Have a plan. Choose one new healthy habit and write about it. Make a tangible plan and have a deadline.
Enlist support If you want to quit smoking, there are some great tips at smokefree.gov that you could easily apply to other habits. If you don’t feel like you have enough support, you can find a local or online group to support your new healthy behaviors with healthfind- er.gov.
Track your progress. Regularly tracking your habits on an app like MyCircadianClock will help you to keep moving forward toward healthy goals.
In Part 1 of Healthy Habits, you learned the basics about habits and what makes them tick. You were also asked to track current repetitive patterns and to identify their separate parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward. If you haven’t yet spent time doing this, please read Part 1 before continuing.
In this article, you’ll learn strategies that will help you create and establish healthy habits. Let’s break this down:
Have a plan.
If you have determined a behavior you’d like to change or a new goal you’d like to establish, then you’ve already completed your first step. Think of a maximum of three new habits you’d like to develop. Write these down in order of priority and begin with number one. It’s best to work on one at a time. Many people make the mistake of trying to overhaul their entire lives in one week, and that can backfire. It’s enough to start a new healthy eating routine without piling on trying to run a marathon and to quit smoking all at once.
When setting a goal, the research tells us that deciding on tangible, specific, and reasonable goals. Rather than saying, “I’m going to run a marathon in three months,” you might want to start with a 10k or daily walking (if you haven’t been exercising at all). Or, perhaps your doctor has told you to lose 50 pounds, and that’s great, but maybe a little overwhelming. Start with 10 pounds as your first goal, and move on from there. Next, pull out your calendar and set a date. Don’t over commit. Trying to lose 10 pounds or to run a 10k in one week is unreasonable. In the losing weight category, it’s best to go slow, about one to two pounds per week. When it comes to exercise, if you don’t build on your fitness gradu- ally, you may injure yourself and be unable to reach your goal. Review what seems like a reasonable amount of time and write it on your calendar, and/or add it to your online calendar, so it pops up as a reminder each week. Write it on a sticky note and put it on your fridge, bathroom mirror, your computer monitor, or somewhere else that it’s visible. This seems like such a small step, but writing down your goal will make you more accountable to it.
Consider reasons and roadblocks. Write down the reasons you want to lose weight or stick to another goal. It’s essential to tie your goal to something that matters to you. Something along the lines of “I want to be a good example for my kids,” or “I want to keep up with my friends,” and even the classic, “I want to look good for my high school reunion,” can tie you internal motivation that will keep you committed to your goals. Finally, don’t forget to contemplate obstacles that might occur and solutions that will help you overcome challenges. If you think you might get too busy for a workout, for example, plan ahead by putting it on your calendar.
Tell your close friends and family what you are doing and why. Ask them to help you by giving you posi- tive kudos whenever they notice you sticking to your plan, or agree that you’ll send a daily text or email report of how you are doing. There may be some people who sabotage healthy living. Maybe they mini- mize the goals you seek to achieve, or perhaps they are examples of unhealthy living that you’d rather avoid. It’s okay to prioritize your own health. If you are looking for other types of support, consider en- listing the help of professionals. If you want to quit smoking, you can find some great tips at smoke- free.gov that you could easily apply to other habits as well. You can also find encouragement from a local or online support group such as those found at healthfinder.gov.
Begin the New Routine.
Now it’s time to start your new habit. Take it one step at a time. Let’s say that you want to begin by im- proving your diet. Don’t try to overhaul your entire menu all at once. Instead, look at the biggest offend- ers first. If you drink regular soda, sugary energy drinks, or calorie-filled coffee drinks, this is a great place to begin. Start by emptying your kitchen of any of these sugary drinks and additives. Restock your fridge with calorie-free bubbly water, herbal teas, and unsweetened coffee. When you get the urge to have one of your sweetened drinks, make a cup of tea, or have bubbly water. This will take some work at first, but soon the cue (the urge for the sugar) will become a desire for some herbal tea. Once this new pattern feels secure, move on to the next routine you’d like to recreate. Do you give in at the vending machine at work every afternoon? Commit to taking a route that will bypass the junk-filled apparatus. Walk around your building, get a cup of water, or make yourself a cup of herbal tea. Take each new phase gradually. You can do this by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, switching from saturated fats to olive oil, and so on. Do one small step for your health this week. Each week you can add another step to your plan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer some helpful tips for improving eating habits here.
Here’s another example of creating a new routine: Let’s say that your current method includes you men- tally promising yourself that you’ll workout tomorrow. You tell yourself you’ll go to the gym after you get off work. Then tomorrow comes, and by the time you get home from work, you feel too tired, and so you promise yourself again, tomorrow I will work out. Sound familiar? To make a new behavior happen, it helps to take action now. Pack a gym bag right now and put it by the front door. Don’t forget to include a full water bottle, towel, shoes, and clothes. Take your bag to work with you (don’t just leave it in your car) and keep it visible all day. Having the bag as a physical reminder will help you to follow through on the new behavior you want to establish. Then, instead of heading home after work, go to the gym. You might not feel thrilled about going to the gym, but in a few days, you’ll be surprised how much easier it is to get to the gym.
Play a few mind games.
Your thoughts can make or break new habits. If you find yourself thinking, “I can’t,” or “I don’t want to,” quickly shut it down. If you find yourself returning to such thoughts, review the goal you first wrote down and take a few minutes to think about why these thoughts persist. It could be that you’ve set too big a goal, maybe someone else is feeding into your doubt, or that you’ve failed in the past. Take some time to write about these feelings and your goals. See what comes up and assess these thoughts and your goals. Once you’ve identified what needs to be done—adjust your goal, eliminate the negative person, or identify what you are doing differently from the past—get back to work. It can also be as simple as rejecting the “I can’t” for an “I can.” It’s also helpful to take a one-day-at-a-time approach. Just for today, you’ll go to the gym and eat healthy. Tomorrow morning you can recommit. You can also cut your goal down to even shorter segments. You commit to going to the gym, but tell yourself that when you get there, if you don’t feel like working out, you’ll go home. When you get to the gym, tell yourself that you’ll do 10 minutes, after you’ve done 10 minutes, see if you feel like doing 10 minutes more.
Track Your Behavior.
Numerous studies show that keeping a written or online journal of a new healthy habit can help solidify a new behavior and reduce an old unwanted one. There’s something reinforcing about regularly keep- ing a simple diary or journal, or tracking what you are eating and your exercise on MyCircadianClock. When you choose to do something tangible like monitoring your behaviors, your mind becomes more conscious and motivated to keep moving in that direction.
After two or three weeks, sit down and review what you first wrote as your goal. How are you doing? Do you still want to proceed in the same way? Have you noticed something that you’d like to address? Are you ready to add a new routine or ramp up the phase of the habits you’ve started?
You can use the above strategies repeatedly to begin new habits or to readjust and add on to the habits
you’ve already started. In Part 3 of Healthy Habits, you’ll continue building strategies that will help you to maintain healthy habits for the long term.