We've all been there.
You set a goal (often for January 1st) to be active several times a week (or stop eating chips in front of the television). By February, you feel fatigued by your commitment, or you aren't meeting your goal as often as you would like. Instead of beating yourself up for your lack of self-discipline, let's talk about what might be missing from your attempt to create a healthy habit. You can't "do better" if you don't know how to put your goals into action.
What is a habit?
The precise definition of a habit is a routine of behaviour, or something someone does often without much thought. A habit is regular, repeated and largely unconscious. Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, breaks down the components of a habit as a cue, the trigger that tells the brain to retrieve a particular routine, the routine itself and then a reward. Over time, according to Duhigg, the cue and reward create a sense of anticipation even craving so that your action is almost automatic.
For Gretchen Rubin, "habits mean we don't strain ourselves to make decisions." She talks about forming good habits in her book Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits - To Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build A Happier Life, which calls habits "the invisible architecture of everyday life."
Why is it so hard to create healthy habits?
Many people think it takes willpower and self-discipline to create a healthy habit. When they don't succeed at stopping an unhealthy routine, or starting a new one, they get frustrated and even mean with themselves. Part of the problem might be what Rubin identifies in her book, because we are all so different, a habit formation ritual that works for one person may not resonate with someone else "Once again, I saw that when people frame their habits in the way that makes the most sense to them, they succeed better." It's not enough for a health professional like myself to say, "here's how you cut out alcohol." You need to have a reason that resonates.
This frame is what I like to refer to as your "why." Having a strong reason for adopting a healthy habit, a reason that is personal and will help keep you motivated, can be the difference between success and failure. Simply adopting "I want to go to the gym regularly" because you know other people have enjoyed healthy living by adopting that habit, isn't going to get you through the door. But having a reason such as "improving my cardio so I can run with my kids," well that is more likely to sustain you. Gretchen Rubin identifies two types of clarity that is necessary for habit formation: clarity of values and clarity of action. "The clearer I am about what I value, and what action I expect from myself -- not what other people value, or expect from me - the more likely I am to stick to my habits."
So what can I do to create healthy habits?
The first step might be clarifying your values and connecting with a strong why that can act as a motivator, and that directly relates to the reward. Sometimes our (bad) habits serve us, by offering up the reward that we need, but we can begin to replace a bad habit with a good one when we can accomplish the same reward, but with a new healthier routine.
Set specific goals and determine priorities. According to Deepak Chopra, visualizing your desired outcome can be a powerful tool in helping you stick with the new routine. Then, as Chopra says, the actual formation of the habit will "take repetition and focus."
Lasting habits are also those that accompany a change in beliefs or your mindset, not simply the adoption of a new routine. Don't let yourself fall into negative patterns of doubt and "beating yourself up" -- this is where the visualization can be really helpful. Begin by identifying the ways in which you "let yourself off the hook." Gretchen Rubin calls these "loopholes" and states that it is a natural human behaviour to seek loopholes, like the "lack of control loophole" that allows us to forgo the desired routine because we believe "circumstances" got in the way. Instead of letting yourself off the hook, remain consistent and focused. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
Set deadlines for yourself to keep on track. And allow yourself to revel in the rewards of completion. Make your mind notice these -- the feel-good you get from the gym, the way your body is changing -- these are all great for internal motivation.
And finally, the most important change you can make is to focus on creating habits with resonance: they have to make sense to you.
Here are some healthy habits I recommend:
- Get physically active -- at least 30 minutes, three days a week
- Control portion sizes
- Get adequate sleep and develop a night-time routine that establishes healthy sleep
- Engage in a routine that allows you to quiet your mind (like meditation or deep breathing)
- Express gratitude
What are some of your suggestions?