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Why do we struggle to get started building healthy habits for ourselves?
We know how to get in shape. We know we need to eat less and move more.
We know how to exercise, get up, walk, do some yoga, or lift weights.
We know how to eat healthily, add more vegetables into our day, take out sugar, watch portion sizes.
But somehow we can’t bring ourselves to do it.
The things that sabotage us are simple really, the minute you tell your brain you’re going to restrict what you eat it goes into survival mode and craves everything.
Life gets in the way and we slip back into our old patterns.
We don’t arm ourselves with the right tools to keep going.
Or we try to do it all far too quickly and make it difficult for ourselves.
If you’re coming at this from ground zero then you’re setting yourself up to fail, at all of it.
Don’t forget it probably took years to get where you are now. I’m not saying it’ll take years to reverse, but it’ll definitely take more than 5 minutes.
Stop looking in the mirror to see if you lost your muffin top yet. It’s only been 2 weeks.
Also, let’s be honest. It’s hard. I much rather be in bed dreaming about sitting at a bar on a desert island than pounding the pavement at 5.15 am. But I know that after my walk I’ll feel much better than if I’d stayed under the covers. Also, my body will thank me for it in spades.
What is a habit?
The Oxford dictionary defines a habit as
“a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up”
It is something that we just do without having to think about it. is
What a habit is not
A habit is not a goal. A goal is something you want to get to. You might have a goal to lose a set number of weight, or maybe to have enough money to go on that dream holiday.
A goal can become a habit because you’ve decided to keep going with no end goal in mind but as it starts out it isn’t a habit.
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How long does it take to create new habits?
Maxwell Maltz who wrote Psycho-Cybernetics famously said
it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.
Notice, he said a minimum of 21 days. That quote over the past few decades, like in the game of Chinese whispers, went through a process of change to be a statement that says “it takes 21 days to form a new habit“.
Studies show that on average, it actually takes 66 days to create a new habit.
And that can vary greatly, depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.
So how do we go about changing an old habit or building a new habit?
Know your big ‘why’
Your big why is your reason. It’s why you truly, deeply want what you’re creating healthy habits for.
It’s not enough to think that taking time to exercise most days is something you should be doing. If you’re getting up early after years of sleeping till 5 minutes before 8 o’clock then running out the door with a banana in one hand and your hairbrush in the other and making a mad dash for the bus without knowing your ‘why’ then you’re screwed.
When you have a reason with emotion behind it, you’re more likely to want to see it through.
When you answer the question “why do I want this?”, then again ask “why?”, to the answer. Keep asking until your answer feels real and deep, with emotion behind it.
For example I had a client finally tell me “So my husband will notice me.” She was in tears by the time she arrived at that answer.
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The anatomy of a habit
If you’ve read Charles Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit you will know there are 3 parts to forming a habit.
- The cue or trigger
- The routine or action and
- the reward.
The reward makes you want or need to go again, hence it becomes a loop.
How to break old or bad habits
To break old habits, you first need to know your cues or triggers. For instance:
It’s Friday night at seven o’clock – trigger
I pour a red wine – action
I feel relaxed – reward.
If I had to break that habit I would need to have a different action after the trigger. One that also gives me a reward. Here’s the trick. The reward needs to be greater than the one your replacing it with. Maybe I turn on my favourite show, or instead, I have a glass of kefir or kombucha and I get to enjoy the thought that I’m being healthy.
Build new healthy habits
Now, what if you want to build the habit of walking every morning before work?
The alarm goes on Monday at 6 – trigger.
You get up, get dressed in your workout clothes you laid out the night before and put on the walking shoes you left by the door – action.
You get back and feel refreshed, ready for the day and proud that you’ve done your exercise – reward.
Build the cues or triggers first
Have a think about habits that you already do every day and use one of those as a trigger. It’s called habit stacking. Tying a new habit to one that you already do makes it easier to remember.
Examples might be:
- Getting out of bed
- Brushing your teeth
- Making breakfast
- Putting the jug on to boil
Or you could use a visual reminder. Your workout clothes laid out would be an good visual reminder.
Or schedule the time for your habit in your calendar. Of course you need to have a habit of checking your calendar before this one will work.
Now work on the actions
For bad habits you need to make it as hard as possible to get to the action. Unplug the T.V., throw out the junk food, remove social media apps from your phone.
- For good habits it’s the opposite. Make it super easy.
- Have you smoothie ingredients pre prepped in a bag in the freezer
- have you walking shoes by the door
- keep a water bottle on your desk.
Next the reward
To replace bad habits you need to be able to understand what the reward you’re getting does for you.
Do you drink to block out a bad day?
Do you eat sugar because you’re bored?
Do you watch TV endlessly because you’re lonely?
Let’s look at the bad day. Maybe you could chat to a friend instead, or go for a brisk walk, take a bath, allow yourself to read 10 pages of your favourite book.
It kind of works the same for building good habits. When I walk in the morning I come back and make myself a green tea and have it with 3 brazil nuts (selenium) and a piece of organic crystallised ginger. That’s my reward. Maybe yours is to have a healthy smoothie. Whatever is your thing.
But whatever you do, don’t reward your walk with something like a piece of cake. You’ll be creating one more bad habit for yourself.
You could reward walking all month with a new pair of walking shoes. Or your healthy food prep with new food prep containers. Who doesn’t love a bit of container organisation. It’s my version of pretty notebooks. Not that I don’t have heaps of those lying around too.
If you can, get some accountability. A buddy to walk with you, a group to do food prep with. Someone to push you out of bed at 6 am.
Work on one habit at a time and wait until it’s habit before starting a new habit.
Some examples of habits you might like to work on:
- Good sleep habits
- Healthy eating habits
- Habits that help you to lose weight such as regular strength training.
- Develping a morning routine that runs smoothly
Make it hard to not do the habit
You could build some bad consequences into NOT doing the habit. I’m just happy letting my guilt drive me nuts but what if you told yourself if you don’t walk today you have to get up early on Sunday and do it. That might make you think twice about missing.
I’ve got to that lovely place that if I miss one day there is no guilt because I know I’m consistent and one isn’t going to make a difference. That for me is a reward in itself.
Remove obstacles that will stop you from doing the habit.
If you are trying to lose weight by eating salads for lunch then meal prep on the weekend so all your lunches are done for the weeik giving you much less opportunity of filling up on unhealthy snacks.
The most important thing when creating a new habit
Don’t try to build a habit you really, really don’t want to do. You’ll never achieve it.
Choose something you quite like doing. I always liked walking, hiking etc so I don’t mind getting up to do it. It’s my time to be present and set my intention for the day. I wasn’t so fussed on weights but I wanted to feel strong and build muscle so that was my driver. If you hate swimming then cycle. Whatever peaks your interest a little.
If there is something you have to do and you hate it. Cleaning comes to mind. Do something you enjoy while you do it. When I’m cleaning I listen to my audio books. I haven’t had time for reading for a long time, this year I’ve managed to listen to some of the books I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Including The Power Of Habit which has been sitting on my bookshelf in physical form for forever.
What if you could watch your favourite netflix series while on a treadmill or exercycle. How much quicker the time would go too.