Have you ever started a new diet or exercise program, only to slide back into your old routine a few days or weeks later? What about when you want to try a new medication or supplement- do you find yourself forgetting to take them?
You’re definitely not alone! The challenge of creating new healthy habits is something that is just part of the human condition- we all understand the struggle of trying to get out of the rut and do something new.
You see, our brains are hardwired for routine, and in general, we tend to stick with things that are either the least amount of effort, or give us the highest amount of benefit. But the benefits I’m talking about are the biological, short-term ones, which is why it feels so dang good to eat pizza and stay in sweatpants all day. Science!
However, if you’re like me, you’re always looking for ways that you can take better care of yourself, and really boost your healing to the next level. Self-improvement is a popular goal these days, but it really is a way of life for anyone dealing with chronic health issues. The thing is, I know that my body has the ability to heal itself, the only problem is in shifting out the bad habits that hinder that healing and replace those with more positive habits that enhance it. And trust me, I’ve certainly got a handful of not-so-great habits I’m still working on changing. But all in all, I have been able to create and solidify a lot of wonderful routines over the years, which I credit for a lot of my healing (and sanity!). For each and every one of those positive changes, I relied on these seven keys to make ‘em stick:
1. FIND YOUR “WHY”
Too often, we fly into a new routine without ever clarifying why we are actually doing the things we’re doing. But those who take the time to slow down, visualize their goals, and set positively-worded intentions are much more likely to be successful in changing habits. When you think about what you want to change, find the motivation behind it and put it into words- do you want to have more energy? Start meditating every day? Lose 10 pounds? Have a strong and resilient immune system?
Then go a step further and clarify what achieving this goal would allow you to do. For example: “I would love to get deeper sleep, so I can feel calm and energized every day, which would allow me to revisit my favorite hobbies, and be more present for those I care about.” OR “I would like to lose 20 pounds, so I can feel more centered and comfortable in my body, which would give me the confidence to find a new job and start dating again.”
Setting an intention for any new habit puts power behind your behavior, and provides an anchor when you feel tempted to go back to your old ways. I recommend writing down your “why” and putting it on your fridge or bathroom mirror.
2. KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS
When it comes to our neural pathways, we tend to be reactive to both our inner and outer environments. Most of us have a specified reaction to certain stimuli, which we call “triggers”, especially when the result is something undesirable. We may not even be aware of many of our triggers, but there are always clues to follow.
When you can really tap in and apply some mindfulness, you might discover that your urge to eat donuts always follows a stressful interaction with a certain person, or that you tend to skip your yoga class when the weather is bad. Identifying the circumstances that lead to the habitual behavior you want to change is the best place to start, because you can learn to anticipate and plan for these events!
3. PLAN AHEAD
It’s always smart to have a plan B in place, especially since we humans are so good at coming up with excuses for why we “can’t” change our bad habits. Take a few minutes to devise a strategy to stay on track, whether that’s buying healthy snacks in bulk, keeping your gym clothes in your car, or stashing an extra bottle of fresh water in your bag. If you struggle with taking meds, get a pretty pill case to keep on your desk/nightstand and set a reminder on your phone, or if you find yourself slipping with your meditation practice, get an extra set of headphones and pack them along with your lunch for your midday break.
When you can look ahead and make it easier to stick to your new routine, you’ll not only have more success but you’ll feel better about yourself too!
4. RECRUIT A BUDDY
Yes, accountability actually does work! And luckily, nowadays, there are so many diverse options for hooking up with people who want to make new habits, just like you. It’s awesome if your partner/roommate/parent/friend wants to join in, but if you don’t have someone close that wants to take on the same diet or go to sleep at the same time, you can always find a great online community to help you. There are forums, private Facebook groups, Instagram communities, and online memberships of all kinds where you can connect; and of course, there are in-person meetup groups and clubs dedicated to supporting each other’s health goals. There are also plenty of health coaches like me, ready to keep you on track!
No matter what you are looking to shift in your life, you should have someone on your side to help you along!
5. TRACK YOUR PROGRESS
Our brains have a sneaky little way of forgetting how far we’ve come over time, and adjusting our expectations to meet our new reality. Sadly, this can make us feel discouraged when we can’t remember how things used to be. It’s amazingly handy to keep track of all the great changes you’re making, so you can look back and give yourself a well-deserved high five now and then. You can go old school with a paper journal and pen, or you can use a digital diary, a tech-linked app on your phone, a computer program, or something else.
There are so many options, especially when it comes to apps, but the ones I like the most are part of the Growth Bundle (for iOS). Whether you prefer digital or analog, you’ll thank yourself when you can really see how awesome you’re doing!
6. GO SLOWLY
I admit, I struggle with trying to take on too many changes at once, and then failing miserably at all of them! It’s important to set realistic goals and only focus on trying to shift one thing at a time. Let’s face it- change is hard! Don’t make it harder on yourself by overwhelming your mind and body with a bazillion new things- you won’t actually be able to banish all of your bad habits in a few weeks, no matter what your impatience says. If you want to make lasting change for the better, and support yourself for a healthy lifestyle shift, go slowly.
Identify one unhelpful habit that will be relatively easy to change, to give yourself a boost of confidence. Then tackle a harder, higher priority habit next.
7. REWARD YOURSELF
You can go ahead and skip the “your new behavior should be a reward in and of itself” blah blah, and plan to reward yourself when you’ve reached certain goals. Our minds crave rewards, so it’s a good idea to throw yourself a little something in order to reinforce your new healthy behaviors. Keep in mind, though, that the best rewards are the ones that don’t undermine your progress (e.g. treating yourself to cake to celebrate a week free from refined sugar), and the ones that have lasting value (e.g. indulging in a meaningful experience rather than a cheap trinket). Find the rewards that resonate with you, and work those into your habit creation.
When you give yourself little things to look forward to, you’re more likely to maintain enthusiasm and stay on track until your new habit becomes a regular routine!