How to Start Any Healthy Habit (And Actually Make It Stick)
Chances are, you can identify at least one practice that would affect your health and/or happiness that you’re not currently engaging in. Whether it’s exercise, eating well, or emptying the trash, knowing something is good for us isn’t necessarily enough to compel action.
Through working with clients to help them create and maintain healthy habits, I've learned that recognizing the benefit of something and planning to make it part of your life is only half the work.
The key to sustainable success is learning to outsmart your excuses and building a structure to sustain and support those strategies.
How we do anything is usually how we do everything. If you struggle to find time in one area of your life, you probably deal with it in other areas, too. Believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing. It means that as you make progress in one area, you’ll experience a ripple effect in every area of your life.
For example, we all know that meditation is one of the best things we can do for our health, happiness, and productivity. Despite that awareness, most of us have difficulty finding time, remaining consistent, or even getting started. We tell ourselves, “I’ll have more time later,” or “I’ll skip today and do it for twice as long tomorrow.” Or, if you’re anything like me, you find a million seemingly “productive” things to do instead of sitting down and simply taking action.
So, how do you actually make a lifestyle change that’ll last?
Here are the three most common excuses keeping people from changing their lives, and my strategies for getting past them once and for all:
1. “There isn’t enough time.”
No one finds time to do things they don't really want to do. It doesn’t matter how life-changing the benefits, how sick and tired you are of feeling sick and tired, or how much money you’ve already spent on a solution. It isn’t about “finding” time. It's about choosing to make time. Here's how:
Make sure you have an accurate assessment of how long you’ll need.
Most of us assume tasks take less time than they actually do. For example, going to a yoga class takes more time than the class alone. Factor in the time it takes you to get dressed, pack your mat, get to class, get home after the class, and shower afterward.
Do an audit of how you're currently spending your time.
Once you have an idea of how much time an activity will take, you’ll need to shave some time off other activities to make space for this one.
Schedule the activity in your calendar like you would any other appointment.
We block out time for meetings and dates, so why not do it for your self-care, too?
2. “I’ll skip it now and do twice as much later.”
People who tell themselves this do one of two things: They either do it now or later or they vacillate between doing nothing and doing too much. I call the latter “the binge/purge work style.” If this sounds like you, the key is to set yourself up for success by doing the same action at the same time for the same amount of time:
Set limits for the minimum and maximum.
For example, if your goal is to start journaling, set a timer daily for the least and most amount of time you’d like to write. This way, you have an attainable goal (such as 10 minutes) of daily action to build the habit. The later timer (say, 25 minutes) serves as a limit in case you find yourself engaged in the activity. While it’s great to be immersed in what you’re doing, the trick is to stop yourself when the second timer goes off. Building your consistency muscle comes from taking small steps on a regular basis instead of taking one large step every six months.
Choose resourceful beliefs over ones that have kept you stuck.
If telling yourself “I’ll do it later” has gotten you less than desirable results in the past, it’s time to start telling yourself a different story. Rather than slapping an affirmation on it, validate the feeling and come up with a positive solution. For example, you could tell yourself “I may not be in the mood to go for a run, but waiting to get in the mood hasn’t helped me to achieve this in the past. This time, I’ll go for a short run and see if I feel differently.” Allowing each part of you to have a voice (the part that is resistant and the part that wants change) will create the resourceful beliefs that lead to lasting change.
3. “I just can’t start.”
Stop the “productive procrastination” and just do it.
All the actions we take instead of the new, uncomfortable action are our procrastination loopholes. If your aim is to cook at home and you don’t want to wash and cut vegetables, it can often feel like there are a million other things that suddenly need to get done. Sure, doing laundry may seem more “productive” than bingeing on Netflix, but ultimately, neither activity is getting you closer to your goal. Starting a healthy habit is about taking deliberate action. This comes down to task initiation, aka “just doing it.” So how do you simplify, prioritize, and take action?
Ask yourself a filter question.
When you find yourself doing everything other than the action you’d like to take, ask yourself “Is this getting me closer to or further from my goal?” Then, act accordingly.
Play mind games with yourself.
Set a timer for seven minutes. Tell yourself that you’ll take action for seven minutes and if after that you still don’t feel like doing it, you’ll give yourself permission, guilt-free, to stop. For most, simply getting started is the biggest challenge.
I often have my clients email me before they take action and after they complete it. Not only does this allow me to encourage and troubleshoot challenges in real time, it also creates an added layer of accountability. Often, we need support to get the ball rolling until things become a habit. Reach out to a friend and offer to bookend actions for each other. Not only will you be more likely to take action, you’ll get the added bonus of supporting a friend in achieving her goal, too!
New results come from taking new actions. If you’re ready to make a change, create a strategic plan that addresses the obstacles you’ve had in the past and the new behaviors that will lead to lasting results. Not only will this help you to achieve this goal, it will give you the strategies, motivation, and beliefs to create success in every area of your life.