We all have habits. Some bad, some good, and probably plenty we could improve upon. Most of my clients and the people I talk to are keenly aware of good habits versus bad habits. I'm sure you are, too. We all know that smoking and not exercising are bad habits. Most of us also know the importance of healthier habits, like eating vegetables every day and establishing a healthy bedtime routine. If we all know what's best for our lives, and that healthy habits generally make us feel great, why can't we stick with them? Why don't healthy habits always work?
Why Don't Healthy Habits Always Work?
Your behavior affects your health. It's as simple as that. Everything you do has the potential to help you, hurt you or fall somewhere in between. Nothing is neutral. The way you act, or behave, is largely made up of repetitive habits - like brushing your teeth before bed or tying a pair of shoes before going for a walk.
Most of your habits don't require a lot of motivation. You brush your teeth because you always brush your teeth. Sure, the reason why you brush your teeth is because you want good oral hygiene and don't want cavities, but you're probably not too worried about that, and you're probably not dragging yourself to your toothbrush a couple of times a day dreading the idea of keeping your pearly whites clean. You just do it. It's a habit. You could also argue that these types of behaviors are routines.
Your brain loves routines. Routine habits require a lot less effort...literally. Your brain gulps up about 25% of your caloric expenditure throughout the day. When you follow routines, or go on autopilot, your brain uses less energy.
Why, then, is it so hard to stick with healthy habits, and why don't healthy habits always work?
Habits: Are You Watering Flowers or Growing Weeds?
Creating a behavior or habit that becomes so ingrained that it's virtually automatic takes more than just a little repetition. Creating a healthy habit that works requires thoughtful reflection, honesty and perseverance. If creating healthy habits was easy, every new year's resolution would stick and we'd all live up to the vision we see for ourselves.
Healthy habits take work, especially if the healthy habit is a change from an unhealthy habit.
Let's say you want to start exercising. You've thought about it a lot and you know what to do. You tell yourself that you want to wake up at 5:30am to get in a 45 minute workout. It's a manageable amount of time, and the only realistic time of the day you can exercise. You know to accomplish this, you have to go to bed early enough so you're not tired, and you know it will be helpful to have your workout clothes laid out so you're not fumbling around in the morning looking for what to wear.
The night before you're supposed to get up to workout, you stay up until 11pm watching TV. You're too tired to get your workout clothes together and tell yourself that you'll do it in the morning as soon as your alarm goes off.
The next morning you're too tired to get out of bed and hit snooze. The idea of rolling out of bed to figure out what to wear takes up too much mental energy, so you tell yourself that you'll start working out again the next morning.
Healthy habits almost always require a trade off. If you want your habits to bloom and flourish, you have to stop watering the weeds that get in the way of their growth.
The exercise scenario is just an example, but you get the point. You have to reflect on what needs to change before you can actually maintain a pattern that will become a healthier habit. After you reflect and know what you need to weed out of your life (i.e.staying up too late to wake up), you've got to stop watering the roots that may still be lingering.
Micro-Goals Pave The Road For Habit Success
One of the big reasons people give up on establishing a healthy habit is because they don't see results or see the benefit in a specific period of time. Take, for example, weight loss. Let's say you want to lose 30 pounds, so you decide to change some unhealthy habits, making way for healthier habits. After two weeks of sticking to your guns, you jump on the scale and see you've only lost two pounds! What the heck?
Even though a one pound weight loss a week seems slow, it's the equivalent of an enormous 52 pounds a year, which exceeds the goal of the example. Still, it might seem like all the hard work you've done is deserving of a greater reward.
Now, let's take a step back. Let's break things up into one overarching BIG goal, underneath which are many micro-goals.
Your goal is 30 pounds of weight loss. To accomplish that goal, you probably need to stick to many healthy habits, including eating more vegetables, drinking more water, eating fewer processed foods, exercising, getting a good amount of sleep, perhaps eating less, maybe even eating more, cutting back on caffeine, working on reducing stress. There are so many potential habit changes that go into a goal that it can seem overwhelming.
Start small. If you're like me, you may want to start big. Resist the urge to go from 0 to 60 and start small. Set anywhere from one to three micro-goals a week that will help feed healthy habits.
Sticking with the weight loss example, ideas for weekly micro-goals might include:
- Drink 8 glasses of water a day
- Eat non-starchy vegetables with every meal
- Walk 15 extra minutes a day
- Take 10 minutes to work on restorative breathing techniques or meditation
- Take 10 minutes to stretch
- Cut out fried foods
- Eat a healthy fiber-filled breakfast
- Don't eat within 3 hours of bedtime
- Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night
- Strength train 3 of the next 7 days
- Eat less food in general
You may not need to work on any of these, or you may need to work on many. Regardless, decide on one to three micro-goals that you think you can accomplish and stick with it for one week. After one week, set new micro-goals. They may be exactly the same, or they may be different.
- What am I confident I can stick with this week?
- What do I need in order to accomplish my micro-goal this week?
- What support do I need in order to maintain momentum this week?
Making Habits Automatic
When I was a kid and well into my 20s, I didn't really make any effort to drink water. I drank it, but only if I was thirsty, and only if there was nothing else to drink. As I got into my late 20s, I was more committed to working out and needed to drink more water because I was thirsty. As I got into my 30s, I began truly understanding the benefits of drinking water regularly, and began researching it.
I learned that not drinking enough water affected my metabolism, my skin, my digestion, my brain and just about every cell in my body. I made it a point to drink 16 ounces of water in the morning, every morning, around the age of 30. Initially, I had to remind myself to do this. Reminding myself to drink water lasted about a year. That's 12 months of constantly reminding myself to get a BIG glass (sometimes two) of water and drink it before I did anything else.
After that year, I really didn't need to remind myself anymore. Fast forward about 18 years and I don't remind myself at all, I just do it. I can't imagine starting my day without drinking plenty of water and can say with 100% confidence that there *might* have only been two or three days when I have not had the chance to drink water in the morning, which was related to travel/hotels.
The point is not so much my adherence to drinking water, rather that after a bit of time (in this case, about one year), the idea of not drinking water was all but a memory. FYI - I fill a big bottle and keep it at my bedside. I drink it right away.
Water is automatic. Putting away my clothes after they're folded and sitting neatly in a pile near my closet is not. This is horribly arduous and something I will probably always need to work on!
Healthy Habits & Neuroplasticity
My example of drinking water in the morning each and every day without fail is an example of neuroplasticity, or the "rewiring" of my brain to process in a way that was different than before. According to an article authored by Pedro Mateo-Aparicio and Antonio Rodrequez-Moreno, neuroplasticity "can be defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections."
Up until I was about 30, I didn't willingly want to drink water unless I felt thirsty. I had to motivate myself to drink water, which I managed to do through research and associating a lack of hydration with poor digestion, wrinkles, poor memory and all the other bad things that are part and parcel with dehydration. Then I had to keep reflecting and reminding myself why I wanted to drink water. Eventually, it stuck
In a nutshell, we all have the ability to create new habits - in how we think and in how we behave. Changing your brain probably won't happen overnight, so you need to give yourself some space to make positive changes.
I said this earlier in this article, but the most important thing you can do to change your habits is to reflect. Think about what it is you want to change and why you want to change. You may need to put a mirror up to some not-so-pretty parts of your life to change things up, but it's part of the process toward healthy reconstruction.
A lot of people think they are the way they are because of their genes. There is some truth to that. Our personalities, for example, are somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50% genetic. The other 50 to 60% is all on you as you are today and how you will be tomorrow.
You can make big, healthy changes in your life. The best way to maintain your confidence is by setting doable micro-goals to make the habit a part of your daily life.