How to form healthy habits that stick

As we herald in another new year, many of us are committing to new health and lifestyle goals for the year ahead. But while we start out strong, as many of us know, it’s hard to make them stick and really go the distance.

The good news is that it is possible to form a new healthy habit, with work and repetition.

So we ask the experts why it’s challenging to stick to our new year’s health and lifestyle resolutions, and what strategies we can use to create successful, lasting change.

Recognise and value the upside

It’s important to consciously recognise and value the upside, according to Julie Sweet, a psychotherapist at Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy.

“The advantages of making simple, positive lifestyle changes easily outweigh staying in our comfort zone,” she says. “While the process can be challenging for many, the benefits are endless.”

These can range from a stronger sense of self, to physical changes such as increased energy and positive sleep patterns. These benefits can also lead to more motivation and less anxiety or depression, she says.

Do it for yourself, not for others

An essential step to achieving permanent behaviour change is to think about where your drive or motivation comes from. The most effective strategy for establishing a successful new healthy habit is self-motivation.

"It’s harder to change our behaviour if our motivators are feelings of guilt, fear, or regret," says psychologist Charlette Khanania.

"For behaviour change to be successful and long-lasting, it needs to come from a positive place rather than a sense of obligation to others," she says.

Keep changes small and simple

A good place to start is to take a look at your current habits - what changes can you make that will positively affect your daily life? What will give you more energy, clarity of thought, purpose, drive and happiness?

This might include focusing on:

  • What you eat and drink
  • Your sleeping patterns
  • Your physical activity
  • Your relationships or connections with others, including friends and family.

Making small changes to simple aspects of your daily life can have an immediate and lasting impact. For example, consistently eating at least one more portion of fruit or vegetable a day or aiming for a couple of extra hours of sleep a week can make more of an overall impact than you realise.

Find what works for you

Everyone is different, and the experts agree that there’s no “one size fits all” or magic formula for achieving successful behaviour change.

Sweet suggests taking a cautious view of timelines, such as the popular 21 days theory  . “Don’t get me wrong, these timelines are a good place to start, but more as a kick start to changing behaviour, rather than the final stage.”

A good way to form a new habit is to think of it as a response to a need. Many of our habits are a shortcut to comfort - for example, binge-watching TV if we’re stressed or need some “down time” at the end of a long day. If you stop and think about how you feel when you’re watching TV, you might find that going for a walk or catching up with friends is more rewarding, or better for you in terms of addressing your underlying need.

Recognise it’s a process

An effective way to view change is as a process rather than a single event. Khanania says there’s a series of steps involved in making a change and forming a new habit.

There can be up to five stages involved in this process, including:

  1. Pre-contemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Preparation
  4. Action
  5. Maintenance

As each stage prepares us for the next one, skipping a step may also result in setbacks. So, think about where you’re at on this journey, she says.

Break it down into actionable steps and plan ahead

To achieve your new habit, try breaking it down into small actionable steps. For example:

  • Change one thing at a time and be specific. Instead of your goal being ‘to exercise more’, make your goal ‘I want to run 5km within 8 weeks’.
  • Start small. Instead of pushing yourself to run 5km straight away, try walking regularly before building up to running. Small changes have more chance of becoming a habit you’ll keep.
  • Be flexible. Your new habit needs to fit in with your lifestyle, so find what works for you. For example, you may find that running with a friend helps to keep you motivated, or perhaps running is easier once the kids have gone to bed in the evening.
  • Build on what you already do. This could be as simple as walking to the next bus stop instead of using the one closest to you.

Khanania says, it’s also essential to think about the practical ways you can stick to your goal, so plan ahead. “If your goal is to stick to a low-calorie diet, have a plan in place for quelling hunger pangs. For example, keep a bottle of water or a cup of tea nearby, or chew sugarless gum.”

Learn from set-backs, and persevere

Reassuringly, the experts agree that skipping a day on your path to a new habit makes no difference to your overall success. In fact, by examining why it didn't work, it could turn into a positive. "Use what you learned to adjust as you continue the path to a healthy lifestyle change," says Khanania. "Any effort you make in the right direction is worthwhile."

Try viewing changing your behaviour as a way to learn something about yourself and recognise it might not work the first time. For example, you may find the initial strategy didn't fit into your life or suit your priorities. See it as a process of learning, but persevere and don’t give up.

Reset and restart as many times as you need to

It’s important to recognise that we can achieve our goals with hard work, discipline, repetition and perseverance. This means it’s ok to reset and restart as many times as you need to.

If your sports gear starts to gather dust in February, rather than feel guilty and reach for the chips, just spend some time thinking about “why”. Take the time to reflect and reset, and be kind to yourself in the process. With continued perseverance, support and practical strategies, you too can forge new healthy habits that stick.

Julie Sweet is a psychotherapist at Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy. Charlette Khanania is a registered psychologist.

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