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How to make healthy habits that stick...

Updated: Dec 6, 2020

How often have you set yourself new goals when you're highly motivated, been really good with them for a few weeks... only to get exhausted with it, give up and blame yourself?

I know I see this a lot with some of my patients when it comes to home exercises or diets! So I wanted to look into the science of behavior change and how we can make sustainable healthy habits within our lifestyles...

One key behavior scientist is a guy called BJ Fogg, who wrote the book 'Tiny Habits'. From his years of research on 40,000 people he's identified some key ideas...

There are 3 main things that drive behavioral change:

1) Epiphanies e.g. having a serious health issue and therefore deciding to change your lifestyle.

2) Environmental changes e.g. a new friend or moving to a new area.

3) Tiny tweaks to existing habits. This is the easiest hack and what I tend to suggest to patients!

To succeed in adding in new habits we must think about another 3 factors:

  • Motivation. This is often enough for one off feats, but it is not always sustainable for everyone. It's good to have a long term goal or purpose but we must also break it down to how we can actually achieve it day by day.

  • Ability. Making a habit easy is key to start. This depends on: time, money, physical capacity, mental energy and how it fits in with your current schedule.

  • Prompts. These can be: contextual prompts e.g. environmental, personal e.g. physiological and action e.g. things you already perform. Action prompts are easiest to hack, by adding on a small thing to an action you already do a few times a day e.g. brushing your teeth, making a cup of tea, going to the toilet. Consider location, frequency and theme with these action prompts.

So based on these factors, the best way to make a habit stick (as you can't always control epiphanies and your environment) is to use:

Action prompts

to make small tweaks day to day.

The key is to start very small e.g. doing just 10 seconds of stretching or flossing just one tooth! Going too hard too fast by saying you're going to go to the gym four times a week for an hour a time may be unsustainable for many people!

'Simplicity changes behavior... if a behavior frustrates you, it will not become a habit'.

The final key point is to celebrate your successes. We are too quick to kick ourselves and get annoyed when we don't do as much as we want. Be kind to yourself! Give yourself a celebratory high five and say a (probably slightly cringey) motivational phrase to yourself when you do that tiny habit each time like 'way to go!'. Emotion creates habit so hack your brain to associate a new habit with a good emotion. The reason behind this is because this creates a positive feedback loop that over time 'wires in' new habits.

Stopping unhealthy habits can be different to starting a new healthy one. BJ Fogg describes three types of habits: uphill e.g. going to the gym regularly (a little harder to maintain), downhill habits (once you start these are easy to maintain and you have to put in effort to stop them) and freefall habits (addictions, for which professional help is important). He talks about 'untangling' habits not 'breaking' them as such.

Again start small and start with the easiest part of the issues:

Remove the prompt, make it harder to do, or replace it with another behavior.

Some examples of tiny habits you could try building in over a few months or years:

  • Saying 'Today is going to be great' as you get out of bed each day- mindset hack.

  • Taking three deep abdominal breaths when you feel stressed- stress hack.

  • Putting on an informative podcast when you drive to work- time/productivity/brain health hack.

  • Swapping vegetable oil for olive oil, milk chocolate to >80% cocoa dark chocolate (start at a lower level of cocoa and build up), having a glass of water when you go downstairs each morning- nutrition hacks.

  • Putting your yoga mat somewhere visible and doing 30 seconds of stretching/jogging on the spot/press ups while the kettle boils in the morning- exercise hacks.

Start very small and give yourself a mental high five!

Extra reading:

BJ Fogg 'Tiny Habits' book-

Dr Chatterjee 'Feel Better in Five' book.

Dr David Amen 'Feel Better Fast and Make it Last' book.

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