Do you follow the same routine every morning? Most of us wake up and do our morning ritual as if on autopilot. Our morning habits are so ingrained that we don’t stop to think about them. But what if you want to change your current habits that no longer serve you and replace them with healthier ones? It’s not always easy to do. Even if we perform certain behaviors for a few days, there’s a high risk of falling back into old, less healthy habits.
In fact, in terms of New Year resolutions alone, at least 80% of them don’t stick. Despite well-meaning intentions, people gradually drift back into their old, “safe” habits until another year passes, and it’s time to make another list of resolutions that don’t last.
Why is it so hard to make positive lifestyle changes and make them stick? It takes more than good intentions and a decision to change what you do from a lifestyle standpoint. In the early stages, the lifestyle change you adopt is not yet a habit. Habits don’t become embedded in our brains overnight. In fact, researchers say that it takes around 21 days to adopt a new habit. Once that habit is formed, your body does it almost unconsciously, and it’s easier to stick to.
How can you help the habit-forming process along and ensure that you’ll stick with it? Here are some ways to make those healthy lifestyle habits stick.
Break a New Habit Down into Tiny Steps
One of the biggest mistakes people make when adopting a new habit is that they make it too large and intimidating. For example, if you want to begin strength training, it would be a mistake to plan an hour-long strength-training routine more suited for someone who’s been training a while. When you’re a beginner, start small, even if it means doing five push-ups on your knees and five bodyweight squats.
By taking tiny steps and succeeding at doing them you build up confidence and feel positive about sustaining the new lifestyle habit. Once you set a goal, break it down into smaller steps and then break it down again. The smaller, the better and the more sustainable. Tackle each step and pat yourself on the back when you succeed.
Know Why You Want to Do It
There has to be a driving force behind the health goals that you set. Otherwise, you’re less likely to sustain those healthy habits. The reason you want to do it should be specific and tied to something you value on an emotional level. For example, you might say “I want to build strength so I can stay healthy and be able to be active with the grandchildren.” Research shows people are more likely to stick to goals that have meaning at a deeper level. Exercising or adopting a healthier diet to lose weight won’t cut it. Dig deeper and ask yourself why you want this healthy habit to become part of you.
Arm Yourself with Cues and Visuals
Seeing progress is motivating! Keep a fitness journal so you can track your progress. When you stick with your new habit for seven days, reward yourself with something you enjoy for positive reinforcement. Post the chart on the refrigerator with checkboxes and place a check every time you do the desired behavior. You can always use an app to do this too, but you don’t need technology. Seeing your visuals every time you open the fridge door is an effective way to keep it fresh in your mind.
Use visuals to overcome inertia and excuses too. For example, lay your exercise clothes beside the bed so you see them as soon as you wake up. Put them on before you wipe the sleep out of your eyes. Some people even sleep in their exercise clothes! You don’t have to go that far but having a visual reminder increases the likelihood that you’ll do the desired behavior.
Patience, patience, patience! As mentioned, it takes 21 days, on average, for a habit to become ingrained. The more you repeat a habit or lifestyle behavior, the more embedded it becomes in your subconscious. That’s what you want! Keep hammering away at it until your brain recognizes it as an automatic behavior.
Also, if you enjoy engaging in a particular lifestyle or habit, it will be easier to sustain. Find ways to make a new, healthy lifestyle habit more pleasurable. For example, if you want to eat more plant-based foods, buy a new recipe book and try some innovative recipes. See if there is a local vegetarian restaurant in your area that you could try. You’re more likely to be patient enough to sustain a habit until it sticks if you’re having fun.
Finally, make sure you have the right mindset. If you think change should happen before you put the work in, you’ll get frustrated fast. Know that positive changes take time and that you have to consistently reinforce your chosen habit to make it stick. Keep focusing on the healthy behavior you selected until it becomes a habit.
Don’t Make It All or None
Have you ever experienced this? You committed to working out or performing some other healthy lifestyle habit and something comes up that keeps you from doing it for a few days. Then, rather than picking back up where you left off, you get frustrated and give it up entirely with a vague promise to pick it back up in the future. Plan for things to come up and accept that there will be days you can’t exercise or that you might have to eat something less than healthy. If you can’t follow through on a new habit for a few days or weeks, get back on the wagon as soon as you can. Don’t use it as an excuse to quit!
The Bottom Line
Forming healthy habits takes patience and consistency. Hopefully, these tips will help you make healthier habits that will stick!
J Subst Abuse. 1988-1989;1(2):127-34.
Forbes.com. “The Science Behind Adopting New Habits (And Making Them Stick)”
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