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  • Sherry

Forget Resolutions, Build Habits

Updated: Mar 30, 2021

As we welcome the New Year, there's a tradition to set resolutions. Resolutions to improve one's health - exercise more, eat better or stress less - are among the most common. Unfortunately, what is also quite common is that resolutions are quickly abandoned, often within days or weeks.

As a health coach, I get super excited when someone wants to set resolutions to improve their health. So please don't let me discourage you from this, however, what I'd like to offer up as a suggestion is that you replace resolutions with habits. Resolutions are well and good, but without a plan to make them happen, the chances that you'll be among the 80% that abandon their resolutions is very high.

Habits, those things we do automatically, without having to think about it, are the holy grail of permanent lifestyle changes that lead to better health. It is estimated that about 40%-45% of what you do on a daily basis is based on a habit. Now imagine if you could make even 10% of those habits that improve your health.

In order to leverage the power of habits, it's helpful to understand a little bit about how they are formed and the inner workings of our brain. A habit breaks down into 3 steps, otherwise known as the habit loop. First is the cue. This is the trigger that initiates the habit. Next is the routine, the actual behavior or action we take that is the habit. The final step is the reward - the beneficial, desirable or pleasurable outcome that results from the habit. We can see this loop playout in common habits like brushing your teeth before bed or making your morning coffee. The cue for brushing your teeth is time of day and the decision to go to bed. The routine is the actual tooth brushing and the reward is the minty fresh clean mouth feeling, coupled with the knowledge that you are preventing a future visit to the dentist for a filling. Similarly, the cue for your morning coffee is walking into your kitchen after waking up. The routine is brewing the coffee and the reward is the first sip of warm liquid and the ensuing burst of energy from the jolt of caffeine.

Wouldn't it be great if we could make daily exercise a habit just like drinking that first cup of coffee? Or eating more vegetables as routine as brushing our teeth? The power of habits has huge potential to shape our lifestyle and subsequently our health. And the good news is that building habits is relatively easy.

Here are my top 5 tips for building and sticking to healthy habits.

  1. Start small. Identify a small, simple, behavior based action that moves you toward the outcome you want. Ideally you want it to take as little time as possible - just a few minutes. Once you've established the routine and felt the pleasure of success you can incrementally build on the habit. It may seem like it's not enough, or that progress is too slow, but making healthy habits stick is best achieved via small, incremental changes made over time.

  2. Make the habit something that can be practiced daily. Doing something once or twice a week only gives you one or two opportunities for practice. On the other hand doing something daily offers many more chances for repetition and reinforcement. This is especially critical in the beginning when building a new habit. The commonly held and erroneous belief is that it takes 21 days to develop a habit. Turns out the average duration is closer to 66 days, and is more closely linked to the number of times the behavior is repeated or practiced and not a specific number of days.

  3. Focus on the reward. The craving for the reward is the reason something becomes a habit. Turns out that it's the reward, the agreeable or pleasurable outcome, that imprints the habit into our basal ganglia, the part of our brain responsible for auto-pilot mode. Without the reward, the behavior is just one of the several hundred you might perform over the course of the day and clearly not all actions can become habits - otherwise we'd all be robots! 😊

  4. Find an accountability partner. Most of us are more likely to follow through and do what we say we are going to do, if we've made a promise or commitment to someone else. Being intrinsically motivated is noble and keeping commitments you make to yourself is important. However, there's nothing wrong with giving yourself some additional support to boost your chances of success. Knowing that someone else will be checking in on you adds a layer of accountability, a small nudge, some extra incentive and this is especially valuable when the road gets bumpy and you are confronted with challenges.

  5. Learn from your missteps. Don't expect perfection. You will not be 100% successful from the very beginning. You will encounter problems and situations you hadn't anticipated. After all, if it was easy you'd have done it by now - right? The key when you encounter a challenge is to acknowledge that you've hit a bump, and then engage your problem solving abilities and decide what you will do about it. Don't simply shrug it off. Instead, reflect on what happened. Ask yourself what you can do differently the next time. Then put that action plan into place.

Ok, so let's break this down with a few examples. We'll take those common resolutions and identify how we can build habits to support them.

Let's say that your resolution is to exercise more. Or, more accurately, start exercising since you aren't currently doing any! 😊 A way to start small would be to take a short 10-15 min walk after lunch before returning to work. This is something you can do 5 days a week. And on weekends, why not take a mid-afternoon or post supper walk so that you get daily practice. The habit loop cue is finishing your lunch. The routine is going for the walk. The reward? Upon returning to your desk you pause and observe how refreshed and energized you feel. Then you place a check mark on your calendar and look back at all the check marks from previous days acknowledging and reinforcing the success you're having with building this habit. Accountability comes in the form of a FitBit friend with whom you have a friendly competition to meet your daily targets. And on those days when you don't go for a walk, you take a few moments to identify the reason why and then determine what you can do differently next time. Perhaps the weather prevented you from getting outside, so instead you plot out a course through your office building that will at least get you walking around for 10 minutes.

How about a resolution to eat better? A small starting point could be bringing lunch to work instead of eating out or skipping lunch altogether. To make it even easier, you've determined that the simplest and most convenient option is to pack leftovers from supper. The cue for your habit becomes cleaning up after supper. As you clean up, you pack up some of the leftovers for lunch, and while you're at it, you also pack some for your spouse. To reward this behavior and imprint in on your basal ganglia, you reflect on the fact that not only are you doing something that will help you reach your goal, you are also showing a kindness to your spouse. And see how we've cleverly built in accountability? Of course there will be days when there are no leftovers to take and that's ok, remember that we aren't after perfection. Instead ask, what other quick and simple options can I take for lunch? Maybe you write down a list of ideas and keep them as a handy reminder. Or perhaps you cook up a big batch of soup, stew or chili on the weekend and put a few extra servings in the freezer for when it happens again.

What about a resolution to stress less? How about starting your day by writing down your top 3 priorities - the 3 "must-do" things you will accomplish today. The reward could be the satisfaction of stroking the item off your to-do list when it's done. Or, if we focus even smaller, the reward could be that second cup of coffee after having created the list. Of course eventually we want to actually complete the items on the list, presumably because getting that done is what is going to reduce the stress. However, keeping the initial action small and building the habit incrementally will result in longer lasting success. From an accountability perspective, you go for coffee with a co-worker and you've told him/her that you can't go for coffee until you've identified your top 3 priorities. There will be days when you get to the office and something demands your immediate attention. No big deal, as soon as you can, write down your priorities. Miss a couple days? Reflect back and see if you can figure out why you've been unable to follow thru with your habit. Maybe it's that there's always something demanding your attention first thing and that a better strategy is to write down your priority list at the end of the day in preparation for the next day. The first attempt to build a habit isn't necessarily the one that ends up working best for you.

Can you see how habits are more powerful than mere resolutions? What habits will you start today to support your 2020 resolutions?

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