How many times have you started a new health and fitness routine and failed to stick to it? Maybe it was a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym regularly, or a decision to cut back on unhealthy eating. How did it feel when you failed? Not great? You may have even decided that its not for you and have given up trying to improve your health and fitness. Over the last few weeks I’ve been learning about the psychology behind making sustainable change and embedding new habits as I prepare my new coaching package, Change for Good. It turns out there are lots of tricks you can use. So don’t give up, read on!
I’m currently working towards a goal of getting back into running. I’d like to be able to comfortable run the full distance of a trail in the local Redwoods forest by November. Not super ambitious (it’s only 2.9km) but I feel like its good to start with an achievable goal.
So this is Tip #1: Set realistic and achievable goals.
The satisfaction of being successful will go a long way towards you wanting to try harder next time and achieve more. If you aim too high you can set yourself up for failure which will reduce your desire to try.
Tip #2: Choose something you like doing at least a little bit.
Choose something that has some positives in it for you then focus on those good bits. Running feels good for my body, even though that feeling is pretty short lived. My aim is to extend out those good feelings so I can go further and get stronger and fitter while still enjoying it.
Tip #3: Set a goal, write it down and share it with others.
Its too easy to talk ourselves out of something hard, or change the goal in our head. Don’t cheat yourself. Set yourself up to succeed by setting a clear and specific goal and getting others to provide support and accountability. We also need to believe in our ability to achieve the goal. Visualize yourself reaching your goal. Enjoy the feelings of success. Savor the anticipation of sharing a win with someone supportive.
Tip #4: Make a plan and keep it real.
Be clear about what steps you need to take to reach your goal. Make the plan clear, specific and achievable. For me, I need to embed a habit of going for regular runs to reach my goal of 2.9km by 1 December. My plan is to turn my daily walk into a run three days a week. I’ll start out by running and walking in intervals, then decrease the length of the walks until I can run the whole way.
Tip #5: Establish the Cue, the Routine and the Reward.
These are the components that embed a habit in our brain, as described by Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit. The cue is a trigger or signal that tells us to act in a certain way. An easy one for me – I walk my daughter to school every day, so that’s my cue to continue on to do my daily walk in the forest. To shift this to a run I know I just need to dress in my running clothes and call it a run rather than a walk in my head.
The routine is the behaviour that you want to instill. Its best if you clearly define this in an ‘if…, then…’ format. For example, my routine would be: “If I put my running gear on first thing, then I will run instead of walk after I’ve dropped my daughter at school.”
The reward is the thing that develops our emotional craving to complete the habit. Once the craving is embedded in our brain the habit is fully formed and becomes hard to break. Our brains easily fix onto sugary and fatty foods as a reward as evolution has designed us this way to meet our nutritional needs in an environment where food is scarce. Not so useful in today rich environment, and counter-productive to most health and fitness goals. An alternative is to develop your emotional rewards. How great do you feel when you achieve your goals?
The reward for me is the sense of satisfaction at having run further and kept a positive mindset. To do this I notice the good parts of running, feel the enjoyment and savor it, and anticipate the feelings of satisfaction I’ll have once I’ve achieved it. Of course there are negative feelings and sensations, but I choose not to dwell on them. This process starts to rewire my brain and will, with practice, make it easier to feel satisfied and positive about running.
Tip #6: Get curious, without judgement.
This is the guts of how mindfulness works, and is beautifully explained by psychologist Judson Brewer in his TED talk “A simple way to break a bad habit.” He talks about how, by turning your sense of curiosity towards your bad habits, you can undermine your craving and defuse the power the habit has over you. I think this idea can be used to create new good habits as well.
For example, I might notice what what my inner voice is telling me when my running gets hard. Often its being pretty negative – “time to stop and walk”, ” this is too hard”, “you’ve done enough, time for a rest”, etc. Then I get curious: is that voice helping me reach my goal? do I need to listen to it? what is the reality of the situation? how would it feel to just get to the next tree before listening to the voice? or the next tree after that?
Mindfulness teaches us to allow our thoughts and feelings to pass by, and return our attention to a focus point, such as our breath. To stop being dragged around emotionally by our wandering thoughts. By recognizing we are not our thoughts we can better observe and manage them and take control.
A key component of mindful noticing and applying curiosity to our thoughts is to do this without judgment and with a sense of compassion. If I notice my negative thoughts encouraging me to stop running, and then tell myself “I’ve failed again, my thoughts are sabotaging me, I’ll never have strong enough willpower to be a runner” etc., I’m punishing myself and reducing my sense of self worth. A better approach is to notice my negative thoughts, accept them as they are, and have a sense of compassion towards the part of me that feels it needs to undermine my goal of being fitter.
So there you have it – what I’ve learnt about how to get new habits to stick. First get clear about your goal and make a plan that is realistic and achievable, following the cue, routine, reward formula. Set yourself up for success by sharing your plans and seeking support. And most of all, remember to bring your mind along with you – it can be your greatest enemy or your biggest ally. When you believe you can do it and are in control of the negative self-talk you are much more likely to succeed.