How to develop healthier habits
Are your habits supporting or hindering your health?
It can be easy to use our current habits as an excuse to making uncomfortable changes; "I've just been doing this forever, it's too late to change now", sound familiar?
What we need to understand about habits is that they are modifiable.
What is a habit? A habit is a collection of patterns and behaviors adopted by an individual that have been repeated over time. When a behavior becomes automatic it does so on a subconscious level, meaning it no longer takes any conscious effort, you don't even need to think about it anymore.
They say it takes 21 days to create a new habit however it the average is closer to 66 days (1).
The good news? Anything can become a habit, good or bad!
So let's say you want to adopt healthier habits this year, where do you start?
How to develop healthier habits
Get really clear on your vision
A ship can't get to its destination if it doesn't know where it's going.
Many people get frustrated by their results because they don't actually have a vision or the specifics of where they want to end up. The first step in developing healthy habits is having a clear cut vision that you can move toward. This must be as detailed as possible.
Why do you want to eat healthier or exercise regularly or wake up earlier or limit electronic use?
Get really clear on why you are doing this.
And it must be something more compelling than just “ I want to be healthy” or “I want to feel happy”. Find something that evokes deeper meaning for you, like “keeping up with your grandkids one day” or “creating a better future for your family” or “proving to yourself that you can create a better life".
Then create realistic yet specific goals that will enable you to track your progress as you work towards your vision, see below.
Make it specific
"Eating healthier" isn't an effective goal to set because it is not measurable nor specific. In order to be able to track your progress the goal needs to be detailed. This could look like the following:
- Exercise for 20 minutes daily
- Add a side salad or a side of vegetables to your lunch
- Try 1 new vegetable every week
- Start your day with 30 minutes of meditation
- Put your phone away 30 minutes before bed
The key is to make it slightly stretchy but also within reasonable reach for you to accomplish and keep up.
Pay attention to your thoughts
The more you repeat a behavior the more you reinforce the identity associated with that behavior. So what is your current behavior saying about you?
Now, this isn't about beating yourself up, it's about becoming aware of your current habits and why they have stuck around for you. Is there a benefit you are receiving from keeping this habit alive?
If we only change our behavior by taking action we may see self sabotage occur because we haven't shifted our beliefs and our identity which are driving the behavior. For long-term sustainable changes we must also shift our identity while we take on new action steps. This means shifting from solely focusing on the doing and paying attention to who you are being.
This starts with becoming mighty friendly with your thoughts. Did you know the average human thinks 60,000-70,000 thoughts every single day? And most of them are negative and the same thoughts from the day before. Therefore, our thoughts do create an impact on the reality of our life.
The best way to become aware of the thoughts you have about yourself and your life that may be driving your unwanted behaviors is journaling.
Start to notice what you are thinking at any given moment and at the end of the day check in and be honest with yourself, are your thoughts more positive or negative? Are they contributing to your unwanted behaviors in any way?
Once you develop awareness, then you can start to shift these thoughts to ones that are more empowering and aligned with your goals.
Take baby steps
When we attempt to bite off more than we can chew, we end up falling off the wagon.
The key to making healthy habits stick is to break them down into bite sized pieces. It may sound more enticing to write an entire book, finish a marathon, or cut out all unhealthy foods, but that doesn't mean these are realistic goals.
Be honest and ask yourself if your goal is realistic to keep up for a whole year. If not, it's probably too big and you need to chunk it down.
Examples of small steps you could start with:
- Go for a 10 minute walk
- Eat 1 vegetable at every meal
- Put your phone away 5 minutes before bed
Surround yourself with a winning community
You know what they say, you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, and it's true! Our environment has a significant impact on our habits and behaviors and this includes the people we choose to surround ourselves with.
Now this doesn't mean you have to cut out everyone in your life, but start paying attention to the people you hang out with the most and perform an audit. Are these people supportive or might they be hindering your growth?
If the answer is negative, it may be time to look for some new people, who knows you might just find the perfect accountability buddy!
It's a lot easier to take on new habits if your circle is on board and supportive of your choices. When the desired new action is the norm it becomes that much simpler to keep it going and soon enough it will become your new normal too.
Let's face it, there is no limit to the distractions we face on a daily basis in our society. From the television, phone, newspaper, snacks, to social media, we can get engulfed by distractions all day everyday, if we aren't careful.
The easiest way to avoid the junk food? Don't buy it in the first place.
Always on your phone? Set a time limit on your apps, turn off notifications, put your phone on airplane mode, commit to putting your phone away at a certain time in the evening.
The more proactive you are at removing distractions and making the unwanted behavior more difficult, the more focused you will become and efficient at getting important tasks done.
Out of sight, out of mind as they like to say!
Celebrate the small wins
Rewarding yourself for putting in the effort is an important, yet commonly missed step, for consistent implementation of healthy habits.
The brain is always looking for gratification and rewards to find out what outcomes provide pleasure and which ones deliver pain. If a reward is tied to a habit it will start to reinforce these brain pathways in order to keep activating these reward centers.
For example, when the reward neurotransmitter dopamine is activated it makes us want to keep doing something over and over again. This is why a bad habit can be so hard to break. Because the person becomes addicted to the boost in mood provided by this chemical.
The key is to make the new habit as easy as possible to implement while pairing an enjoyable activity alongside the new habit or after the habit is completed, until it becomes second nature.
This could look like listening to your favourite music, getting together with a friend, going to your favourite restaurant, reading a book, taking a walk in nature, or practicing a hobby.
Set yourself up to win by regularly checking in with yourself, acknowledging your progress, and setting up incentives that keep you motivated even on days when you don't feel like showing up.
Habit stacking involves adding a new habit to an existing habit that already has strong existing neural connections associated with it.
Instead of creating a brand new habit and figuring out when to do it, which can create an extra stress load on the brain, you are keeping it simple by grouping the tasks together.
As you repeat the behavior your brain will start to associate your existing habit to a new behavior which will be reinforced with time.
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