If you’re like most people, you have good intentions and want to make healthy choices but it’s not always easy. Changing deeply ingrained behaviors is no simple task, as evidenced by the fact that most people who make New Year’s resolutions abandon them before February, if not sooner.
It would be nice if we could snap our fingers and have a mindset where we looked forward to every workout and craved the taste of broccoli, rather than a plate heaped high with French fries – but it’s not that simple. Why is it so hard to make healthy behavior changes and how can you shift the odds in your favor?
Don’t Be Greedy with Your Health Goals
One common mistake even well-intentioned people make is to tackle too many goals at once. You commit to exercising every day, not eating processed foods, and getting more sleep – all at once. That’s a lot to focus on at one time. No wonder so many people can’t follow through!
Rather than commit to doing all of these things at once, choose one healthy goal to focus on at first. Then break that goal down into small, easily achievable steps. Instead of planning a complete diet overhaul, start by adding one more vegetable to your diet consistently. Once that’s become a habit, make another small dietary change. Isn’t that the way you reach any goal – one step at a time?
The same with exercise, if you’re just starting out, don’t commit to an hour a day of exercise. Your chance of not following through is higher when you make drastic changes to your lifestyle. Then when you can’t stick with it, you’ll feel discouraged and defeated. Start small with a 10 or 15-minute workout and gradually work up to longer ones. Small victories build confidence and keep you motivated towards achieving your big health goals.
Be Realistic and Specific about How You’re Going to Get There
To achieve any goals, they need to be realistic and achievable. If you work 40 hours a week and have a family, devoting an hour a day to exercise may not be practical or sustainable. Recognize this limitation ahead of time and plan for it. Get up a little earlier in the morning and work out first thing. Keep your workouts shorter and more intense when you have less time. Don’t get discouraged if you have less time some days. Pat yourself on the back for doing something and try to do more next time.
Be specific with your goals. Vague goals are too open-ended and unstructured, and your brain likes structure. Vague goal: I will lift weights for 30 minutes a day. Specific goal: I will do 3 sets of 5 lower body exercises one day and 3 sets of 5 upper body exercises on alternate days. Once you’ve made your decision, write down the exercises you’re going to do so you have a blueprint to follow. When you do this your chance for success will go way up.
Think Beyond the Moment
One reason people fail at creating healthier habits is because they focus on a single moment rather than the bigger picture. If you attend a meeting at work and they’re serving brownies, you might reach for those brownies without thinking. Instead, learn to look at the bigger, long-term picture. Sure those brownies might taste good, especially if you’re hungry, but remind yourself of your bigger goals are and ask whether eating those brownies will help you achieve them. The more you do this, the less likely you are to give in to short-term temptations. Make sure you’re prepared for situations like this with your own healthy snacks.
Know Why You Want to Achieve Your Health Goals
Why DO You want to become healthier? Be specific. Are you hoping to have the strength and stamina to do the things you enjoy? The more in touch you are with the “whys” of what you’re doing the more likely you are to achieve your health goals. Hint: Research shows you’re more likely to stick with a healthy habit like exercise if you focus on the immediate benefits, like how good you feel after a workout, rather than longer term goals like weight loss or looking better in a pair of jeans. When it becomes challenging, remind yourself of how good exercise makes you feel and why you wanted to get healthier in the first place.
Don’t Eliminate Bad Health Habits, Replace Them
When you eliminate a bad health habit, it creates a vacuum that needs to be filled, and, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum. Make it easier on yourself by replacing an unhealthy habit with a healthful one. If you eliminate soft drinks from your diet, substitute another beverage like tea. Create an experience around your new, healthy habit. Learn all you can about different types of tea, sample different varieties, and make the tea-drinking experience enjoyable by sipping tea out of a beautiful cup. That’s just one example, but it can apply to almost any bad habit you’re trying to change. Find a healthier substitute that supplies similar gratification.
Change is an Ongoing, Non-Linear Process
Just because you decide to make a change doesn’t mean getting there will be a straight line. Any time you commit to change, expect setbacks. Change is often three steps forward and one step back. You’ll have periods where you overindulge, eat the wrong foods, don’t work out for a few days etc. When you deviate, the key is to get back on track without beating yourself up. Too many people have an “all or none” mentality. If they flub up, they give up. You may fall out of your good habits occasionally. Forgive yourself and get back on track as soon as you can. See change as a learning process and approach it with curiosity and an open mind. You’re learning how your mind works!
The Bottom Line
Changing lifestyle habits is never easy but it is rewarding. Understand that changing the way you eat and starting a consistent exercise program can be a gradual process that you take one goal at a time. Don’t beat yourself up, get discouraged, or quit when you have a setback.
Science of Us. “Don’t Try to Break a Bad Habit — Start a New, Better One Instead” February 19, 2015