6 tips for successful habit change


So…it’s the old New Year resolutions time again! Will this year be like so many others where you set out with great resolve - only to find yourself no longer going to the gym, or avoiding sugar and alcohol? How can you make this year different and really make a permanent change? Here’s the first of two articles on how to make 2019 the year when you make a permanent change to a healthier lifestyle. First, some tips on habit change, and in the next part some ideas of habits you might adopt.

Why habit change is so hard

It seems amazingly easy to slip into bad habits and surprisingly difficult to step into good habits. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Many of our bad habits are driven by our evolution and are designed to make sure we survive a famine. For our ancient ancestors, eating food whenever they could find it (especially fattening sugars and carbohydrates) made a lot of sense: food was hard to get and you would never know where your next meal was coming from. Similarly, exercising when they didn’t have to was also not a good idea: why burn up those hard-won calories needlessly? Our ancestors exercised plenty when hunting or gathering food, they didn’t need to go to the gym as well. These days food is always available and we don’t have to exercise to obtain it (well most of us don’t) and so we have to fight our natural inclinations if we want to eat less and move more.

  • Our brains love routine and changing routine is difficult. When we are tired at the end of the working day, it is much easier to eat our standard fare than have to think about special “diet” food - especially if we didn’t prepare by buying the right “diet” foods back when we were food shopping! Thinking is hard work and our brains like to return to the old, easy habits if they can.

  • Most “diet” foods are not what we traditionally think of as “comfort food”. And many (most?) of us these days are in need of comfort due to the stressful lives we lead: always on the go, working hard, playing hard, not sleeping well! Stress triggers release of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol drives our bodies to ensure we survive this stressful time by getting food whenever we can, and especially the high energy foods like sugars and carbohydrates.

  • We don’t really want to change: we think we do, but somewhere deep down in our subconscious we don’t really want to. What we’re hoping is that a few weeks of changing the way we do things will miraculously turn our health around and we can then go back to our old habits but with a new body and health. Of course it doesn’t work that way! You might well be thinking “no, that’s not me, I really do want to change”. OK, so you probably do, but there may well be some small part of you that doesn’t want to join the party. Perhaps the bad habits you want to change are things that you really depend on to get through the day, maybe you wonder whether changing your habits will change you as a person, maybe you just don’t believe that the habits you are trying to change are all that bad (or that the new habits are all that good)?

Tips for successful habit change

  1. Don’t try to change too many things at once. It’s tempting when you decide to make this year the year you really do create the new you, to try to change everything all at once. This is likely doomed to fail. For highest chance of success, start with only one or two habits you want to change. The great thing about habits is that, as they develop, they become effortless. For example, you don’t have to expend lots of willpower to remember to brush your teeth every day. It was hard work (for your parents probably) at one time but now it is easy. By picking just one or two habits and each day you succeed in following your new behaviour, whether it is stopping yourself from reaching for the junk food, or going out for a walk, the easier it will be the next day. Once you have embedded one habit, then it will be time to think about the next one.

  2. Make time to think about your motivations for - and against - following this new habit. As I mentioned above, very often some part of you doesn’t want to change. Ask yourself what this new habit will do for you; and at the same time ask yourself what motivations might you have that could prevent you from succeeding. Negative motivations stopping you from succeeding, might be: “my family will think I’m weird” or “I won’t be able to enjoy chatting with friends over coffee and cake”. The motivations for continuing with the old habit may be stronger than the desire to improve health. But once you recognise this you can turn things around.

  3. Swap bad habits for good ones. Breaking a bad habit is much easier when you have a new, well–planned habit to focus on rather than just thinking about suppressing the old habit. As I said, our brains like to take the easy route, the well-travelled path. Trying to stop walking down this well worn route needs an alternative in place. So if you want to give up cake, and coffee and cake with friends is a big part of your life, you need to find another habit that enables you to socialise with your friends that doesn’t involve cake? Maybe you could all go for a walk in the park together regularly instead of meeting in the coffee shop?

  4. Work out what reward you are getting from your bad habit (and find new, rewarding habits). Most of our habits exist because we gain a reward from doing them, but often the reward is not what we might think. For example, if your bad habit is to treat yourself with a glass of wine when you come in from work, you may think that your reward is the relaxing feeling from drinking alcohol but it could in fact be the mental transition from work to home or spending time with your partner discussing your day, or maybe you are really thirsty? Once you’ve worked out that it is not the wine itself that is the reward you can find a replacement habit that gives the same reward. Maybe walking the dog or spending time with your partner over a cup of tea rather than wine, or having a glass of water. You’ll have changed a habit that was not helping you to reach your weightloss goal for one that will and at the same time succeeded in retaining a reward that was important to you.

  5. Link a new habit to an existing one. This is a concept called “habit stacking” because you stack your new habit on top of an old habit. Because the current habit is strongly wired into your brain already, your new habit piggybacks in with much less effort. You might:

    • Meditate for 60 seconds each morning while your coffee brews

    • Go outside and get some bright morning light after brushing your teeth

    • Do 5 push-ups after taking your morning shower

    • Get your main dinner ingredient out of the freezer/decide on dinner after doing the breakfast dishes.

    • Take the dog for a walk as soon as you get in from work.

    Start by looking at your existing routine, finding the things you do every day — such as brushing your teeth, taking a shower, doing the dinner dishes or closing your laptop at the end of a workday. Then think about how you could piggyback a new behaviour onto these existing routines.

  6. Research your proposed new habit(s) carefully. Find out exactly how they will benefit you and why. Ensure you really believe in your new habit. While you’re researching, think about how to insert them into your life. If you are changing your way of eating, you need to plan what foods you will buy, what you will eat (and when), what you will do when life gets in the way (you’re invited out to dinner, you have to work late, you didn’t have time to prepare tonight’s dinner). if you are taking up a new exercise, where will you do it? When? What might stop you from doing it? if you are stopping doing something, consider what might tempt you to take it up again and how you will cope with the temptations (remember to find an alternative reward from your new habit to replace the reward from whatever you are stopping).

In the next part of this series, I’ll be looking at some good habits you might think of adopting in 2019.

Happy New Year!