Establishing a Healthy Habit
Over the last 2 months I have got out of the habit of running. I had an injury and was advised to rest. Once better I found excuses not to get back out, I knew I would have to go slowly, be mindful of my injury and build my stamina back up and I just couldn’t motivate myself. It was too cold, I didn’t have enough time, it was too dark, it was too late, it was nearly Christmas I would start again after that.
This got me thinking about habits, about the psychology of establishing healthy habits and how we can maybe change our thinking around the oft doomed New Year Resolution.
80% of NYR don’t last through to February, we use a date in the calendar to make grand declarations and set overzealous goals for our year ahead without much planning or forethought. But if we took time to break our goals down and look at forming productive habits could we have more success?
What are habits?
Habits are behaviours that are performed automatically. They can be good habits like regular exercise. Bad habits like eating too much junk food. Or habits we don’t even realise are habits like cleaning our teeth.
How to establish a new and productive habit?
Set Small Goals – you might have a long-term goal in mind but to get there you need to get over lots of small challenges, so make your goals simple and specific. Think less “I want to get fit” and more “I want to be able to run for 5 minutes without feeling breathless”.
Make it Enjoyable - author Nir Eyal suggests that as soon as something stops being fun and becomes painful or a chore we should stop and go back to when it was enjoyable. In Pilates we never work through pain and the same rules apply here.
Create a Temptation Bundle – behavioural scientist Katy Milkman talks about bundling something you enjoy with your new habit. I love listening to podcasts when I run and this motivates me as I not only look forward to my run but also to the next instalment in my podcast.
Willpower – author John Tierney believes you can train your “self-control muscle” just like any other muscle. In Pilates we repeat movements and exercises to strengthen our muscles and you can also develop Willpower Muscle Memory to make a behaviour habitual.
Patience and Repetition – new habits take time, you need to “exercise your patience muscles” – it’s a cliché but you have got to learn to walk before you can run (very practical advice if you are thinking about starting the couch to 5k). Phillipa Lally a health psychologist at UCL, produced research which shows it averagely takes 66 days to form a new habit so we need to be patient and repeat, repeat, repeat.
Don’t worry if you miss a day – “failure is built in” says Nir Eyal and it is part of the learning process, no one is perfect so don’t beat yourself up, embrace the discomfort and get back to it the next day.
Use Cues – find connections with already established habit. Every morning I get up, have a coffee, have a shower and then clean my teeth. I do it without thinking about it, I have created a mental association between the cue (having a shower) and the behaviour (cleaning my teeth).
Make it Easy and Convenient – I might not always have the time for 10k run so a quick option is a 3k run to the end of the road and back. It's not the BIG GOAL of improving my 10k time but it is easy and convenient and sometimes more achievable than a long run.
Pre-commit and use a Commitment Device – if you pre-commit to something you are more likely to follow it through. Use a commitment device such as writing yourself a letter, posting it on social media, pledge some money to a charity, put it in your diary, set yourself a reward, write a blog about re-starting your running habit!
Record it and Celebrate it – if you can chart and reflect on your progress this will spur you on. And shout about what you have achieved, be proud of your success. Be warned, there are lots of sweaty post run selfies on their way!
How can we apply some of these techniques?
Set Small Goals – Do you want to read more? I do! So instead of a vague overarching goal of “READ MORE BOOKS”, lets set a target of reading for 5 minutes every day.
Use Cues – is there something you do every day that you could use as a cue to read for 5 minutes? After you have eaten dinner? Getting into your pyjamas before bed?
Create a Temptation Bundle – Could you bundle reading with something else you enjoy like a cup of tea or a glass of wine?
Pre-commit – do you want to start / re-start / strengthen your Pilates practice? You could book all your classes up front for the next 6 weeks (look out for my special offer on block booking), tell a friend and ask them to check in with you, set a series of alarms to prompt booking a class, put it in your diary, advertise your intention on Facebook.
Make it Enjoyable - you might have been told that Pilates is good for you but if you find the time dragging by during classes and you just don't enjoy it, try something else!
Record it and Celebrate it – if you don’t want to post on your own socials I would be very happy to hear about it on my Facebook page @magdapersonpilates, let's celebrate our successes together.
A word about "Being Perfect"
Basically, perfectionism doesn't exist and to hammer this home to me I made the mistake of asking my family what they thought my bad habits were. The list went on forever, a million ways they would like me change!
And I want to make changes too, to build better habits but I know that it is hard. Life gets in the way, work gets in the way, family commitments get in the way, social obligations get in the way and it can be really easy to talk ourselves out of something. There will be days and weeks where we can’t fulfil our commitment to ourselves but this is not failure, it's reality, we just have to get back on the proverbial horse and try again.
So if you are thinking about committing to a new and productive habit in 2021 I really hope that some of these ideas and techniques will be useful to you. Let's take the journey together and aim for a healthy and productive 2021.
Happy New Year - Magda
ps - if you want to know more about the science and psychology behind habits this is a really good podcast which I enjoyed on a short run this week!