Seven principles for creating new long-term habits

Whether it’s getting more exercise, eating healthier, stopping smoking or reducing alcohol consumption, we’ve all made promises to ourselves to make changes, only to give up at the first sign of temptation, slipping comfortably back into our old ways. You only have to compare how full all the gyms are at the start of January to how quiet they become a few weeks later to see this for yourself.

I’ve put together some tips here to help you think differently about how to establish new habits, so that they actually last. This blog is mainly focused on weight management, but the principles can be applied to any changes you want to make.

I’m writing this from a professional perspective, as well as a personal one. Since January, I’ve lost almost 2 stone by following these principles. I’ve never been on a diet or followed a plan set out by somebody else; I made small tweaks to my days, then added more once they became an established part of my routine.

1. Find what works for you

This sounds obvious doesn’t it? But so often we follow plans simply because they worked for somebody else (hence the huge market offering various diet & exercise plans). If that works for you then great, but it’s important not to feel like a failure if it doesn’t – it just means that their plan wasn’t right for you. There is no one size fits all (excuse the pun!).

At the start of lockdown, I had good intentions to join the thousands of people joining in with Joe Wicks’ exercise classes every morning. But around 10 minutes into the very first one, when my 2 young children were demanding food & attention and trying to use me as a climbing frame, I realised that this wasn’t going to work for me. I wasn’t going to get half an hour uninterrupted so it was unrealistic & unfair to set myself a task that I knew I couldn’t achieve. But I didn’t use this as an excuse to give up – instead I looked at where else I could fit exercise in throughout my day. I also started wearing a fitness tracker so that I could see how a few minutes here and there were really adding up by the end of the day – seeing it on a screen was motivating for me because I didn’t realise how much running around I was already doing!

You are more likely to stick with a new behaviour if it feels good to you. If it doesn’t sit right for some reason or is too much effort right from the beginning, you’re unlikely to keep it up long-term. It’s important to make those very first steps appealing & easy.

2. Be organised – do something today that your future self will thank you for

Fast forward yourself to tomorrow morning. What would that version of you say about the you from today? Maybe “I’m proud of what you achieved yesterday, and thanks for planning ahead so that I have less to do today”? Or would it be “thanks for leaving the dishes piled in the sink, and no food in the fridge, so I’ll end up buying junk food for dinner again”. By taking a bit of time to plan ahead, whether that be making a shopping list, batch cooking meals, or preparing your outfit ready to put on in the morning, you reduce the amount of decisions and potential stress for the future you.

3. Focus on the process, not just the end goal

It’s great to have goals, but it’s just as important to focus on each small step that will take you towards it. Imagine your brain as a Sat Nav – you enter the end destination (your goal), and you follow each direction, one at a time, that takes you closer and closer to where you want to be. You’re not concerned about the fourth or fifth set of directions for now – only what your next move will be.

If you only focus on the end goal without thinking about how you’ll actually get there, then it becomes less a goal and more of a dream. Plus it can be quite daunting to think too far ahead, and may make you feel like it’s impossible so why bother? But planning one achievable thing that you can do today will give you the hormone hit required to motivate you on towards the next step, and so on.

4. Be mindful of your actions

Research suggests that around 95% of our behaviours & habits are subconscious, and without intervention, our brains would happily plod along doing the same things day in, day out for the rest of our lives. It saves energy and time to do what we’ve always done, and our brain thinks “we’ve survived so far, so we must be doing something right!” But, by bringing our actions into our field of awareness and making a conscious decision about whether they are a help or a hindrance to us, we take intellectual control to make different choices and changes going forward.

Change can feel uncomfortable, even when you know it’s for your own good; the primitive, survival part of our brain wants us to revert back to what we’ve always done. This part of the brain makes short-term associations (eg food makes us happy), and it compels us to get that feeling as much as possible, not realising that those behaviours may actually be a threat to our health & survival in the long term. Picture this part of the brain as your inner toddler – it likes to be comforted by the familiar, and doesn’t always know what’s for the best, so some gentle but firm guidance may be required from the higher functioning parts of our brain.

If you can think ahead to picture how you’ll feel a day, a week or a month down the line, you’re more likely to be using your intellectual brain and making decisions that help you get to where you want to be, rather than acting on impulse to feel good now.

5. Consistency is key

There are various reports about how long it takes to create a new habit, with studies claiming anything from 18 to over 200 days. However, the most important point is that you repeat the new behaviour you want to turn into a habit as much as you can. Once your brain associates the behaviour with feeling good, and further down the line when you start to see results, you’ll wonder how you ever went without your new found habit. Athletes don’t start out going to the gym 6 times a week, they might even dislike exercise to begin with, but they persist until their brain makes that positive association, where new neural pathways are created and strengthened within the brain, and it compels them to practise more and more. It becomes part of their identity.

I use a helpful mantra which acts as an easy reminder to keep on track: “never miss twice“. So if you have a day of junk food, a day off exercise or whatever your new desired habit may be, that’s ok. There’s no need to give yourself a hard time about it, and importantly, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed and should give up. Instead, use this as motivation for the next time – “I missed yesterday, so I’ll make sure I do it today”.

Attaching your new desired habit to an existing one, known as “habit stacking”, is a good way to ensure that you do it regularly. So for example, you might decide to do 5 push ups straight after brushing your teeth. Eventually, brushing your teeth becomes your cue to do push ups, and you feel compelled to do them because they are part of your morning & evening routine. Obviously you can then increase the amount once the seed has been planted, but it’s good to start off easy and small while you’re initially establishing the connection between the habits.

6. Don’t delay your happiness

I hear many clients say “I’ll feel good about myself when I’ve lost the weight” or “I’ll be happy when I’ve got my life back under control”. But if we delay happiness until we’ve achieved a certain goal, we not only risk missing out on a lot of happiness in the meantime, but we might actually be pushing that goal further away. If you don’t love or even like yourself, then where is the motivation to take care of yourself? I encourage clients to see a different perspective on this – by trying to bring some happiness in now, finding things you are grateful for in your life and about yourself, you send yourself a message that you are worth taking care of.

We treat things differently depending on the value we attribute to it. Imagine you inherited some jewellery which you didn’t particularly like, you assume they’re imitation stones so let your kids use them to play dressing up. But one day you decide to double check whether the jewellery is actually worth anything and you discover that your children have been dragging precious gems around the garden – do you continue to let them be used as a toy? Probably not!

By changing your perspective, being kind and showing yourself some love from the outset, you encourage self-caring behaviours to follow. Some of my clients use affirmations to instil feelings of self-worth, so they might tell themselves “I am doing my best”, or “I am enough”. It can feel strange saying these to yourself if you’re not used to it, but with repetition, this exercise has been shown to have positive effects on self-esteem and motivation.

7. Relax!

Increased stress levels have been shown to negatively impact our ability to lose weight. In times of stress, the body clings onto fat stores and we are more likely to make impulse decisions about food. By turning off our stress response, we allow the body go into its natural “rest & digest” state. Here, everything works more efficiently and we have more control to make intellectual, helpful decisions that support our goals. Positive action, positive interaction & positive thinking are all crucial to creating the necessary hormones that help us to de-stress and give ourselves the best mindset to fulfil our goals.

I hope you’ve found this helpful & maybe it’s led you to think differently about how you approach making changes. As a therapist, my role is to support my clients & get their minds engaged in coming up with their own solutions. I don’t advise any particular approach over another – it’s all about the individual finding what works for them in the long-term.

If you’d like to discuss how hypnotherapy can help with creating life-long changes for you, then please do get in touch.

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