Updated: Nov 14, 2022
As a health coach, I have the honor of supporting clients in lifestyle change. Some changes are big and some are small but almost all require some degree of habit formation. Whether it is breaking a habit that is no longer serving or creating a new healthy habit, there are certain steps to take to help set yourself up for success.
Establish your why. Before investing in new shoes, organizational tools, or gear, spend some time thinking about why you want to make a change. What is your goal? Why do you want to achieve it? Change that is motivated by intrinsic want tends to stick much better than that motivated by external pressure. Do you want to comply with your supplement regimen as prescribed because you truly believe it will support your treatment plan and healing or do you want to avoid disappointing your doctor? Really thinking through your why is the first step in creating a realistic goal.
Self-Identify. If unhealthy habits have become part of your identity, come to terms with what change will mean and think through the pros and cons of adopting the new habit versus not adopting the new habit. Cutting back on alcohol? What part of your identity will be “lost”? What part of your identity will be embraced? Visualize yourself drinking hot tea instead of wine after dinner and see how it feels. The body follows the mind so think of, and picture, yourself as a “healthy person”.
Dream big but start small. Like, really small. When properly formulated, small goals, aka “baby steps”, offer a series of milestones that pave the path towards a bigger change. Want to incorporate exercise into your daily routine? Start with a five-minute walk. Achievement, no matter how small, motivates and builds self-efficacy, your belief in your ability to complete the tasks needed to achieve a bigger goal.
Be SMART. Researchers have found that habits “stick” better when there is an implementation intention, or, a clear plan for execution. People who make a specific plan for when and where they will perform a new habit are more likely to follow through than those who rely on motivation or willpower alone. When defining the new habit you are trying to form (or break), follow the SMART framework: make it specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Starting an exercise routine? Refine the plan, eg. Starting Monday at 9 am, I will walk 5 minutes outside.
Stack. A special and powerful type of implementation intention is habit stacking, whereby you pair a new habit with a current habit or routine. Habit stacking takes advantage of the connectedness of behavior, or our brain’s ability to perform some routine tasks, like getting out of bed or brushing your teeth, essentially on auto-pilot. Making a neural connection using those routine behaviors as cues, new habits can be “stacked” in, eg. Starting Monday at 9 am, I will walk 5 minutes outside after I finish breakfast.
Give grace. Habit change is hard and even successful change is usually non-linear. Prepare to be patient with yourself and work towards progress, not perfection. This mindset will help you to avoid falling victim to the “screw its”, the all or nothing mentality where all progress is thrown out the window at the first sign of failure. Work towards fewer slip-ups over time versus none and reframe the act of taking responsibility for any slip-ups from a sense of guilt to a sense of ownership and opportunity. Remember, you are an evolving work in progress.
Celebrate success. Acknowledge the wins! The positive feeling of accomplishment helps wire in the new habit and literally motivates the brain for more good accomplishment emotion. If self-acknowledgment doesn't come easy for you, brainstorm how you will celebrate in advance. Share with a loved one or coach, create a personal celebration ritual, or keep a journal to track your progress. Celebrating your wins helps seal the habit into a ritual.
Forming new habits and making lasting lifestyle changes can feel difficult for any number of reasons. Be curious about the process, take baby steps, enjoy the journey, and keep the vision of what awaits you in the future.
With love, in health,