Healthy Habits: 15 Strategies to Keep Them

1. Ask Yourself “Why?”  – Perhaps the most important step in breaking bad habits is to make sure you’ve chosen ones that you, personally, want to change.  This ensures that you’re doing it for the right reasons.  Is this bad habit something you want to change, or something that someone else wants you to change?  If you determine that it’s really for someone else, reconsider.  Although research does support that people can still benefit when forced to change–for instance, when court-ordered to AA meetings or treatment for a DUI, or when directed by their doctor to change a health habit to prevent surgery or disease–we get much further when we buy into the change ourselves. This doesn’t mean that you cannot work on something that someone else wants for you. In this case, think about which of your values underlies the requested change.  For instance, if your doctor recommended that you lose weight but you’re happy with how you look, can you identify a personal reason to do it?  Maybe “family” tops your values list.  Will losing weight allow you to enjoy more activities with them, or extend your time here on earth with them?  Different reasoning can underlie growing healthy habits.  Align yours with your values in order to grow your motivation for change.
2. Create a Vision – Once you’ve identified the habits you’re willing to work on, visualize how succeeding in changing them will modify your life for the better. Pull out all of the stops, here, and forego reason.  Really dream about what can come of your life when you experience success.  Now, see yourself “as if” you are already there.  Note the feeling state.  Chances are good that it’s something positive:  peace, love, joy. The problem is, that most of us live from the “Have-Do-Be” sequencing principle:  “When I ‘have’ _______, I’ll ‘do’ _________ and I’ll ‘be’ __________.”  For instance:
  • “When I have the right job, I’ll earn and save more money, and I’ll be successful”, or;
  • “When I have the perfect body, I’ll find a great spouse, and I’ll be happy.”
This is a set-up, and it’ll make you miserable. Instead, take a “Be-Do-Have” approach.  Let yourself be happy, then go about the work toward achieving a specific goal.  Chances are good that with this mind set, you’ll attract what you desire.
3. Assess Your Readiness for Change – Sometimes we’re just not there yet.  We want to be there.  We definitely want the end result– healthy habits –but we aren’t ready to pound the pavement to make it happen.  Setting a goal or strategy that sounds good, but one to which you’re unwilling to commit, sabotages your success before you even start.  According to Dr. James Prochaska, there are five stages of readiness for change:
  1. Pre-comtemplation (Denial – “No need for change!”)
  2. Contemplation (Thinking about changing, no action yet)
  3. Preparation (Making small changes towards a big change in the next six months)
  4. Action (Making the big change!)
  5. Maintenance (Sustaining the change)
Develop a good understanding of the different stages, and then determine where you are. The goal is to help nudge yourself along the continuum, not drag yourself.  You want to develop goals and strategies that are somewhat challenging, but not too overwhelming.  If you’re not quite ready to do something yet, ask yourself what you are willing to do.  For instance, if you’re not yet willing to exercise every day for 30 minutes, ask yourself:
  • “Am I willing to exercise three days a week for 30 minutes?”, or;
  • “Am I willing to exercise three days a week for 15 minutes?”, or;
  • “Am I willing to take a five-minute walk at lunch 5 or more days per week?”, or;
  • “Am I willing to put on my work-out clothes and step out the door (or get in my car)?”
The trick here is back up the strategy until your answer is a resounding “yes”.  Not because you’re already taking that action, and it’ll therefore be ultra-easy, but because you can commit to it, and it’s a step forward.
4. Break it Down -Breaking bad habits needn’t be overwhelming.  Taking into account your readiness for change and to what you’re willing to commit, break your large goal into small, tangible objectives.  Effective goals that encourage breaking bad habits are:
  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Relevant
  • Realistic
Instead of “lose weight”, which is too general, decide how much you’d like to lose and by when.  Keep it realistic.  While losing 40 pounds in three months may happen with laser focus and unwavering commitment, establish a more realistic goal, such as:
  • “Lose 20 or more pounds by April 1, 2013”
This allows for the additional weight loss, should it occur (i.e. “or more”), but it sets you up to succeed.  A great rule of thumb is to ask yourself, “What would I like to be doing differently in three, six, nine, twelve, months?”  Again why are you setting the goal? What would you be doing more or less of if you reached your goal?  For instance, using the weight loss goal as an example, perhaps it’s:
  • walking up the foyer steps without experiencing knee pain, or without being breathless
  • wearing my size 8 wardrobe
  • throwing the football with my son for one hour without needing breaks
After all, you want to know when you’ve met your goal.  Consider creating goals for each quarter of the year, and then break them down into monthly and weekly goals.  Then, daily strategies.
5. Do Whatever You Want – Yes, really! When you begin to develop strategies to meet your goals, don’t forget who you are!  We often think that changing habits needs to be arduous and painful.  Not so!  Choose strategies that fit with your personality and likes.  For instance, if you’re  highly organized and love routine and structure, a work-out in the gym at a set time each day might fit.  A creative or brainiac?  Not so much.  In these cases, try walking park trails with your camera in tote, or listening to interesting scientific or business podcasts as you work out. There is no one, right method.

6. Elicit Support – It’s no surprise that having someone on your team helps you in breaking bad habits and instilling healthy habits. First, telling someone that you are making a change says “I’m serious!”.  Second, enlisting support helps you to hold yourself steadfast when you feel like giving up.  Having supportive “cheerleaders” helps hold you accountable, helps boost motivation, and helps you to hold your vision when you’d rather quit.  There are many means of support.  Of course, most ideal is to find a few supportive friends or family members.  Be careful, however, that they:
  1. Know you well
  2. Can “lean in” and support, without “leaning on” and controlling you
  3. Can remain objective and not just tell you what you want to hear, thus letting you off the hook too easily
Should none of your friends or family members fit the bill, or even if they do, consider external means of support, like hiring a life or health coach who can remain objective and hold your best interest in mind at all times.  Other avenues of support include self-help change websites.
7. Set Yourself Up for Success – This strategy dove-tails all of the aforementioned material in this article.  One of the most effective strategies is to start with the easiest change first, and then build on this success.  Think about it.  What brings us down faster than perceived failure?  Start with a goal you feel pretty confident that you can manage.  For instance, perhaps healthy eating or exercise has been difficult in your quests to lose weight in the past.  Then try daily strategies like “drink 64 ounces of water” or “eat 5 or more fruits and vegetables” until you master them, and then move on to the more challenging tasks.  Babies don’t learn to walk because of their failures.  If they did, they’d never learn to walk. They build on the steps that they’ve successfully taken. Take some baby steps first, and build on these successes to help pull you forward.

8. Manage Your Environment – Environmental controls go a long way towards busting unhealthy habits and developing great ones. Temptations arise when that which you are trying to avoid is immediately available.  Yes, you can go to the store for ice cream or cigarettes, but chances are much greater that you will dig to that Haagen-Das in or puff away at those Marlboros if you have these items within arm’s reach.  Not keeping the cornerstones of your vices at your disposal bides you time when you’re tempted.  Identify ways you can change your environment to discourage your old habit, and support your new one.

9.  Automate – Employ the power of technology when possible, or establish routines that support your new habit.  For instance, if you’re trying to save money, divert a percentage of your paycheck to an IRA or savings account through direct deposit.  If using technology isn’t an option or doesn’t make sense, automate your daily habits.  For instance, if you’ve decided that taking a daily vitamin is an important habit this new year, set your vitamin bottle beside your coffee cups or water dispenser each day in order to remind you.  Set an alarm.  Use an app. Think about your habit, and determine what you can systematize to increase the chances of follow-through.  Cook healthy meals on Sundays and place into single-serving containers for meals throughout the week.  Cut up fruits and veggies weekly for evening snacking. You get the idea.  Automate for success.

10. Reward…Often – We often mistakenly see our end result as our sole reward, and we fail to set meaningful, regular rewards for ourselves along the way.  One of the hallmarks of an effective change strategy is to reward–early and often.  Seeing success early increases motivation.  Always keep a carrot dangled in front of you to edge you forward.  Be certain to make rewards relevant, enjoyable, but not the behavior you’re changing.  For instance, don’t indulge in a day of desserts after losing five pounds.  Instead, reap the benefits of your success, by buying yourself a new skirt or accessory to match an outfit you have your eye on to purchase once you’ve met your weight loss goal.

11. Make an Investment– In yourself, yes.  But also, a financial investment.  When things are free, they lose their perceived value.  When you’ve got no skin in the game, you can always do it later, right?  Spending some money on yourself, and also investing time and effort, raises the stakes.  You want a good return on your investment. So you work harder.  This could be as simple as spending some money on a quality gym membership, supplements, a health or life coach, or constructing a good old winner-takes-all contest with family members, friends or co-workers.  Fresh out of ideas for how to invest? Here’s a website that allows you to donate to your favorite charity as you master pre-established hurdles, or conversely, to donate to a charity you abhor if you fail to reach your goal (while research suggests that reward is more effective than punishment, experience tells me that goals are usually achieved through a combination of both – on the one side lies something we want; and on the other, something we really don’t want.  These both together push us toward our goal).
12.  Find Healthy Alternatives – While you’re busy changing behaviors, try to determine how your old habits served you.  Most will say, “They didn’t!”  While that can definitely be true, there might very well be something in it we think serves us.  We don’t repeat habits that don’t help us in some way, even if the word “Help” is used loosely.  Habits may provide comfort, companionship, excitement, distraction, or be ways of indirectly communicating needs and feelings.  De-coding why you have been doing something remains extremely important so that you can replace that habit with an alternative healthy strategy.  Determining the function of bad habits, and pinpointing obstacles for creating new habits is sometimes tricky.  Consider asking someone you trust if they can help you develop some insight.  If it’s a deeply-ingrained habit, consider hiring a professionally-trained counselor, therapist or coach to help you figure it out so that you can put it behind you, once and for all.  Without such insight, you’re bound to repeat the pattern.
13. Take a Breather – Build short breaks into your master plan.  We can do almost anything for short periods, but when we think about doing just about any behavior for a lifetime, we’re bound to stop short of our goal. Limit action strategies to specific time frames or periods.  For instance, if your goal is to “organize my home”, then set aside 30 minutes five days per week to organize a drawer, cabinet or closet.  When that time is up, stop.  If you’re looking at more of a lifestyle change, discard all-or-none thinking about it, and enjoy a moderate break. Have a sweet treat (outside of your home) once every two weeks.  Or, if you have more will power, stick to a firm plan for 4 to 6 weeks, and then take a week off.  Be certain that during your “off” time, that you don’t undo all of the progress that you’ve made. Make the goal to maintain or sustain, tread water, so to speak, instead of indulge and backslide.

14. Get Cozy with Your Emotions – This strategy sounds unfitting, right?  Well, emotional intelligence–getting acquainted and comfortable with your emotions, both difficult and pleasant ones–remains key to success in all areas of life.  Often, we participate in a bad habit because of poor self-esteem, faulty thinking or in an effort to resist feeling challenging emotions.  It’s not life’s events that we so fear.  It’s the emotions that accompany the life event that we work most to avoid.  Learning to label, tolerate, communicate and let go of emotions is a skill we can all learn and benefit from.

15. Get Back on the Wagon – We all fall off.  Because our human nature is to be “perfectly imperfect”, be rest assured that, you too, will fall.  But you won’t fail.  Take each mistake as an opportunity to assess the obstacles, so that you can use them to refine your plan.  Take each slip-up as an opportunity to be curious about yourself, and use what you learn to get back on track.  You may have taken an ineffective path at a “Y” in the road (i.e. your “slip-up”).  Now, consider yourself at a second “Y”.  You can either:
  • beat yourself up endlessly, which will likely result in further ineffective action, or;
  • choose an effective path by taking the opportunity to learn, refine, and recharge
The good news?  Just making a New Year’s resolution increases the likelihood of success:   Research supports that people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions. Perhaps author and motivational speaker Steve Maraboli said it best when he said:
 “Renew, release, let go. Yesterday’s gone. There’s nothing you can do to bring it back. You can’t “should’ve” done something. You can only DO something. Renew yourself. Release that attachment. Today is a new day!”
It is a new day.  In fact, it’s a new year. Stop “shoulding” on yourself. Instead, take the reigns.  Hold firmly. Till and cultivate. Manifest your life’s vision  in 2015.

No comments:

Post a Comment