CREATE HEALTHY HABITS FOR LIFE
Make those good intentions permanent
Believe you can make the change.
Have you ever noticed how surprisingly easy it can be to start a new habit? Once you’ve made a decision to walk more, listen to your body or eat healthy foods, you find a boost in enthusiasm that makes those first couple of days a cinch. But then, as time passes and the initial excitement fades, it can often take so much more effort to put on those trainers and walk out the door.
In that moment, instead of asking yourself, “Why even bother?”, give yourself the mental equivalent of a highfive, because this is all part of creating a new habit. Dr Helena Popovic, a medical doctor and expert on how the brain can influence your body, explains that this resistance doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means you’re on the right track.
“Creating a new habit is like getting a car that’s been used to driving on the highway and taking it off-road. The minute you go off-road, there are more bumps, it’s a lot slower and harder, and you have to concentrate a lot more. And that’s exactly the same in our brains. When we create a new habit, we are simply forming new connections between brain cells,” says Dr Popovic.
“The first thing to realise is that resistance is part of the territory. People think that if something is hard, it’s not meant to be. But that difficulty is normal. What we often don’t realise is that every habit – helpful or unhelpful – is created through repetition.”
And that’s the destination we’re heading towards: we want to keep repeating an action over and over again so we don’t even have to think about it anymore. Here’s how to ease the challenge of doing exactly that, in order to leave your brain space available for more interesting things, like daydreaming about a famous Chris (Hemsworth, Pratt, Pine, Evans – now you have time to decide which one).
Piggyback a new healthy habit off another habit
This isn’t cheating, it’s being smart. The idea is to attach a new habit to something you already do, according to Dr Popovic. “It becomes so much easier to create a new habit if there’s something
you’re already doing that you can link it to,” she says. For example, if you want to improve your self-talk by repeating an affirmation such as, “I like and value myself, without comparing myself to others.” Dr Popovic suggests linking the affirmation to brushing your teeth. If you share a bathroom and feel self-conscious having the affirmation stuck to the mirror, you might keep a flower on the sink to remind you to say your affirmation. “That kind of habit can establish itself in a couple of weeks,” Dr Popovic says.
A study in the British Journal of Health Psychology showed similar results. The researchers found that attaching a new habit to an existing behaviour, combined with a positive attitude and the ability to remember, led to better habit formation. In fact, for people who wanted to floss, they were likelier to still be doing it eight months later if they flossed after brushing their teeth rather than before.
Believe you can change
Speaking of affirmations, if you believe you can change, you have a much higher chance of sticking to a new habit. A study published in the journal Health Psychology showed that people were more likely to regularly attend a walking group if they were optimistic about their ability to continue with this healthy behaviour, even after relapsing. So if you find yourself missing a walking date with friends, don’t take that as evidence you’re destined to never be fit. Instead, treat it as just one missed day, then book in a date for the next one and start looking forward to it.
Don’t just ditch an old habit; replace it
“When it comes to breaking a habit, it’s much easier to swap a habit than to drop it, which creates a vacuum,” says Dr Popovic. “Again, let’s take a basic example. If you want to stop drinking soft drinks, replace it with another drink. This is going to be much easier than just not drinking it at all.” You might replace it with soda water and lime. Or, if you want to drink less coffee, you might replace your caffeine craving with a pot of herbal tea.
Make yourself a habit sandwich
Adding a new habit in-between two existing routine activities will also help increase your chances of making it stick, according to Dr Popovic. “An example of interposing a habit between activities is if you always drive a certain route, and you know there’s a park along the way, you can stop there and do a bit of exercise,” says Dr Popovic.
This is exactly how WW member and this month’s fitness star Lorena Antoun hit her daily step targets. She would walk every morning after dropping her son at school and before arriving back home.
Cassandra Dunn, a clinical psychologist, has these three tips to keep you going.
1. Start small and make one little change at a time.
Trying to overhaul your whole life all at once can deplete willpower but willpower is like muscle – it gets stronger with use – so exercise it in small bursts.
2. Forget motivation and focus on consistency.
Consistency means doing things at the same time and same place, as much as possible, so that your brain starts to associate these things with the behaviour and it becomes automatic.
3. Remember your ‘why’.
It’s the bigger-picture reason for making changes that will help you stay on track when the day-today effort feels tedious or difficult. Having a bigger goal or reason to inspire you to keep going can help you hang in there until habits take hold.