Here we are, at the start of 2021. Have you thought about your health goals for the new year?
What was that? Did I just hear you say “bahumbug”?
I get it. Setting health goals can feel like a real chore sometimes. Maybe you’re even haunted from health goals of the past. If so, you’re not alone.
Every year people set healthy lifestyle goals. And sometimes the same goals feel like they’re on an endless playback loop. We start with motivation to:
- Lose weight
- Eat better
- Get more active
In a normal year, gyms fill up in January, treadmills become crowded, and gym rats fight over dumbbells.
Then, life gets busy. Our muscles get sore. Motivation wanes. Gym crowds thin.
Why does this happen?
Is it Willpower?
We often peg willpower as the key to healthy living.
- Maybe if I had more willpower, I could resist the temptation of the discount holiday candy
- If I had more will power I could stick with a workout routine
- If I wanted this enough, I could just use The Force to make this happen
Here’s a little secret:
Willpower is Overrated!
Willpower is only effective to a point. It’s good for taking the first step, but it’s not the key to creating lasting health change.
Most of us can exert our will to take a walk, get a workout in, or resist the sweets. But, once or twice is not enough.
If we actually want to achieve our health goals, we have to take consistent action. This is where willpower often fails us. It isn’t effective to rely on willpower time and time again.
The mistake many of us make is that we attribute our challenges to a lack of willpower. We think people who eat healthy, exercise, get good sleep, simply have more willpower.
But, research has shown that’s not the case. These people are not relying on willpower to stick to their goals. They are relying on habit.
So, although willpower is important for getting us started, habit is what gets us across the finish line to create lasting healthy change.
What does this mean?
If you want to achieve your health goals, focus on creating habits. By doing so, you’ll be stacking the deck in your favor.
Habit Formation Psychology
In psychology, they define habit as actions that are “triggered automatically in response to contextual cues.”
When an action becomes habit, you’re no longer relying on willpower, because the action is automatic. So, your brain no longer has to focus on “how can I muster up the motivation to do this workout” or “how can I repress this temptation to eat that cookie?”
When you create a habit, your brain begins to automate these healthy behaviors.
How to Form a New Habit
Habits include three elements:
- A Trigger (contextual clue)
- Behavioral Repetition
Here’s a really simple example of how social media uses habit formation to keep us plugged into their platforms.
- Your phone alerts you to a notification on Facebook (the cue)
- You logon to view your notifications (behavior)
- You see that 10 people have liked your recent picture (reward)
Over time, you begin to automatically repeat the behavior without thinking about it.
5 Strategies for Developing Healthy Habits
So, how can you use this same knowledge to help you reach your own health goals? Here are a few strategies and examples to help you out. See what works for you.
1) Begin by Making Actions Easy
When you’re trying to create a new habit, you want to make it easy enough to stick with.
When you’re motivated it’s easy to find the willpower to embrace bold ambitions. That’s great. But, when stress stacks up, that willpower might diminish. So, start by making a habit of easier actions.
Example: You want to start a workout routine.
Motivated you says “I’m going to workout every day this week.”
Habit dedicated you says “I’m going to commit to 3 days this week for at least 20 minutes.”
If you get more, great. But, don’t let perfection get in the way of progress. Habit formation is priority number one.
2) Stick to a Schedule
This can be difficult, but it’s super important for developing a habit. If you’re trying to start a workout routine, don’t leave your schedule loosey goosey. If you don’t plan for it, it won’t happen.
Also, when you repeat your desired action at the same time every day, you’ll feed the formation of habit. So although, sticking to a schedule will require willpower at first, your brain will recognize a routine as it develops, and begin to automate your activity into a habit.
Example: You want to exercise 3 days per week.
The overwhelmed version of yourself struggles to commit to a specific day and time when this will occur. But, you still manage to willpower yourself into exercising those 3 days as your schedule and motivation allows.
Nice job! But, what happens when you’re drained next week? Or, your schedule completely changes? You’ll have to summon your willpower and brain power to figure it out again. Exhausting, right?
The habit dedicated version of you says “I’m busy, but I typically have about 40 minutes free in the evening around 7 pm.” You further decide that you can commit to taking a walk on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday for at least 20 minutes.
When you take this second approach you’re satisfying two requirements of habit formation. The time of day (7pm) can become a trigger for your activity, and with repetition of this schedule, your brain develops an association, reinforcing the habit.
3) Build in Immediate Rewards
At the center of our brains reward system is dopamine. This reward system isn’t perfect, and often reinforces bad habits like smoking, drugs, and gambling.
Unfortunately, exercise and eating healthy don’t result in the immediate reward and dopamine boost that other habits do. So, if you want to strengthen that boost, you have to figure out ways to link your healthy behavior with short term rewards.
The important thing is to make your rewards immediately associated with your action. Long term rewards like “if I eat healthy for 8 weeks I’ll buy myself that top hat I’ve been eyeing” don’t tend to be effective.
I have a stationary bicycle at home that I try to hop on every day. To reward myself, I use that time to watch a show or listen to a podcast that brings me joy. By doing so, I build a simple and immediate reward into my desired activity.
4) Remove Friction
The more friction, the more difficult it is to develop a habit. One way that we remove friction is that we start by focusing on easy actions. But, we can also reduce friction in other ways.
Example: You want to workout in the morning, but you’re having a hard time doing it. What can you do?
You can start by setting the scene the night before. Lay out your exercise clothes the night before. Set your headphones next to your phone and have a music play list already chosen. Then write a short list of the exercise you aim to perform and the length and duration. In total, this takes 5-10 minutes.
When you wake up, you don’t need to think about anything. You’ve reduced the amount of friction that would normally be there.
You can also add friction to help correct bad habits. For example, let’s say that you have a habit of raiding the cupboard at the end of the day and mindlessly snacking.
Here’s a test you can try to add friction. When you raid that cupboard, use your non-dominant hand. This will make your snacking more difficult, but also raise awareness.
5) Chain New Habits to Existing Habits
This is my new favorite strategy for developing habits. The idea is to identify some habits that you currently have, and then add another habit to the existing one. This is also referred to as habit stacking.
Example: I recently wanted to increase my water intake.
I already had a habit of waking up, getting out of bed and then starting the coffee. This was a well ingrained habit, and not one that I felt like I needed to change. But, I did need to drink more water.
So, after I would start the coffee, I would fill a glass of water. Then I would try to drink that water before my first cup of coffee. Not only did I start the day off with more water, this inadvertently triggered me to drink more water throughout the day.
How Might You Use these Strategies?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on turning health goals into habits. Do you have a health goal you’d like to apply this to for 2021?
Which of these strategies would you like to apply? Are there other strategies that have worked for you?
Let me know below in the comments.
And, if you want more on this subject, check out the Creatures of Habit episode of Hidden Brain, which inspired this blog post.