit, start swapping in a better one, and keep at it until you’re comfortable with the new behavior, then move on to the next.
Embrace baby steps because they add up.
Let’s say you have so many things you want or need to change, you don’t know where to start. Think baby steps. Start with the single easiest thing you want to change, or the healthy habit you want to develop most. It doesn’t matter where you start or the order you proceed. Take as long as you need, be it a few weeks or a few months – and keep in mind the old idea that it takes 21 days to develop a new habit simply doesn’t hold water. In fact, one 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that the average time it takes to form a habit is about 66 days and can take as long as 254 days!
Remember, patience and perseverance are key. How to know if you’ve created a new habit? Well, if you have to think about a behavior, consciously choose to do it, or talk yourself into performing a good-for-your-health act, it’s not a habit yet. To make it one, keep repeating the healthy behavior for as long as it takes to become second nature.
Build on a successful foundation.
What I’ve found in watching patients upgrade their health habits is that there is a common pattern. One small success, and one happily ingrained new habit, paves the way for the next. Slow and steady wins the race, because with each healthy change, you win back some energy and clarity and gain confidence in your abilities. That track record of success (no matter how small) provides momentum and spurs you to take on the next healthy habit on your list.
In fact, science tells us that once a habit is developed, it works effortlessly for you, partly because the brain loves habits. When lifestyle choices become habitual, they are automatic. This frees up energy for the brain to focus on more meaningful things and helps override the urges toward negative habits.
Use bite-sized chunks to make change feel more do-able.
My own clinical experience, and that of my amazing health coach team, has shown us what helps patients make—and stick to—positive, health-giving changes. And sometimes, the answer is startlingly simple. As we guide patients towards making positive changes, the idea is not to push, bully, judge, or focus on things that are out of reach. Simply by asking patients, “What do you think you can do today?” helps them set the pace and break down the goal of better health into bite-size chunks. For example, asking a patient to tail off breakfast cereal and switch to some eggs a few times a week. Taking an active break from the computer with a ten-minute walk or running an errand on foot instead of taking the car. Taking three deep, meditative breaths before getting out of bed in the morning to start the day feeling calmer and more balanced. Taking a hot bath at night to encourage better sleep.
This level of personalization and practicality leads to success because that single new habit will often lead to widespread lifestyle upgrades – it’s the behavioral equivalent of compound interest. The more you do, the more you’ll want to try, making success infectious in the best possible way. The opposite is true too – shooting for the stars and frequently missing the mark reinforces the idea that you can’t get where you want to go. So again, be kind to yourself and think small, manageable, bite-sized and ultimately, do-able.
Think in terms of positive pairings.
To start forming and ultimately ingraining new, healthy habits, try pairing something you love with the new habit you’re working on. By adding that enjoyable element, you’ll make it easier to flip the mental switch from ‘no freakin’ way,’ to ‘OK, let’s do this,’ eyeroll optional.
Hate chopping veggies? Do it while hanging out with the family or better yet, draft them to chop with you. Not a fan of lifting weights? Shop around by doing a ‘free trial’ tour of online classes that use only your body weight to build your strength. Once you find one that speaks to you, sign up and commit. Short on time? Then look for 10-minute workouts and/or 30-day fitness challenges to get you back into a movement groove. Keep forgetting to meditate? After your morning shower, towel off and do a 5-minute meditation before you shave or brush your teeth. Can’t seem to assemble a truly healthy breakfast in the morning? Prep everything for the morning after dinner tonight. Remove the barriers to entry wherever you can. Think less pain, more gain.
Ingrain new behaviors – while also keeping yourself honest.
To really help make those new habits stick, one of the easiest ways to support their development is to invest in the process – and be accountable. To do that, two excellent options are: 1) wearable tech devices and 2) health or accountability coaches. For those who learn best with reminders, real-time data and metrics, wearable tech is the way to go. If, however, you learn better with one-on-one support, then a health coach or accountability coach is an excellent way to help you monitor your progress and stay on track. While both options have their pluses, if you have multiple bad habits to break and new ones to develop – and you don’t want to spend much time discussing the items on your healthy habit agenda – then the convenience of automation via wearable tech may be the better choice for you. Another option? Do both. Using wearable tech for the simpler challenges, and a live coach to help develop solutions with you for the tougher ones.
Build your healthy habits one victory at a time.
The idea is to build your new habit(s), slowly, step by step, cheering yourself on and rewarding yourself as each new healthy habit becomes part of your normal flow. Make it easy to say yes. Keep your running shoes on to remind yourself to go for a walk. Let an Apple Watch or Fitbit nudge you when it’s time to do some stretches. Set an alarm to remind you to start prepping yourself for bed. Train yourself to think outside the box, applying some of the problem-solving skills you use every day on the job to your non-working life. A recent case in point was one of my business-guy patients who came up with this creative solution: despite regular brushing, his dentist insisted he also start using a water-pik and get more consistent with his flossing routine. To help get himself into a regular groove, he listened to comedy podcasts while brushing, flossing and water-pik-ing. He lifted his mood and significantly upgraded his dental hygiene (his dentist is delighted too). Truly a win all around.
Practice makes perfect, even when you’re not.
Let’s face it, we’re human, and often there are bumps in the road that can trip us up. And when we ‘fall off the wagon,’ it’s often hard to resist the siren call to just give up altogether. In a word, don’t! When and if you backslide, remember it’s a temporary lapse, not a permanent condition. Don’t let it become one – just remind yourself to do better next time, and keep your eyes on the healthy habit prize!