Anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution knows how tough it can be to introduce a good habit or break a bad one. Our established routines are strong, and it is difficult to change them, which is why one study found nearly 90% of New Year’s resolutions are broken.
This can seem a discouraging figure. Is there any hope we can form new habits that last?
There is! We are creatures of habit, and when a new habit is embedded in our behaviour and routine, it will last. But getting there requires understanding how habits form. It also requires rejecting the conventional wisdom that suggests willpower and self-control are all that are necessary to form a new habit.
Forming habits is all about understanding how your behaviours and environment affect your brain. Here are ways to work with the way your brain is wired, rather than against it, to form habits that will last.
Nearly half of the things we do in a day are repeated in the same place, almost every day. You probably eat breakfast sitting in the same spot at your kitchen table, and when you take your dog for a walk, you likely take the same route most of the time. At these times, your subconscious is in control, and your conscious mind isn’t engaged.
This is good, because it lets us run on autopilot and save our mental energy for making important decisions. To form a new habit, you must train your brain to do something without even thinking about it, so it becomes a reflex rather than a conscious decision. It must become so ingrained that it is your subconscious, rather than your conscious mind, that gets you to do it.
Creating cues can help with this. Cues are any related reminders, behaviours, or visuals that nudge your brain in the direction of the habit you want to form. If you want to get out for an early morning run, for example, you could set up the cue of placing your shoes in front of the door the night before, or placing a glass of water next to your bed for when you wake up to hydrate yourself before your run. The secret is to do the same tasks at the same time so that they eventually become mindless.
Set out your workout clothes on your bed in the morning so you see them when you return home from work. Leave fruit out on your kitchen table rather than keeping it in the fridge. Create visual reminders for yourself of the behaviours you want to encourage.
Habits don’t form in isolation. They need to be tied to other related actions, and cues are those actions to get your habits forming.
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Set Small Goals
This is the first place where many people making New Year’s resolutions or forming a new habit go astray. It is exciting to set a huge goal, but you’re more likely to meet a small goal. Rather than cutting all junk food from your diet, replace one unhealthy snack with veggies. Rather than going for a half-hour run every day, start with a ten-minute run.
Your subconscious is wired to resist big changes. By starting with small changes, your subconscious is less likely to resist, and you will find it easier to be motivated to eat those veggies or go for that ten-minute run.
Slowly, over time, you can replace all your unhealthy snacks with healthy foods, and you can work up to a half-hour run.
It is also a good idea to only make one change at a time — don’t go on a major diet and try to change your exercise routine all at the same time. You will be more successful in establishing one new habit before forming another.
Avoid Triggering Bad Habits
It can be hard to form good habits because it also requires breaking bad ones. Getting in the habit of exercising more may require breaking your habit of turning on the TV when you get home from work. Reading more books may mean cutting down the time you spend on social media.
To break your bad habits, it is important to examine your behaviour and see what triggers them. Specific locations or time of day, certain actions, particular moods, and even specific people can all trigger certain behaviours. Take stock of your bad habits and see what triggers them.
For example, if passing a certain bakery on your way home makes you prone to buying pastries and blowing your diet, take a different route home. Perhaps you always have wine when meeting a particular friend in the evening — if you want to cut back on wine, suggest meeting for coffee in the afternoon instead.
If you make your new habit fun, you are much more likely to stick with it. Exercise with a friend, or listen to a playlist or podcast you love while running. Make delicious meals or find snacks that are tasty as well as healthy to replace the junk food.
Find ways of making your new habit enjoyable, rather than relying on self-control and willpower to stick with it. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’re much more likely to want to do it again.
It is more than okay to reward yourself — in fact, it will keep you motivated and on track. Celebrate a month of keeping your diet by splurging on a massage or another treat. Reward yourself at the end of run with a delicious smoothie.
It’s no easy task to develop a new habit, but by taking the right steps and working with your subconscious, rather than against it, you will be able to create lasting habits. Before you know it, you’ll be killing that 5K and forgetting there was ever a time you relied on junk food. Good luck!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Derek Kren is VP of Sales at MediKeeper, Inc., a leading provider of SaaS-based health and wellness portals. Prior to joining MediKeeper in 2013, Mr. Kren served as RVP and Vice President of Operations at Summit Health, Inc. and was instrumental in the company’s growth from startup to one of the nation’s largest providers of population health management services. A former Biomedical Sciences Corps officer with the U.S. Air Force, Mr. Kren holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology and has extensive operational, business development, and sales experience in the healthcare industry.
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