How to Make Your Healthy Habits Stick
From eating a nourishing breakfast, remembering to take your supplements, moving your body or getting a good night's sleep – so often we already know which healthy habits will make us feel amazing, but it’s fitting them into our lives and then making them stick which is the real issue.
We’ve all been there. Especially after a long summer of holidays and off-routine plans, you decide to set a new health goal and promise ourselves that this time it’s here to stay.
You start off feeling enthusiastic and motivated, setting ourselves ambitious goals, usually with very high expectations based on restricting a type of food or food group or a number of times you’re going to work out (without much room for anything but perfection).
The first few weeks go brilliantly, you did it – every single day without fail. But then you hit a bump in the road. A night out, a birthday, an illness or just a particularly busy day at work and your ‘willpower’ wanes. You skip that workout or meditation session. You slip up and eat the food you promised yourself you wouldn’t touch. You may even binge on it because you tell yourself you've ruined your plan. The next hour or day later, your feelings of shame, guilt and failure creep in. You feel miserable. You tell yourself you might as well just go back to your old habits for now and decide to ‘start again on Monday’.
Before you know it, a few more weeks have passed, you’ve started on Monday many more times, your life is as busy as ever and all your promises have fallen by the wayside.
This is such a common picture for many of us and yet some people seem to be able to make their habits stick. So why is it that some people seem to be able to maintain these goals whilst others are constantly ‘starting again on Monday?’. Let’s start with a few questions…
Have you ever made a promise to yourself or a new resolution to start a healthy habit and failed within the first few weeks?
Have you set yourself a great health goal, managed to do it consistently for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday but fudged it by Thursday and decided to start again on Monday?
Did you forget to brush our teeth this morning? Hopefully here the answer is no.
So…What’s the difference?
The Willpower Myth
The huge difference is that willpower, when talking about a healthy lifestyle, is a myth. Big goals don’t always lead to big changes. Motivation can be helpful as a jump off point, yet your motivation levels also change depending on factors like your mood, hunger levels, the seasons, the weather, hormonal fluctuations or your social life.
Instead of willpower, what the ‘maintainers’ have in place are small, yet consistent healthy practices or habits that are embedded into their life. So much so, these habits have become second nature. Just like brushing your teeth. No matter how tired you are or how busy your day, you’ll remember to brush them twice a day, everyday.
Behaviour change specialist Dr Heather Mckee (1) suggests rather than relying on motivation or willpower you should instead look at ‘planning power’. Aiming to plan ahead for difficult moments can give you the tools to overcome issues that would usually throw you off track; How might you act when you have low mood? What will you do when you’ve got to eat on the run? How will it change when you’re on holiday?
Having an alternative plan helps to develop approaches for when you need to be flexible in all circumstances rather than relying on your unreliable willpower.
Small habits create change
Research is also showing that rather than big changes, small, simple actions become habits that stay (2). Stamford Researcher in Behaviour and author of the bestselling book Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, BJ Fogg also tells us to think small (3). His ideas centre around creating habits that are so small, they are easy to perform regularly, building up over time. Making these simple changes then make it easier for the new behaviour to become part of an autopilot routine.
A way to begin to fit these tiny habits into your life is through a technique coined Habit Stacking’. This method simply uses strong connections you have with your current habits to create new, healthy habits.
The process begins with thinking about what small activities you already do everyday. This could be getting out of bed, making a coffee or getting on the train to work. You then use these things to attach a new small habit to.
You drink a glass of water before you get out of bed.
You meditate for 5 minutes whilst your coffee brews.
You read one chapter of a book as soon as you get onto the train.
You do 5 push ups as the kettle boils.
You take 3 deep breaths when you plug your phone in to charge.
Because these habits are small, they are easy to achieve. Eventually these small wins start to build momentum. Once you've embedded your tiny habits, you can start to add more and because they're easy to remember and complete, you’ll feel empowered to continue.
When you build habits, your brain starts to adapt and change. Synaptic pruning is something that occurs as your brain builds a strong network of neurons to support your behaviours. The more you do something, the stronger and more efficient this connection becomes.
The trick is to build in this habit consistently everyday until you don't really think about it any more. Do everything you can to make it consistent - set alarms, put it in your diary, tell people about it, make it a part of who you are now.
Celebrate the small stuff
The difficulty with this method is that it requires patience in a world where we are promised everything instantly. Crash diets, detox teas and many other questionable techniques often give fast results but with dangerous consequences. Gradual habits over time will mean that it may take longer for you to notice changes to your health happening. This is why ensuring you celebrate is important to keep you going.
Some research suggests that celebrating our small wins speeds up our ability to form healthy habits, whilst creating a positive feeling around it (4). When you celebrate the changes you make you are able to tap into the reward circuits of your brain. This then trains your brain to learn that each time you perform your activity you feel good, making it more likely you will repeat it again.
To make an even bigger difference you can share these celebrations with others. Recent studies show that people’s health behaviours tend to mirror those in their environment such as their family, friends or work colleagues (5). Ask them to support you and help you stay on track or even better, join you.
Allow room for flexibility
A ‘Healthy Life Perfectionism’ or ‘All-or Nothing’ attitude is a barrier that holds so many people back from making lasting lifestyle changes. It’s natural to have slip ups and a healthy lifestyle isn’t linear. Rather than give yourself some harsh self-talk, learn from it. Notice what happened and plan for when it will happen again.
See your healthy lifestyle as a marathon, not a sprint. It’s ok to trip and fall along the way. It’s ok to go slow. The trick is to just keep going – one baby step at a time.
The great news is that decades of research show that change is possible.