Healthy Habits

How to Make Them Stick

We all know ways to be healthier. Moving more, eating better and drinking more water are some of the more obvious. But knowing how to be healthier and achieving it, are two very different things. As Tim Ferris, New York Times best-selling author says: ‘It’s not what you know, it’s what you do consistently’.

Being healthy comes down to your day-to-day choices – your habits - the small acts which individually might seem insignificant but combined create miracles, or monsters. It stacks up, that the things you do ‘on-the-daily’, well, stack up! It’s not easy though - forming habits is hard and behaviour change hurts. If being healthier is the goal though, habits are the processes by which you achieve those goals. As 17th Century British poet John Dryden is credited with saying; ‘we first make our habits, then our habits make us’. 

Solid theory from Dryden. But the practice of starting the habits is something else, when it’s 6am on a dark winter morning, the snooze button is calling, and your early morning run plans are being firmly parked until summer.

So how do you make the healthy habits second nature? How do you get past the painful part, to the open seas of plain sailing, where everything happens as automatically as brushing your teeth? If your New Year’s Resolutions were dead in the water by February, keep reading.

Habit Loops

Journalist Charles Duhigg introduces the concept of the ‘habit loop’ in ‘The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.’ He explains how these loops provide the key to deciphering how and why habits develop. He proposes that habit forming always follows the same pattern; a simple neurological loop that can be broken down into the following steps;

  1. The cue (a signal to trigger the habit)
  2. The routine (the thing we do which we would refer to as ‘the habit’)
  3. The reward (the desired outcome)

By understanding our habits in this way, we can begin to recognise; what cues them, what rewards we are striving for, and how to hack the system. The cues and rewards might not be as obvious as they first appear and identifying them properly is key. You need time set aside to collect objective feedback on this first before you try to change anything. For example you might think that it is hunger and a dip in sugar levels that is the cue which makes you crave a chocolate bar at 3pm in the office. When in fact, it could actually be boredom and a craving for social interaction at the canteen which is the real reward you are seeking. Experiment with changing different aspects of the loop to provide more feedback and manipulate your loops to create the routine you desire.

Habit Stacking

Most of us have many deeply ingrained habits which are regular and automatic in our day-to-day routines. In the morning for example, making coffee, showering and dressing, work like clockwork for most of us (luckily!). Habit stacking uses a well-established existing habit, as a cue for a new one. For example, your morning habit stack could grow from making your morning coffee, to meditating for five minutes following drinking your coffee. Or drinking a glass of water alongside your coffee to kick-start hydration. You could then use the habit of drinking the water as a cue to take your vitamins and mineral supplements and so on.

The phrase 'habit stacking' was coined by Wall Street Journal bestselling author S.J Scott. His 2014 book Habit Stacking: 97 Small Life Changes That Take Five Minutes or Less proposes you, ‘build routines around habits that don't require effort’ because ‘small wins build momentum because they're easy to remember and complete.’

Take an audit of your existing daily habits as well as one of the habits you would like to implement: see what you could stack where. Try it one habit at a time and give each time to stick.

Make it Enjoyable with Rewards

If habits are the processes by which we achieve our goals, then achieving those goals is the reward? For example if the habit is exercising more, being fit and healthy is surely the ultimate reward? It absolutely is, but keeping in touch with the bigger picture and the ultimate goal isn’t always easy in the moment. Habits are often a short-term sacrifice, in pursuit of a long-term gain. Whilst our brain is programmed to crave comfort and rewards in the moment. Try and make an instant reward as well. If you can make the habit itself rewarding that is ideal. If you’re trying to get fit, but you hate the gym, for example, find something you love. A dance class with friends could be the habit and the reward in one. If the healthy habit is something less appealing, then give yourself a reward for doing it.

Neville Koopowitz, CEO of Vitality says they have ‘seen success by using the power of incentives,’ and have tested the effectiveness too. In a study published by NPJ Digital Medicine Journal, they found: ‘on average participants taking part in the Vitality Active Rewards Programme completed an extra month’s worth (34 days) of exercise annually when given short term rewards’.

Members can earn points by hitting their daily steps, working out at a partner gym, joining a Parkrun, running, cycling or swimming using their linked activity tracking device. You can also earn points by having a Vitality Healthcheck and more. With these Vitality activity points, members can earn a wide range of rewards from Active Reward partners such as – Apple Watch, Café Nero, Waitrose, Amazon Prime, Champneys Health Spa, Cineworld & Vue and many more. Rewards are powerful because they satisfy cravings.

Plan Ahead

Leave no ambiguity in your intentions. ‘I will exercise more’ or ‘I will eat better’ is not going to cut it. If you plan to build a new habit of working out three days a week, pin down exactly when you will exercise, where you’ll be and what you’ll be doing. If you are going to the gym, make a plan for your workout, book in if you can, invite a friend to join you. Make every commitment you can to that future plan, in advance. It will always be easier to be motivated and in touch with your long-term goals in advance, than it will be in the moment, just before you have to actually get your trainers on.

It’s also helpful to pre-empt and plan for your excuses or any obstacles which might prevent you from completing the habits. Record anything that has happened before. Have you been unable to go to the gym because you forgot your kit in the morning rush for example? Learn to pack it the night before. Have you been put off that run because of the rain? Invest in a great waterproof jacket which you love to put on.

Track your progress

It may seem counter-intuitive to essentially add another habit to your day, in order to track your progress. But the very act of tracking a behaviour can itself spark the desire to change it. The visual display of progress is also the biggest motivator to continue, particularly on a day your resolve is waning. What gets measured, gets managed. It’s often easy to convince yourself you have been keeping something up a little better than the data might reveal. Equally, it’s easy to believe your habit is not having any affect, if you can’t see the results of progress quick enough.

As James Clear claims in his New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits; ‘Habit formation is a long race. It often takes time for the desired results to appear. And while you are waiting for the long-term rewards of your efforts to accumulate, you need a reason to stick with it in the short-term. You need some immediate feedback that shows you are on the right path. And this is where a habit tracker can help.’

Tracking progress is a powerful reward in itself. Whenever you check the habit off your list, your brain is recognising a task as completed and subsequently releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for generating feelings of accomplishment, satisfaction and happiness. Have you ever written a job on your to-do-list, just so you can cross it off, because it feels so great!? That's dopamine.

Habit tracking can take the basic format of crossing days off a calendar for each habit completed (free downloadable habit tracker pdf here, or a journal here). This can also have the added benefit of being a visual reminder or cue to complete the habit. Alternatively, if you prefer something more high-tech there are plenty of apps available to help. Technology often gets the wrap for a lot of our bad habits; like that social media addiction, or the Netflix obsession. Flip the tables and make the technology work for you for a change. There are many apps out there that make it easier to keep on track. Streaks and HabitBull are popular ones, they all work slightly differently, so see which suits you best.

Associate with Role Models

Surround yourself with people whose habits you want to emulate. Humans are social creatures and as such we are influenced by those around us. In times-gone-by our survival would have relied upon this social need to band together. As Julia Coultas, a researcher at the University of Essex, puts it, “For an individual joining a group, copying the behaviour of the majority would then be a sensible, adaptive behaviour. A conformist tendency would facilitate acceptance into the group and would probably lead to survival if it involved the decision, for instance, to choose between a nutritious or poisonous food, based on copying the behaviour of the majority.”

This affected our psychology, meaning humans are effectively pre-programmed to go along with the group. No matter how independent, free-willed and motivated you are, it will be easier if those around you are doing the same thing.

This doesn’t just apply to friends you hang out with either - set yourself up with a support crew. You can’t change the world on your own. Join a club, get yourself a personal trainer, join an online group, use a nutritionist's advice. You cannot rely on your own motivation 24/7. No one can. Surround yourself with knowledgeable people who are on your side and understand your goals. Health Insurance usually includes access to a wealth of support in the form of Digital GPs, mental health helplines, nutritionists, advice and treatment from alternative therapists and online communities to help keep you on track.

Keep Going

One of the reasons many habits fall by the wayside is you miss a day or two, you feel disheartened, and you quit. Everyone fails at some point, but don’t let a small failure turn into a big failure. It’s no big deal – you just missed a day. Just don’t make it two days.

It can be easy for negative self-talk to sabotage your success over one missed day. If this is the case, some psychologists suggest the ‘but’ rule. When you hear the negative thoughts coming, for example, ‘I’m so lazy, I missed my workout’ follow it up with… ‘BUT... I’m not going to miss tomorrow and I’ll get back on track’.

To avoid the negative self-talk, you need to build trust with yourself, that you will do what you say you will: you’ll deliver on your habits. Make sure you don’t challenge yourself with something you cannot deliver on. Always guarantee success and build on it in small amounts.

Whilst it is important to focus on the process and taking one day at a time, don’t forget the bigger picture and what it is that these daily habits are working towards. As Nir Eyal points out in his book Indistractable, your habits are either gaining ‘traction’ towards your end goal, or they’re a ‘distraction’ away from it. Make sure you know the difference and you keep going in the right direction.

 

Habits are such a vital piece in the jigsaw of health. You could be an oracle of healthy knowledge, but without the ability to implement the habits, it is worthless. Building them into your life takes determination, persistence and consistency. It is like working a muscle. The more you do it, the stronger it gets. But it is definitely worth the effort.

The pandemic has turned routines on their head for many of us. For some it has provided the extra time and freedom to take up new, healthier habits. For others, the lack of structure has been disastrous for normally strong diet and exercise routines. As many of us begin to return to our pre-pandemic routines this summer, we have an excellent opportunity to evaluate our old habits and build a framework for creating new ones. See if you can use the opportunity to introduce a new habit and improve your health.

As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits says; ‘Your life today is essentially the sum of your habits’. Make sure your habits are working for you and watch it all add up.

Find out more about how Health Insurance can support your health and wellness aims and get those habits to stick for life.

 

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