Why are some people able to exercise first thing in the morning, while others push working out to the bottom of the to-do list? Perhaps you’ve vowed to power down your cell phone two hours before bedtime, only to find yourself glued to the screen till all hours. Creating and maintaining healthy habits isn’t easy. It’s even more challenging now that life feels especially off-kilter due to COVID-19. So why bother? Incorporating positive changes into your routine can have ripple effects on other aspects of your life, with each small success spurring you on to make bigger changes. If you’ve struggled to implement healthy habits, read on for some tips to help you set yourself up for success.
Healthy habits can take many forms, from cutting down on mindless scrolling to curbing impulse spending to making better choices about food, sleep, and exercise. The point of a habit is that it is automatic and non-negotiable. There’s no decision fatigue (“Will I or won’t I?”). A habit is an ingrained behavior. You may have heard that it takes approximately three weeks to create a habit, but be patient. It could take several months to create a lasting, permanent change. Once you’ve succeeded, however, you won’t miss the inner struggle. It’s actually less stressful to just stick with your new habit than to backslide and beat yourself up about it. Even better, you’ll free up headspace for other things. But how can you get there?
Whether you’d like to incorporate new healthy behaviors or eliminate existing unhealthy ones, don’t make the mistake of going too big. Instead, focus on bite-sized, attainable goals that you can actually achieve. For example, instead of “I want to run the New York City Marathon next year,” try, “I want to run for 20 minutes, three mornings a week.” Then figure out what steps you can take to increase your chances of sticking to your goals. If you want to become a runner, place your sneakers by the front door before you go to bed so you’ll see them in the morning. If you want to stop eating sugary snacks or drinks during your afternoon slump, stock your fridge with fresh fruit or place some packs of almonds in the trunk of your car so there’s always a healthy option close by.
Don’t be shy about sharing your goals; let your friends and family know about your plans and enlist their support. Perhaps someone in your inner circle has similar goals. Why not create a buddy system, either virtual or in-person, so you can enjoy both accountability and moral support? Trying a new form of exercise or learning a foreign language is more fun when you enlist a partner. While we’re on the subject of friends and family, you can also create healthier habits around relationships, too. Are there people whose company you find draining or who diminish you instead of lifting you up? Maybe they’re invested in you remaining stuck (for one thing, it makes them feel better about changes they might need to make in their own lives) and feel threatened when you start making better choices. A healthier habit might look like taking a day or two to respond to invitations so that you only commit to activities that will be energizing or enjoyable, or simply being less available for indulging in pity parties or gossip.
If you’ve been lukewarm on cultivating a new healthy habit, try focusing on the reward rather than the behavior. Associating a new habit with something pleasurable goes a long way towards cementing your progress. For example, if you’re never going to be that person who loves exercise, try focusing on how good it feels to take a post-workout shower with your favorite scented shower gel. When you’re under the water, inhale deeply and remind yourself that you earned this treat, that it feels great to do something good for your mind, body, and soul. And then draw on that memory the next time you’re tempted to hit the snooze button or blow off your after-work fitness class. If you’re trying to cut down on mindless spending, think about how good it feels to see more money in your bank statement at the end of the month—and then treat yourself to an affordable indulgence like a manicure or a new Kindle read as a reward. Enlist visual aids: track your progress with one of the many habit tracking apps or go old school and use checkmarks or stickers in your day planner.
Another way to trick yourself into following through on your good intentions is to tell yourself to “just start.” The first few laps in a pool are the hardest: even seasoned swimmers might flinch when they hit the cold water. A moment later, your body warms up, your mind starts to quiet as you focus on your breathing and your stroke, and suddenly 30 minutes have passed. By telling yourself, “I only have to do this for today/for a few minutes,” the task at hand seems easier. Use this trick for a few weeks, and suddenly you’ve become a swimmer (or a runner, or a person who plans and cooks healthy meals, or makes the bed each day, or takes clutter to Goodwill regularly). The more you do (or don’t do) something, the easier it becomes to maintain the habit. And once your habit starts to bear fruit in the form of a healthier mind or body, better relationships, a tidier home, or an improved financial picture, those results become powerful motivators to keep up your good work overtime.