by Mia Acchorner, Student Dietitian & Amanda Smith, Accredited Practising Dietitian
Every time the New Year comes around, the big question looms – “what are your New Year’s resolutions?” Some people are too afraid to say anything out loud out of fear they won’t stick to anything. Others seem to be able to rattle down a whole list of things that will transform them into new and improved versions of themselves. To us, this time is a valuable opportunity to self-reflect on the things that went well over the last 12 months, as well as the things that might need a dose of TLC to get us back on track. So we’re here to show you how to form new habits, and actually stick to them! Even through that first little bout of January motivation that is bound to fizzle out once the holiday limbo ends and the to-do list starts piling on.
Let’s break down the formation of a habit into 3 simple phases:
PHASE 1 – Planning the habit
PHASE 2 – Implementing the behaviour (the hardest part)
PHASE 3 – Success! It’s a habit!
Planning the habit
This is the initial phase of forming a new habit, which involves formulating what the actual habit is going to be, and putting a game plan into place. This stage is critical. Studies have suggested that once a habit is formed, we will continue to perform it, regardless of whether it is still linked with a desired outcome or even if we no longer want to achieve the habit’s outcome. So, make sure your habits are going to serve you well and bring something good to your life. This is also what makes habits so unique, in that once they are formed, they become a mindless part of our day. After that, it’s smooth sailing.
When you’re thinking about what kind of habits you could start incorporating into your life, it’s a good idea to be specific with what you want to achieve. This is to ensure it’s not too overwhelming and so you can measure your progress. For example, instead of saying you want to exercise more, try to specify what exercise you want to do more of, how often you plan to do it and for how long.
For example: “I want to start going for a 30 minute jog once a week.”
Your habits should be realistic though, because there’s no point in starting some crazy routine if you’ll only stick to it for a few days. The aim of these habits is to bring sustainable change to your life – they’re a long-term commitment. So start with small steps to leave room to build on them later.
Lastly, make it fun! It’s the new year and there’s a lot of fresh and exciting energy in the air, and building new habits doesn’t have to be a drag. Rather, it should be an opportunity for you to make some adjustments to feel better and move closer to achieving your bigger goals in life. So, get a friend involved and turn your weekly exercise into a nice catch-up (2 in 1!), see how many different colours you can create with your morning smoothie, pick up a vegetable you’ve never cooked with before or start lighting scented candles in the evening to get you ready for a good night’s sleep.
Implementing the behaviour
This phase is about getting started and is arguably the most difficult part of the process. It’s where many people end up giving up. Habit stacking exploits habits you’ve already formed, which is a great way to reduce how much effort it takes to form new ones. The way it works is that you tack something new onto a habit that’s already part of your life. If you want to drink more water, you could drink a glass of water before brushing your teeth. The more you carry out these two actions as a pair, the more automatic the new habit becomes. You could then add flossing after brushing your teeth to this chain, to form a little routine. This means you’re kicking multiple goals in a single block, without really having to adjust your whole schedule for it.
For habits that take up a bit more time, like exercising or meal prepping, it might be a good idea to have a look at your calendar and block out some time that you want to dedicate towards reaching this goal. A habit is less about the justification of its value in your head, but rather about the physical repeated action of doing it. Of course, initially, it is made easier if you have a clear purpose and motivation as to why you should be adding something to your routine, but the focus should be on actually making it work in your schedule in a repetitive manner. This could be blocking out your Wednesday morning to go for a walk with a friend, reserving your Sunday afternoon for grocery shopping and food prepping, or waking up 10 minutes earlier to meditate on workdays.
But remember, if you’re struggling to stick to this new routine, it’s okay. We need to get rid of the expectation that it’s going to be easy and that we’re immediately going to be amazing at whatever it is we’re trying. Change is inherently difficult, and this initial phase is a steep learning curve. Even beyond that, it’s often not a linear incline, but rather a series of hills and valleys. So keep in mind that this is a long-term commitment and not just about the instant gratification of it.
If you do fall off the wagon, lose motivation or life gets in the way, rather than beating yourself up about it, put yourself in the best position to get back on track because it’s really not about all or nothing. A nice way to think about it is that trying a new habit is like a set of revolving doors, where you can step out and then just step straight back in and try again. Ultimately, success is a numbers game so the more we try, the more likely we are to succeed.
Because of this, if those 10 minutes of meditation on weekday mornings aren’t working for you anymore, you could try practising in the evening instead or even fit it in after you’ve eaten on your lunch break. Or if you’re struggling to get to the gym, lay out your workout clothes the night before, block out an hour of your day, book in a class or ask a friend to join you. Put the structures in place to increase the chances of that new behaviour happening so you can rely less on your motivation and willpower in the moment.
But also try to notice if there are certain cues or situations that are stopping you from forming a habit and think about ways to minimise these triggers. It might be that you need to start switching your phone off at dinner to get your 8 hours of sleep if the scrolling on Instagram is what’s keeping you up, for example.
Interestingly, thinking about failure is worse than the actual experience of failing because we underestimate the ability of humans to bounce back. But we are champions at this; it’s an evolutionary adaptation that has ensured our survival and allowed us to become the superpower species that we are today. So don’t underestimate yourself and this starts with self-talk. A lot of our identity is defined by our inner narrative. If we can shift this in line with our goals, we’re doing ourselves a huge favour. An example of this could be when we’re trying to get in the habit of exercising, which has a very steep learning curve, we can start telling ourselves and others “I’m an exerciser”. This new habit becomes an integral and embedded part of our lives.
It’s a habit
Woohoo! After that initial hill and once you’ve repeated a certain behaviour enough, it will inevitably become a habit that’s part of your routine, as mindless as brushing your teeth. We hope you can feel confident to get some new habits on the road today, tomorrow or when the New Year rolls around to achieve sustainable and lasting change.