How to make habits “sticky”

Habits pic

by Clare Harris, Content Director

In his book ‘Feel better in 5’ (2018) Dr Rangan Chatterjee puts this down to the fact that:

‘…most plans to change are based on the common, but incorrect assumption that you can make sweeping and lasting changes by relying solely on willpower and motivation.  You’ve been promised you can simply decide to become a different person – a new, energetic, healthy, zingy, glowing perfect version of you – and then become it. For the vast majority of us, this is not true.’  

So, where does Dr Chatterjee think things are going wrong and what can we do to ensure the habits that we want to create stick with us in the long term?

He suggests that for the answer, we need to look at the latest behavioural science on change which acknowledges that we are all leading busy lives and our lifestyles are often too full to rely on an endless supply of willpower and motivation, as we have so many priorities competing for these finite resources.  The latest thinking in this area suggests that for meaningful and sticky behaviour change to take place, what is needed is short, regular, repetitive habits that help us commit to that change.

In his approach Dr Chatterjee suggests that we should focus on each of these principles in order to roundly look after our wellbeing:Our minds – to reduce stress and anxiety

Our minds – to reduce stress and anxiety

Our body – to get moving more

Our heart – to strength our connections to othersOur minds – to reduce stress and anxiety

Having recently had a conversation with a GP friend about these ideas, she is wholly in agreement.  She suggested that 80% or more of the cases she treats are symptoms of a deeper lying cause that people are often too busy, or too reluctant to address.  Her surgery is filled with cases of people suffering from problems related to anxiety, sleeplessness, back pain, skin complaints, digestive complaints, diabetes, obesity, headaches and infertility.  People often come in asking for a solution such as medication or referral to a specialist such as a chiropractor or fertility expert, however she made her exasperation very clear that all of these approaches would most likely only address the symptoms and not the causes.  What the fundamental solution is, is a change in lifestyle habits.

Easier said than done though when our lifestyle habits have been formed over decades and are reinforced by our family and society experience, peer pressure and ‘taking the path of least resistance’ – anyone else out there trying to reduce their child’s screen time?

Or then again, is it that hard?

As humans we are creatures of habit and therefore, we can tap into this tendency to help us address our behaviours.  Small, regular habits have far greater impact and stickiness than the occasional sweeping gesture (for example, preparing to run a 10k by going out every other day if only for 20 minutes will be far more effective than doing a couple of 1 hour runs in the week leading up to it… been there, got that T-shirt!).

But how do we develop habits that will stick.  Here are Dr Chatterjee’s tips for making habits that stick[i]:

1 – Start Easy; if we want behaviours to become habitual, they need to take little mental or physical effort.  The easier you make it, the less motivation that will be needed and the more likely you are to continue with it as it becomes quick, easy and natural.

2 – Connect what you are doing to an existing habit; for example if you are already a keen reader with a curious mind (an assumption we are making as you are reading this), read this not whilst sitting at your screen, but stand up and move around.  If you’re reading this on your smart phone, why not throw in a few lunges or squats whilst you are distracted by this?

3 – Know yourself and your own daily rhythm; we are all different so it’s no good saying that exercise should happen in the morning and reflection in the evening.  Whilst for me, the end of the day might be the best time for some reflective activity such as journaling or meditation, but for others in my family it seems that is the time for play and burning off that last bit of energy.  By knowing your own rhythm and when its your prime time for your habits, this will help them stick.

4 – Consider your environment; we are greatly influenced by our environment, so it’s important to create an environment that supports you in your habit.  Ideas to get your environment to influence you positively might be to put some exercise equipment in your kitchen so that you can use that time that the kettle is boiling to look after your body (this might also have the ripple effect of dissuading you for reaching for the biscuit that goes with the coffee), keep your phone out of your bedroom this will aide sleep and relaxation, make your living room a space for talking as well as watching the TV – have chairs that face each other and if possible a quiet space away from the TV.

5 – Use positive self-talk; we are indeed our own worst critics.  We would never speak to others the way we speak to ourselves, so maybe it’s time to be a little kinder to ourselves.  Try to catch yourself when you are admonishing yourself and instead think of something positive to replace it.  A friend of mine keeps a ‘Done list’ instead of a ‘To Do List’.  She told me she wasn’t sleeping as she got to the end of each day feeling guilty about everything she hadn’t crossed off the To Do list and when we spoke about what she had achieved that very day, it was a startling amount.  So she changed a habit, related to an existing one (of the To Do list) that meant she was acknowledging the positive and celebrating her success…

6 – Celebrate your success; and do this not when you have achieved the overall goal of, for example, coming off the depression medication, crossing the finishing line of the 10k, or even having a tidy house.  Instead it’s important to celebrate every step of the journey to these achievements.  Dr Chatterjee suggests a visual way of doing this; every step that you take on your road to creating a new habit, drop a coffee bean into a glass jar.  This is quick, simple and easy, but a very visual way of seeing your successful steps build up.

Over the course of the next few months, we are going to publish some quick and easy guides, based on the principles in this article and the steps above, to help you build habits in areas that you might find challenging.  The themes we have in mind include:

  • Improving your mental wellbeing
  • Building your personal confidence
  • Managing your stress
  • Feeling safe to show vulnerability
  • Sharing what makes you unique

What other subjects would you like to see, and what advice would you share with others about habits that you’ve committed to that have stuck?

[i] We have edited the wording and description in these 6 steps to help readers understand the points that are made without needing to read the full book, however we have retained the themes and principles

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