Creating Healthy Habits That Stick

The beginning of a new year offers a clean slate with endless possibilities. And with it, inevitably, comes talk of New Year’s resolutions. According to Merriam-Webster, a New Year’s resolution is “the promise to do something differently in the year ahead.” But resolutions often have the negative connotation of being easily broken or abandoned. So if there are changes that you want to make in this new year, what is the most successful way to go about it? 

The physicians at Gaston Medical Partners suggest changing your thought process and approach. Instead of making resolutions, work to establish habits. Think brushing your teeth before bed, having your morning coffee, etc. Your body craves routine and habits help free up your mind to think about other things. 

You may wonder why it’s so hard to break a bad habit and the reason for that is fairly simple.  Your brain releases dopamine when a behavior brings pleasure, which makes you want to keep repeating the habit. That is where willpower and dedication come into play as you work against the craving and desire to give in to it.

We hear a lot about trying to break bad habits but what about creating healthy habits? While it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit, there are things that you can do to help set yourself up for success. The physicians at Gaston Medical are here to explain.

Ease into it

In order for something to become a habit, it needs to be done consistently so it becomes an automatic behavior. And that must start with setting realistic goals. For example, if you want to start regularly exercising, be honest with yourself about what will be attainable, remembering your body craves routine. Rather than planning to exercise one hour a day, five days a week, start with something more manageable, like 20 minutes, three times a week, and go from there. You will be surprised at how much easier an hour of exercise will feel once you’ve built up to it, versus going from zero to 100.

Rather than thinking about your end goal, focus on your objectives for a defined period of time to avoid becoming overwhelmed or discouraged. Think of your goals in weekly increments, and modify as needed. 

Record your goals to track your progress

Writing things down is helpful in jogging the memory, and it also keeps you accountable. At the beginning of every week, write down what you hope to accomplish and log your activity. It’s motivating to track your progress and can impact your goals for the following week.

Tag onto an existing habit

When incorporating new behaviors, it can be easy to forget about them or lose track of time throughout the day. What could help, experts say, is to tie the new activity to something you’re already doing. That way, you’ll be sure to complete it since you don’t forget well-established habits. 

Remember our earlier example of brushing your teeth being a habit? If your new goal is taking those multivitamins your doctor recommended, you might want to take them at the same time you brush your teeth. The new habit gets tied to the one that is already a well-established routine.

Connect a new behavior to something positive

In addition to tagging a new behavior to an existing habit, you may be more apt to do it if it’s associated with something positive. Whether it be new running sneakers or an audiobook reserved only for that activity, the more you’re motivated, the more consistent you can be, increasing your chances of creating the desired habit.

Have some accountability

It’s easier to follow through on something when you know that someone is depending on you. That’s why it often helps to have an exercise partner. If a family member or neighbor doesn’t share your same goals, turn to a friend who can help hold you accountable for the goal that you set. Maybe it’s texting them once you’ve completed a workout or knowing that you’re going to send them a picture of your weekly progress (since it’s all written down!). We are more apt to complete something when we know that someone is expecting us to do it.

Acknowledge and reward your wins

If you were able to complete all of your planned goals for the week, take a minute to bask in that success. You deserve it, and it should serve as motivation when looking at the week ahead. You’re on your way to making a habit of it.

Be kind to yourself

By the same token, we are all human, and life sometimes gets in the way and thwarts our plans. Don’t let that discourage you and make you abandon your goals. If you ended up eating a burger for dinner when you planned to eat grilled chicken, forgive yourself and know that tomorrow is another day to start fresh. If the day has gotten away from you and you can’t exercise for 30 minutes, do a seven-minute workout, or even just squats or crunches. Any exercise is better than no exercise, and it shows your commitment to developing healthy habits.

While it’s not easy (or immediate), we are all capable of changing our behaviors. A new year is a wonderful time to reflect on our goals and plan ahead to make them a reality. Remember that consistency is key in turning a goal into a habit, something our bodies crave. If you have specific questions about how to start establishing healthy habits, ask your primary care physician for help.