It’s arguably pretty easy to make short-term changes to your health: giving up alcohol for Dry January, forgoing chocolate for Lent or smashing your first month’s gym membership, say.
But we all know what really counts is making those positive changes last. Here’s what I’ve learned from experience and following leading behaviour-change scientists (clue: it’s not about willpower).
There’s a reason my online programs and sign up form, asks you to address your health, fitness and mindset in three five-minute brainstorm sessions. It’s because the latest science of successful behaviour change tells us that if we want to create new habits, it’s essential to start easy. Stanford University psychologist BJ Fogg tells a story about how he turned the chore of flossing his teeth into a habit by starting with just one tooth. He made it a task that took hardly any effort, willpower or motivation. Yet after finishing one tooth, he found he just naturally wanted to do another. And then another. Within a month he was automatically flossing all of his teeth twice a day.
Decades of research into behaviour change has found that if we want behaviours to become habits, they should take minimal mental or physical effort. This means they’ll require less motivation – useful, because motivation naturally goes up and down over time.
Connect change to an existing habit
Fogg knew what he was doing. He found one daily automatic behaviour that was already well established – brushing his teeth – and hooked the new flossing habit up to it. Makes sense, doesn’t it? We’re all busy people, so new activities are going to fit much more easily into our daily routine if we don’t need to find extra time for them. Think about the various transition points or existing tasks in your day. What new habit could you piggyback onto something you always do without thinking about?
Respect your rhythm
We all have natural daily rhythms and will feel more inclined to do certain things at certain times. First thing in the morning your system is full of the hormone cortisol that helps you get up and attack the day – so this could be the perfect time for a five-minute HIIT session to kick-start your metabolism for the day. In the evening, levels of the sleep hormone melatonin are higher so you might find it helpful to work with this natural slowdown by writing in a gratitude journal or doing some gentle yoga.
Design your environment
We’re all hugely influenced by our environments, so make sure yours reflect the healthy habits you’re trying to create. Reduce temptation in the kitchen by getting rid of tempting treats and restocking with nutritious, filling and tasty snacks and drinks. Create easy exercise opportunities by putting a step next to the kitchen counter and a dumbbell by the kettle, so you can do a quick exercise ‘snack’ while making a cuppa. Leave a foam roller or exercise band behind the sofa so you can do a short stretching or strength workout during TV ad breaks. Tweak your bedroom to facilitate good sleep: get rid of or cover LED lights, put up blackout blinds, ban devices and treat yourself to a nice eye mask and some earplugs to make bedtime as dark and quiet as possible.
Celebrate the wins
Don’t be afraid to pat yourself on the back or give a little cheer every time you make a healthy choice. Celebrating in this manner is highly effective. The more intense the positive emotion you feel alongside your new behaviour, the quicker you will turn it into an automatic habit. Just think, when you are feeling low and eat a chocolate bar, you immediately feel happy. This helps to lock in this behaviour so every time you are feeling low, you have a craving to reach for that chocolate bar. We can use the same psychology to help us install healthy behaviours.
As well as the positive self-talk, I find it really helps to give yourself another hit of pleasure with a visual reward. For example:
- Count beans or pebbles into a jar.
- Put stickers on a wall chart.
- Put ticks on a calendar.
- Keep a daily diary or training log.
- Use an app (there are good apps to log things like alcohol- or smoke-free days, steps taken, food eaten and so on, so it depends what your goal is).
You’ll soon start to crave these small moments of victory and feel bad if you miss them. When this happens, you’ll know your healthy-living programme is starting to stick.