How to change habits

Changing some of our habits that we have had for very long time can be daunting. Habits are those things we “just do” without thinking about it, for example brushing our teeth. Some of our habits might be bad for us (like smoking) or some of our habits can be good for us (going for a 20min walk each morning). A lot of my coaching is based on changing our lifestyle habits to promote our overall health. When someone wants to improve their health we always start by looking at what their daily habits currently look like. Maybe there are some small habits that can be changed easily and maybe there are some habits that take a bit longer. Changing habits can be very hard and it normally takes 66 days before we can say we starting “just doing” them. You will be motivated to do the change at the beginning, but then when it gets harder you will want to give up. But if we really want to change this habit we have to realise that it will take some effort and practice to do so. I recently wanted to start a new habit of taking a cod liver oil on a daily basis but somehow, I always kept forgetting to take it. Why did I forget? Because the tablets were tucked away in my cupboard that I didn’t necessarily open every morning. How did I change the habit? By moving the tablets by my coffeemaker and since making coffee first thing in the morning is an already engrained habit, I made sure not to forget the cod liver tablets by placing them there.

Changing a bad habit that you don’t necessarily want to change but should or have to change (like smoking for example) can be a bit harder because you are removing something from your life rather than adding (like I did with my cod liver oil tablet). It is therefore suggested that instead of removing the bad habit (of smoking) you should replace it with something else. A simple example in nutrition terms would be that if you for example have run into the habit of eating one chocolate bar at 4pm every day – try the following steps to change this habit:

Step 1: Figure out WHY you are having the chocolate at this time every day?

  • Is it because you want something sweet?
  • Is it because you are hungry?
  • Is it a mental state? Are you tired and/or emotional?
  • Is it a social thing? Are you having it with other people?

Step 2: When you know WHY you are having the chocolate you can try to replace the habit with something else

  • Is it because you want something sweet? -> try having a fruit or a tea/coffee with sweetener instead
  • Is it because you are hungry? -> make sure you eat a bigger lunch the next day so that you won’t get hungry or replace the chocolate bar with something more nutritional (for example fruits or a smaller meal)
  • Is it a mental state? Are you tired and/or emotional? -> can you do something else to snap out of this state? Can you go for a walk, have a coffee, do some stretching, talk to someone?
  • Is it a social thing? Are you having it with other people? -> suggest doing something else than eating a chocolate bar together, maybe have a coffee or go for a walk

Changing a habit can seem hard to start with but the more you break the habit down into smaller pieces and progress the task along the way the easier and more sustainable it will be. Another simple example is the decision to start going to the gym. Don’t start of by setting a goal of going 6 days a week. Because as soon as you miss one day you will start feeling like you are failing, although you are in fact doing so well since you were going from never going to the gym to maybe 4 times! Set small starting goals and then you will continue to progress and you can be proud of yourself. So instead you can set out your progression curve like below

Week 1-2: Go to the gym once a week for 40min
Week 3-4: Go to the gym twice a week for 40min
Week 5-6: Go to the gym three times a week for 40min
Week 7-8: Go to the gym three times a week for 50min
Week 9-10: Go to the gym three times a week for 60min

Again – it doesn’t have to be more complicated than this. And it is now more likely that you will stick to this new lifestyle because you will be able to do yourself proud by sticking to your goal. And if you one week won’t be able to go at all (because life sometimes get in the way!) that is completely fine too and you are not a failure, you are a human and it is just to get back on track the following week.

Lastly, regardless of the change you want to make – make sure it is a change that make you happy. If it doesn’t make you happy it won’t be sustainable in the long run and why would you want to make a habit that makes you unhappy, life is too short.

In the next blog post I will talk more specifically about small nutritional habit changes that are easy to make.


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