Declaring your goals for a healthier year ahead can be exciting and empowering. You may have accelerated into 2020 with enthusiasm for the high expectations of what you will accomplish in the months ahead. Why then, is the reality of maintaining a new habit, so much easier said than done?
What exactly is a habit?
A ‘habit’ is defined as a behaviour we do automatically, requiring either very little or no thinking at all.
For example, loading the dishwasher every night after dinner is automatic. Brushing our teeth before bed? Automatic. Purchasing that perfectly brewed cup of coffee each morning? Automatic. We have completed these behaviours repeatedly; therefore our brain requires very little effort to put these into action. It is expected. It is routine.
If habits require little effort, why is it so difficult to establish new ones?
The key to maintaining a new habit is having the opportunity for repetition.
Using the coffee example, every morning for as long as you can remember, you’ve been stopping at your favourite café on the way to work to buy that lovely cup of joy to help get you through your day. Perhaps in the beginning, before this ritual became established, you may have found it a bit of a challenge to go out a little earlier each morning to ensure you had enough time to grab your caffeine fix before work. And yet, following months of repeating this behaviour five days a week, it soon became second nature and now easily fits into your daily routine.
The science tells us that when we repeat a new behaviour, the nerves in our brain and nervous system are stimulated; this strengthens our neural pathways, which means over time, this behaviour becomes automatic.
We need to have an opportunity to repeat our new healthy habit, and this needs to fit easily into our day.
So, what exactly can I do to make sure I stick to my new healthy habit?
There are three steps we can take to help that new habit become more automatic:
1) You need to identify a behaviour that you want to become a habit. Make the behaviour clear and measurable. For example, you identify that you want to practice Yoga more often. You decide you want to practice one hour of Yoga, three times a week. Write this behaviour in your journal, or on a calendar.
2) You need a cue, something that will prompt you to complete this behaviour. This cue could be environmental, situational, physical, visual or auditory. For example, you may identify that the best time for you to practice Yoga would be your days off, after the school drop off. So the situational cue here would be returning home after dropping your children at school. Perhaps, you could even wear your workout clothes for the school run so that you are ready to go.
3) You need an opportunity to repeat this behaviour. How many times can you realistically fit Yoga into your week? You may identify the best time would be on your days off, when the house is quiet. This gives you the opportunity to repeat this behaviour three times a week.
Visual tools are great to help keep you on track. Check off your sessions on the calendar as you go, check in at the end of each week to see how you went. Do you need to amend the schedule to make it fit easier into your life? Make it work for you!
What barriers do I need to watch out for?
Disruption to your usual routine can be a potential obstacle. We are human; we get ill; appointments will crop up unexpectedly; our days off from work may change. Our lives are changeable and so we have to create contingencies. If you have a really busy week coming up and scheduling in three one-hour yoga sessions is too much, could you reduce the duration of your practice to just 30 minutes? Could you change your days? Remember, some things occasionally may take priority over your Yoga practice. Do not beat yourself up if you have to cancel a session; practice compassion and kindness to yourself. Move on with your day, reflect and get back on track the following week.
Be aware of your inner critic. Some of us live with an inner mean voice that will try and sabotage our progress. It can be easy to listen to that inner voice that tells you to give up, and tells you that you will never be able to reach your goal, but it is important you are able to close off that inner voice. Offer yourself the positive encouragement you would offer a friend.
You may also want to watch out for when the ‘honeymoon phase’ ends. When we make resolutions, we are often taken by the ‘high’ of their anticipated success. Vivid images of what we believe our lives will look like when we achieve our goals can often distract us from the journey itself. When we initially start implementing these habits, we feel excited by how easy it all seems, only this can soon change to feelings of ambivalence; the initial drive to change can slow down. It is important to acknowledge the end result is not the goal here; what is important is that you are making small changes to enhance your health.
Every step, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction. So please be kind to yourself and express gratitude at all times.
Be realistic; plan feasible opportunities for you to practice this behaviour.
Keep it simple; do not try and introduce lots of new behaviours at one time. Take it one at a time and add in other challenges at a comfortable pace as you progress.
Have patience; developing and maintaining a new habit takes time. For some, it takes 21 days, for others, it can be 90 days, or even longer. Have patience and enjoy the journey.