We all know the drill: eat less sugar and processed food, eat more fruit & veg (and a wider, colourful range). Move more (and stop scrolling mindlessly through tiktok dance-offs, but I’m not ready to give that up quite yet). Yup, we’re pretty good at starting health-kicks and resolutions, but how do you build habits that last? Here are 5 tips that really make a difference, adapted from James Clear’s brilliant book Atomic Habits.
Researchers estimate that 40 to 50% of our actions on any given day are done out of habit. Wow – worth understanding how they work. Habits are like the slip road to the motorway; they lead you down a path, and before you know it, you’re heading towards the next behaviour. Each day, there are a handful of moments that deliver a big impact – for example, the moment you decide between ordering a takeaway or cooking supper. The moment you choose between driving your car or riding your bike.
Your behaviour each day is made up of a few small, regular choices that determine the path you take. These little choices stack up, each one setting the intention for how you spend the next chunk of time. So once you see habits as the entry point, not the end point, they become MUCH more manageable.
Even when you know you should start small, it’s easy to start too big. When you dream about making a change, excitement inevitably takes over and you end up trying to do too much too soon. You buy a fridge full of veggies, only to chuck the mouldy cauliflower 6 days later. You spend months waiting for the Peloton bike, only for it to gather dust later a few months later. (Actually, that hasn’t happened here, 2 years in and we still use ours at least twice a week).
When you start a new habit, it should take less than 2 minutes to do. Scale it down, no matter how ambitious you’re feeling – for instance:
The idea is to make your habits as easy as possible to start. Anyone can mediate for one minute, read one page, or open the freezer. And once you’ve started doing the right thing, it is MUCH easier to continue doing it. Eating a healthy breakfast makes you feel good about yourself, so you’re more likely to eat a healthy lunch, which means that you don’t feel sluggish at 4pm, so you go to the gym after work, which gives you an endorphin boost and stops you reaching for the Pinot Grigio. Simple. A new habit should not feel like a challenge. The actions that follow can be challenging, but the first 2 minutes should be easy. What you want is a ‘gateway habit’ that naturally leads you down a healthier path. Enter your morning smoothie.
Every behaviour that we perform has a surface level craving and a deeper, underling motive. I often get a craving that goes “I need to eat toast.” If you were to ask me why I want to eat toast I wouldn’t say “because I need food to survive”, the truth is that somewhere deep down, I am motivated to eat toast because I want to relieve anxiety, and give myself a food hug.
Our habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires (posting on the ‘gram = winning social approval; using Tinder = finding love and reproducing; Googling everything under the sun = reduce uncertainty and anxiety). Once you understand the underlying desire, then you can start to find a different way of dealing with it. You might reduce stress by vaping, but you could also reduce it by going for a run. Your need for social approval could be managed by a quick text to your bestie.
No behaviour happens in isolation. Take going to the loo (lowering the tone, sorry!). It leads to washing and drying your hands, which reminds you that you need to put the dirty towels in the laundry, so you add washing powder to the shopping list, which reminds you that you also need to add cat food to the list, which reminds you to clean out the kitty litter (back to toilet habits). Why is this important? When it comes to building new habits, we can use the connectedness of behaviour to help us. Find and identify a habit that you already do each day, and then stack your new, desired, behaviour on top. For example:
The secret to creating a successful habit stack is selecting the right cue to kick things off. If you’re trying to add mediation after brushing your teeth, but mornings are chaotic and your kids keep interrupting you, then that’s the wrong time and cue. Don’t try and stack a habit when you’re busy with something else. Your cue should also be as frequent as the habit you’re trying to create – if you want to do a habit every day, but you stack it on top of a habit that only happens on Sundays, that’s not a good choice!
Here’s where we come in. By choosing our ‘subscribe and save’ option, you’ll get a little welcome pack that contains a reward chart, fridge magnet and 20 heart stickers. Pop the magnet on your fridge to remind you of the good stuff inside (no forgetting about your smoothies behind the bag of peas and old fish fingers), and each time you drink a smoothie, stick a little heart on the cup. When your 5 cups are full at the end of the week, it’s time for a reward!
Habit tracking is powerful because it makes a new behaviour obvious, attractive and satisfying. The most effective form of motivation is progress. When we see that we are moving forward, we become more motivated to continue down that path. So habit tracking can have an addictive effect on motivation.
Recording your last action creates a trigger that can initiate your next one. It naturally builds a series of visual cues, which means that when you see your ‘winning’ streak, you’ll be reminded to act again. Habit tracking also keeps you honest. Most of us have a distorted view of our own behaviour and think we act better than we do. Measurement offers one way to overcome our blindness to our own behaviour and notice what’s really going on each day.
Habit tracking is also satisfying: it can become its own form of reward. It is satisfying to cross an item off your to-do list, to complete an entry in your workout log or to slap a little heart sticker on your reward chart. It feels good to watch your results grow – and if it feels good, then you’re more likely to endure.
Finally, habit tracking also helps keep your eye on the ball; you’re focused on the process rather than the result. You’re not fixated on losing weight, you’re just trying to keep your streak alive and become the kind of person who starts the day with a healthy breakfast.
There is so much more to read on this topic (I wholeheartedly recommend reading Atomic Habits), but we hope that these 5 tips give you a head start on the road to eating more healthily, happily, every day. And do use your reward chart!
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