How to build new healthy habits.

building healthy habits

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If you’ve ever set out to install new healthy habits into your life you’ll know all too well how hard it is to get those damn things to stick.

Maybe you’re ready to make a concerted effort to lose weight and regain your fitness levels but you’re stuck in default mode. You just can’t break away from your day to day routines and habits which deep down you know aren’t helpful.

It doesn’t matter if you’re lacking fitness and want to make a start.

Or if you’re looking to achieve a new personal best on a 10km run…

Everything hinges on your habits.

Habits drive pretty much every action you complete throughout the day.

Brushing your teeth is a habit.

Tying your show laces is a habit.

Eating crisps and chocolate late at night can also be a habit.

Habits get hardwired into your brain until you don’t even realise you’re doing them.

Some habits are good, like getting up early each morning and going to the gym before work.

Some habits aren’t so good… 

unhealthy habit of hitting the snooze button
(image credit – chronobiology.com)

Like hitting the snooze button 5 times before throwing yourself out of bed and heading off to work without having time for breakfast.

Actions are at the heart of habits, the good ones, the bad ones, and the downright ugly ones.

Gorging on a full pack of chocolate biscuits until you’re so full you feel sick, is one of those ugly habits.

Before we go any further, please take note…

This article isn’t for those of you looking for another quick-fix or short-cut solution to health.

This article will teach you how to identify each habit harming your health and fitness levels, and then change it for the better.

It’s not a quick or easy process.

It requires you to think, be honest with yourself and be deliberate in your actions.

If you’re at the point where another half-hearted attempt at being healthy is not what you’re looking for, then you’re in the right place.

We’ll start by learning a little about what habits are, how to break your own habits down into individual segments and then start rebuilding them.

You’ll look at the role of willpower and how to manage the energy required to summon this mighty powerful human trait when you need it the most. 

We’ll also explore how to understand that complex brain of yours (and mine) so that you no longer self-sabotage every healthy habit you try to create for yourself.

And we’ll finish off by building a solution that allows you to keep these new healthy habits going for many years to come.

So, without further a-do, let’s get into it…

I want to start by noting the 3 books I’ve personally benefitted from a great deal when it comes to understanding my habits, the role of my brain and how to be realistic in my approach to continually getting fitter, healthier and happier…

how to change your health habits book recommendations.

The Power Of Habit – Charles Duhigg.

Switch – Chip & Dan Heath.

The ONE Thing – Gary Keller & Jay Papasan.

Understanding the structure of your daily habits is an important first step.

The Habit Loop

The Habit Loop is a 3-step process written about in depth by Pulitzer Prize winning author Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power Of Habit.

Each of the 3-steps is explained below…

Step One: The Cue

The start of your habit loop can be visual, emotional or environmentally driven.

For example…

A visual trigger such as seeing a chocolate bar on the shelf of a supermarket.

chocolate bars on supermarket shelf

Or driving on the motorway and seeing the McDonald’s golden arches.

A certain place, for example being at work in the office, at the supermarket or in a restaurant.

An emotion, such as being happy, sad, relaxed, anxious or stressed.

Or being in the company of particular group of people such as friends or family.

The Cue is what triggers a routine or response…

Step Two: The Routine

This can be a physical, mental or emotional response. 

The routine is the action(s) you undertake in response to a specific cue.

For example…

Driving on the motorway you see the McDonalds golden arches. You immediately leave the motorway and pull into the McDonald’s Drive Through to order a burger and milkshake…

Getting home from work after a stressful day, you head straight to the fridge, open a bottle of wine and pour a glass.

Going out for coffee with a group of friends you get to the cafe and order a slice of cake (even though you said to yourself you wouldn’t eat cake today.)

Over time your routines become automatic and habitual until you are completing the actions of your routine without even realising what you’re doing.

The actions you carry out within your routine lead to a rewards…

Step Three: The Reward

The reward helps your brain figure out if the circuit of events is worth remembering.

When you eat your McDonalds burger you start to feel your hunger craving is being satisfied.

Sitting down and taking the first sip of wine after work you immediately feel more relaxed.

Spending time with your friends having coffee makes you feel included, giving into the cake means you don’t end up being the outcast of the group.

How the habit loop sticks

The interesting thing about these actions is that, once they have been repeated often enough your brain begins to expect them.

The anticipation of the reward can be lurking in your mind before you’ve even got as far as the initial cue!

Every time you set of driving a specific route you start thinking about McDonald’s Drive-Through. 

When you arrange to meet your friends for coffee you immediately wonder what cakes the cafe will have for you to try.

And when you’re having a stressful day at work you start thinking about a glass of wine later that day.

The good news is all habits can change, but you need to spend some time thinking about how to do it.

How to change the habit loop

“Most people’s habits have occurred for so long they don’t pay attention to what causes it anymore” Brad Dufrene – The Power of Habit.

To change a habit you know is detrimental to your health then you first need to understand what the cues are…

You also need to understand that once a habit is formed your brain becomes hardwired and starts to anticipate the reward sensation associated with each cue. 

This is where cravings come from.

Neurological cravings occur slowly over time, so we’re often not even aware of their influence over us…

So, take a step back and figure out;

  1. What are the habits you want to change?
  2. What is triggering them?

The golden rule of habit change

The golden rule forms the backbone of many habit change approaches such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

You can use it for your less drastic health habit changes too.

To change a habit, you don’t try to change all the components of the habit loop.

Just work on replacing the Routine.

This is a form of Habit Reversal that is used in therapy across the globe.

“The truth is the brain can be reprogrammed. You just need to be deliberate about it.” Nathan Azin, The Power of Habit.

Important Note– 

The pace at which you make changes to your habits is vital to your success.

Try and replace the routine that is sending you off course overnight and chances are you’ll fall short and revert back to default.

Creating healthy habits is often underestimated and ends in failure

Here’s a few examples we can all relate to…

How often have you (or someone close to you) stated that as of next week you’ll make a change and cut out all sugar foods from your diet?

Not drink a single glass of wine until the weekend?

Cut caffeine out full stop?

But then within the first few days of your new healthy approach to life everything comes unstuck and you quickly revert back to the same-old, same-old.

Drastic lifestyle changes seem attractive at the time. 

The idea of simply ignoring ingrained habit loops and overriding them with new habits is in reality, naive.

So, all you need to do is use your willpower and be resilient to get the results you want, right?

Unfortunately not.

Banking on willpower and resilience to be there when you need help has its short comings…

Gary Keller explains more in his book, The One Thing.

The Role of Willpower

“It seemed so straight forward: invoke my will and success was mine. Sadly, I didn’t need to pack much as the trip was short. My willpower seemed to come and go as if it had a life of its own”

The sooner we start to realise that willpower is in limited supply the better our chances of making a lasting change are.

It’s not as easy as over-riding one bad habit with a new healthy one.

Here’s where to start

Imagine your willpower is a battery…

Willpower battery reserves image

Every action you do throughout the day requires a certain amount of energy.

Some actions demand more energy than others.

Everyday routines like getting dressed in a morning, brushing your teeth and tying your shoe laces have been repeated that many times they are on auto-pilot and need little energy from your willpower battery. 

This is because they are well practiced habits.

Over time the more ingrained a habit becomes the less brain power needed.

Those unhealthy habits you’ve created over the years are likely also acting on auto-pilot too (without you even realising).

Other actions such as trying to ignore the sweet foods in the office will be a much bigger drain on your willpower reserves.

Opening the fridge and resisting the bottle of wine staring back at you is a big ask too.

Combine the continuous stresses of day-to-day life with your willpower battery reserves.

Is it any wonder most of us can only get to the middle of the afternoon before we no longer have the power to resist whatever sweet foods are lying in wait around the office?

Or end up binging on crisps, wine and chocolate in the evenings after a long day.

The Solution

First, remember you need to figure out the 3 steps of your habit loop.

The Cue, The Routine, The Reward.

Then, you need to focus in on the Routine part of the loop.

When you do that you’ll be onto something worthwhile…

But here’s an important facet to consider.

The Pace of Change

Multi-tasking is a myth that impacts your healthy habits image

“When you try to do too much at once you end up doing nothing well. Figure out what matters the most in the moment and give it your undivided attention.” – Gary Keller, The ONE Thing.

Keller, explains how thinking you can change lots of things at once (multi-tasking) is a myth that needs to be exposed.

Think about those healthy habits again.

How easy is it to think you’ll be able to go in and start changing all your unhealthy habits within the first week?

Deep down you know this is a road to nowhere but still it’s a romantic thought to have.

The best representation of asking too much of yourself happens each New Year in the form of New Years Resolutions.

Those old faithful resolutions, that most of us are never faithful to.

It’s little wonder we fail at making healthy changes to our lifestyles if we’re aiming for objectives that are so far out of reach they are, unattainable.

Think back to the last new year’s resolution or healthy lifestyle promise you made yourself.

If you’ve managed to make it stick….well done.

The reality for most of us is different.

Healthy New Years habits list
(Image credit – www.freepik.com)
  1. Set what we believe is a good health goal.
  2. Start week one full of enthusiasm and energy.
  3. Energy starts to waiver after 2-3 weeks.
  4. Give up and go back to our original default position.

In my mind there are 2 main reasons for this cycle of events.

  1. The goal you set was far too much of a change from your current default position and you expected too much of yourself.
  2. You tried to change too many things at the same time and fell into the myth of being able to multi-task your way through.

Understanding that both wholesale changes and quick results are not the realistic route to health goal success is important. 

Focusing on one element of your habit loop is without doubt the most successful approach you can start with.

But wait, there’s more…

The Role of Your Brain

It’s becoming more apparent within the field of psychology that your brain plays an overwhelming role in the formation of habits.

Good habits and bad habits.

In your brain there are two independent systems at work all the time. 

The first is the emotional side, where your instinct is found, it’s also where you feel pain and pleasure.

The second is the rational side, where your conscious system is found. This is where reflection and analysis occur.

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath discuss the different analogies they researched that best describe the two systems of the brain.

They settled on that by Psychologist Jonathon Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.

The emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider.

Habit change is hard when the rational brain fights against the emotional brain

“Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime a six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched.”  Switch, Chip and Dan Heath.

The rider is happy to play the long-game and knowns that results won’t happen overnight, whereas the elephant is drawn towards short-term instant gratification.

Think about weight-loss for a second…

The rider knows that losing weight gradually over time and learning how to keep it off for the long run is the most logical approach.

The elephant can’t comprehend this and goes looking for another quicker route through the jungle…

Emotional brain derails healthy habits

Driven by emotion the elephant gets lost and has to turn around and start all over again.

The reality is your rational approach to a new healthy habit is often derailed by the emotional side of your brain. 

No matter how logical you know it is to start eating more healthy foods and exercising, your elephant likes the sugar rush from cookies and hates being toldto run on a treadmill or wait for results to happen in a month or two.

In part the reason your Elephant goes off the route you’ve set is that we fall into the trap of trying to change too much in one go…

Healthy habits seem so simple to create at the start

This is the perfect example of how to set yourself up for failure.

You have to ask yourself…

“Am I trying to change too much all at once?”

How to Control Your Elephant

If you want to get control of the Elephant you need to start by making sure your Rider is on the right path…

Known as Directing the Rider.

You can do this by creating a specific target or goal.

Considering everything we’ve covered so far, the most logical target would be to choose the most important habit, then work on the routine.

Next, make sure what you’re asking yourself isn’t too drastic otherwise…

Healthy habits become overwhelmed by too much too soon.

Even when focusing on just one routine change you can still overwhelm yourself. 

Overwhelming demands will drain your willpower reserves and let your Elephant go wondering off course.

This is where you need to use your willpower to help convince the emotional side of your brain that the glitz and glamour of getting results overnight is a marketing con.

And we no longer like short-term, half-hearted health changes.

You also need to be deliberate in your actions here too, as we mentioned earlier to help re-programme your brain.

Setting up one small change at a time and then building on each of those small changes is a quicker way to your result, even if that means you’re a little slower out of the blocks.

Healthy habits are changed by small incremental changes over time.

To do that you need to strip things back and direct your focus.

Focus on ONE Thing

You need to start sorting out the vital few from the trivial many.

Vital Few and Trivial Many
(Image credit – https://www.jenkins.tv)

Here’s a few examples of what doesn’t matter when it comes to weight-loss;

  • Low-carb
  • Low-fat
  • Keto diet
  • Intermittent fasting
  • Cardio or weights
  • Early morning fasted cardio 
  • HIIT training
  • Fat loss supplements
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Lemon juice water
  • Whey or Plant-based protein shake
  • Etc etc etc

You’re more likely to get weight-loss results if you focus on the following vital few things;

  • Overall calorie intake.
  • Overall activity level.
  • Stress management strategies.

Creating a Strategy

Following our previous learnings on the Habit Loop, Willpower, the role of your brain and not falling into the trap of Multi-Tasking, the follwing steps will help you create a strategy for habit change.

Try following each step in order, then give yourself enough time to see a change happen.

1. Figure out which habits are causing you to over consume calories, stopping you from being as active as you would like, causing high stress levels in your life.

2. Choose ONE of the habits you want to tackle first or feel is most important.

3. Break said habit down into the Cue, Routine, Reward loop.

4. Focus your attention on the Routine section of the loop to start with.

5. Make a note of the logical (rider response) vs the emotional (elephant response) as this helps you stay deliberate in your actions to change.

6. Master the Habit Reversal of that habit first.

7. Rinse and repeat on the next habit…

You’ll be more structured in your approach by doing this in comparison to getting caught up in the trivial many, seeping energy in many directions and getting nowhere near your goal.

The quicker you grasp the idea that focusing your attention on one thing – the thing that REALLY matters — the better.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a little about how your habits influence what you do, especially when it comes to setting up and sticking to healthy actions that will help you to be more active, eat a better diet, lose weight and be happier in yourself.

I’d love to know more about what habits you have that are de-railing your health efforts at the minute.

Make sure to leave a comment below and I’ll do my best to guide you and your elephant on a path which will bring about the results you want.

Remember, you need to be honest in your breakdown of the habits and deliberate in your actions to change them.

To get a better idea of the changes you can make to improve your health today check out my FREE digestible guide to boosting your health…

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