Old habits are hard to break. Our society has a magic bullet fixation, waiting for the next miracle drug to cure us of every ill. But rather than feeling upset by what our society has become in regard to treating the sick, the focus should be more about getting individuals to take charge of their own wellness by taking steps proactively to avoid reaching the sick part.
You might imagine that this can be a considerable challenge since we are each physically unique and most of us are different in our pattern of bad habits and poor lifestyle choices. More than 40 percent of American adults make a resolution to live a better life each year, and fewer than half keep their promise to themselves for longer than six months. Our habits and conditioning are hard to break, but the key is that the power to break a habit belongs to you and it is definitely possible. The change actually happens when we give up unconscious behavior and adopt conscious new patterns. But how do we change behavior we aren’t actually conscious of?!
Once your mind begins to pay attention, your brain can build new neural pathways to reinforce what you learn. Much is made of the brain’s ability to change and adapt—the actual term is called neuroplasticity. It has always been true that applying awareness in any form, through such things as resolve, discipline, good intentions, and mindfulness has the power to create change. The practical dilemma isn’t how to make your unconscious brain listen, but how to use your strengths to help yourself remain committed to wellness as a lifetime pattern.
Start With Cognitive Goals
Changing poor lifestyle habits is rarely easy, especially if they comfort you and you receive some kind of enjoyment out of them, such as smoking or overeating does for many people. You need a strong vision of what you want to achieve in order to succeed. When people set out to improve their health, they often think about what actions they should take. Like, eating better, meditating, exercising more…but the truth is that getting healthy starts in your head first.
What I mean is that first, you need to change your mind. Changing one’s mind means you have cognitive goals before taking action. This is the time where you gather information, think about your options, consider the benefits of change versus staying the same, and map out how you might best integrate new healthy behaviors into your life. It’s a reflective time. At some point, you’ll feel ready to take an action step forward, and the cognitive work you’ve done will pay off. You will have thought out what actions you should take and why you truly want to take those actions. Without taking the time to really plan and think about why this is important to you, you will set yourself up for failure.
While you are doing this thinking, write down your unhappy triggers. This is a list of the times you feel unhappy or most agitated—fighting a futile battle to get back to sleep or feeling guilty for ordering dessert when you know it’s not something you needed. Writing it down with pen and paper is part of the process, don’t skip this part. Identify your biggest challenges, such as getting to bed on time, reducing food portions, resisting sweets, choosing the couch over the treadmill, and so on. Doing this will help your mission take shape and direction.
Next, write down your happy moments. This is a list of the things that give you joy and satisfaction, for instance, spending time with your family or enjoying a favorite hobby. Actually envision in your mind what it feels like to resist ordering dessert or to spend half an hour walking outdoors. Appreciating and sending gratitude towards the happy moments in your life is a source of strength as you embark on your habit-changing path.
Remember that you can’t tackle every bad habit you have all at once. You might pick what’s most important or maybe the first logical step and start from there. Or you might find the smallest obstacle you see and face this one first. Having success at the beginning of your journey will help you get over the next habit you will take on and so on.
Long Term vs. Short Term
Short-term solutions, like seven-day cleanses or 21-day nutrition challenges, are designed to produce rapid results and at the very least jumpstart healthy living. They are great for selling to gym members who want to see lasting changes happen quickly. But they’re often not feasible for lasting in the long-term.
You must commit to the habit you’ve decided to adopt and keep on doing it long enough so that it “sticks.” The length of time will vary according to how motivated you are to change, as well as your willingness to let go of immediate gratification or see profound results instantly. They say it will take on average at least 66 days to make a habit (that number varies a lot depending on the person).
Don’t fool yourself either, you should expect minor disappointments as you transition from the formerly sedentary lifestyle to the new more active person. You should expect your journey not to happen in a straight upward line, but more of an up and down zig-zag of slow progression. Once your designated activity or behavior starts to feel normal, you’ve successfully managed to incorporate the routine and develop a sound and new healthy habit.
The key to getting healthy isn’t about living your ideal self for a few weeks then reverting back to your old ways. It’s about creating sustainable change. Consider behaviors you can adopt that you’ll more likely stick with over time. This way, your efforts won’t be lost, and you’ll feel the true benefits of change.
Baby Steps Win
This may be hard for those who lack patience or really like instant gratification (me!). Because contrary to everything you might hear in flashy advertisements, slow and steady will win the race. It’s the small incremental steps that are the best way to move towards your goals with success.
If you’re trying to get more physically active, start with a short walk around your block a few times a week. If you want to reduce stress, try meditating once a week. You may think this sounds easy because that’s the point, it is. Over time, you will increase your efforts and enjoy the benefit of these healthy activities without feeling that the journey was such a struggle. Before long, you’ll be walking miles three or four times a week, and meditating every morning, it will just happen one day. Don’t lose sight of this, because when you find yourself there, you’ll want to remind yourself where you started and then throw a big YOU party to congratulate yourself!
Every effort you make towards getting healthy is meaningful, but some actions will help pave the way more directly. For instance, I’ve recommended in the past that someone park farther away from the grocery store because it’s a small step and seems helpful since your intent may be to increase the amount you walk per day, but at some point, the benefit reaches a plateau as you can only park so far away and shop so often.
An alternative strategy is to identify a long-term goal that you want to work toward, such as spending 1 hour at the gym 4 times a week. Then develop small steps that you can build upon to reach that goal.
- Step 1: Find a good at-home workout routine.
- Step 2: Work out for 20 minutes once a week.
- Next steps: Add more time and days, and so on…
These first action steps don’t hit plateaus or are they going in the wrong direction, rather they are building towards getting you closer to your larger goal. Celebrate each milestone along the way and you’ll look forward to them as you progress. We may not remember, but we didn’t just stand up one day and start running, we had to crawl first.
Motivation Isn’t Going To Always Be There
Motivation is essential when trying to build healthy habits, but we also know that it can wax and wane. You can’t always depend on it because some of that initial motivation will wear off so you’ll need other systems in place to keep you on track.
The key to getting through low motivation is to anticipate and set up strategies in advance to help you cope. Post reminders for yourself around your house, ask for social support from someone and create backup plans. The best way to keep going is to remind yourself that motivation can plummet and that you just need to roll with it and keep going. The motivation will return, especially as you start to feel the benefits of your new behaviors.
Accountability To Yourself
People tend to work harder when they feel accountable to someone. Whether it’s a coach, mentor, friend, family member, or workmate, having others to report to can provide that necessary push you need to get stuff done. If you have this option, by all means, use it! But ultimately know that you are responsible for your own behavior.
There is no more powerful accountability partner than yourself. Rather than relying only on others a more successful model is to set up a system whereby you regularly track your own progress. Ask yourself what helped you succeed versus what might have caused you to get off track. Reward yourself when things go well and don’t beat yourself up when they don’t. Remember that this a jagged up and down line towards progress, not a straight one. While it’s helpful to have accountability partners, recognize that it is you who has the most knowledge and experience to set yourself up for success. Take responsibility for your actions – failures, and successes. As a human, you’ll likely find both, and both have a purpose.
Find Your Happy
A healthy life shouldn’t feel like so much damned work. If it does, then you’ll likely not stick with your new behaviors for too long. This is probably why you chose the life of ice cream and channel surfing in the first place. It’s easy and you liked it!
Keeping this in mind, rather than taking some generic route to health, figure out what you can do to support a healthy life that also fits your personality, and empowers and excites you in some measurable way. When you design your life around things you love to do – activities that are uplifting and fun – it will stop requiring so much effort. Once you find the joy in living healthy, that’s when the lifestyle will stick.
What if you don’t enjoy cooking or even working out? There are creative ways through these feelings. It takes some cognitive thinking and also openness to change. Instead of saying you don’t enjoy cooking, how about saying, what can I find enjoyable about cooking? Maybe you’ve never really learned how and that lends to your dislike of doing it. A cooking class or a few culinary books might be just what you need! Working out is hard and you don’t enjoy sweating. Maybe you say instead, that I made it through that workout and even though it was hard, I completed it! Perhaps, instead of disliking the sweat, you can focus on the nice enjoyable shower you get when you get home? Find your way to make it work and sound positive, just like you talked yourself into having that ice cream!
Change will always be sticky and challenging but if you take the time now to really think this through, you will most likely find long term success in building new healthy habits planted with care – that will blossom into your new life and stand as building blocks for all that you wish to achieve.