“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit”. ~Aristotle.
Over the past 5 years I’ve made significant positive changes to my health, fitness, wellbeing and have lost 40kg. I’ve mainly done this through making really small changes to my mindset, beliefs and habits.
When it comes to creating personal change we often focus on strengthening our vision, setting specific goals, increasing our motivation and exercising willpower. These are all important elements of change, however, most of our daily behaviours and outcomes are driven by our regular habits.
Our habits are essentially the small decisions, actions, practices and routines we do everyday. Often we’re not even conscious or aware of what those are – they’ve become things we just do automatically. Our habits express who we are and the kind of life we live.
2014 was a transformative year for me. It was the year I finally stopped “starting again” on my health and weight loss journey and finally came to terms with how fundamental my daily habits are to living a healthy lifestyle.
Prior to this, I’d spent many years trying to change. I was great at setting outcome goals (.e.g run 10km or lose 20kg) and then pursuing them with an initial burst of energy and determination. Occasionally I’d experience success but it was always short lived. It wasn’t long before a couple of tough days would see me “fall off the wagon” again. At that time I had an “all or nothing” mindset and would wait for a new week or month (or even the new year!) before “starting again” with another intense and determined regime of change.
During 2014 I had the realisation that I was constantly trying to make too many big changes at one time and always expected fast results. I wasn’t taking the time to examine and truly change underlying beliefs and ingrained unconscious behaviors. A healthy dose of willpower, motivation and determination would see me stick to a new (sometimes radical) diet and exercise regime for a few days but inevitably my habits would always trip me up and I’d often end up worse off than when I started!.
With this new awareness I started to focus on making small sustainable changes to my lifestyle (i.e. changes I was prepared to keep doing forever!). There was no big transformation moment or sudden overnight change. However, over time I have made hundreds and hundreds of small changes, turning each one into a new habit or routine which I have consistently kept up.
Based on my own experiences and the research I’ve done on habit creation, here are some key tips for creating and changing habits. There are hundreds of books, videos and articles on habits. If you’d like to learn more I recommend The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg) and Atomic Habits (James Clear) as a starting point.
Tips for creating & changing Habits
Create habits that represent who you are
Create and live out habits that represent who you are or who you want to become. If you truly see yourself in a certain way then it becomes easier to live a life that matches that. For example, saying “I’m a runner” will drive fundamentally different behaviour than saying “I want to run 10km this year” or I will aim to go running three times per week”. If running is part of who you are your more likely to keep it up over the long run despite any short term setbacks (bad weather, injury, competing priorities etc).
Live like you’ve already achieved your goal
When setting a goal, don’t just focus on the outcome. Really imagine what your life would be like if you achieved that goal. Who will be around you? What would a typical day look like? How will it feel? How will you act? Visualise all the small details and then think about how you can start to live that life today.
Focus on making one small change that feels relatively easy and that’s within your control. Once you’ve nailed this you can focus on something else. We’re far more likely to undertake and stick with changes that feel realistic. Overtime, small changes really do add up to big change without it feeling hard or overwhelming.
The ‘perfect’ time to start something new will never arrive. The best time to start is now. If the habit you want to focus on feels too hard right now, then break it down into something even smaller. The act of achieving something (no matter how small) generally inspires a sense of motivation and confidence within us to keep going!
Link a new habit to an old habit.
A great way of remembering to do a new habit, is to link it to an old habit. For example, if you always boil the kettle in the morning then this could become a cue for a new habit (e.g. 2 minutes of deep breathing or planning your day). Brushing your teeth at night is a great cue to organise your exercise or work clothing for the following day.
Make good habits easy & attractive
In the initial stages of creating a habit its important to remove barriers and make it something you’ll want to do. For example, if you’re aiming to take lunch to work then plan/prepare in a way that helps you do that and fits with your schedule. Importantly make a lunch that you’ll actually look forward to eating!
Make bad habits difficult & unsatisfying
When trying to change or remove a bad habit, do everything you can to make the habit difficult and unappealing to continue. For example, I will leave my phone outside my bedroom at night so that I can’t browse social media or read work emails if I’m unable to sleep or wake during the night.
To turn embed a habit you need to keep doing it over and over. I really believe that consistency is your greatest leverage when it comes to ensuring lasting change. When I’m consciously making a lifestyle change I ask myself – am I prepared to make this change for the rest of my life? If the answer is no, I generally won’t pursue it.
Many people get caught up in believing there is a medical explanation for why their diet and exercise efforts are not working. I often hear things like ”my metabolism is slow” or “condition X stops me from losing weight”. The harsh reality is that what’s often going on is simply a lack of consistency. During intense periods of dieting we get fixated on the results this should generate, yet discount the impact of the times we’re not on our diet or having a big weekend blowout (often because the diet is unrealistic in the first place). As the saying goes, it’s far more beneficial to “be consistently good than occasionally perfect”.
Track & hold yourself accountable
One way to help establish a habit is to track it. Simply marking off that you’ve completed a habit each day helps to keep it front of mind and create a sense of achievement around it. Sharing / discussing your habit with a friend, family member or coach can also help generate accountability and visibility around it.
Success is not linear. Often we make progress without even realising it. Be kind and patient with yourself – real change takes time. You can’t expect overnight results however if it matters to you it will be worth seeing it through. Stay focussed on the big picture and enjoy the journey of being and becoming your best self.
Jade is a Lifestyle Coach, Personal Trainer and Organisational Development Consultant. To find out more or book in a consultation email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone/text 027 360 20 30.
Habits for Weight Loss – 12 October 2019, 2.00 – 3.30pm
Botany Library – Level 1, Botany Town Centre Sunset Terrace, East Tamaki, Auckland 2013