Making Good Health a Habit
“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, if you only work when you feel motivated, then you’ll never be consistent enough to make significant impact on your life”
~ James Clear.
In my last article, I discussed being ready for change – ready to change to a healthier version of you. But exactly how do we go about achieving such a change?
I came across the above quote recently courtesy of my wife, Vivian. We were talking about how to make exercise and healthy eating a habit and she said you need to check out James Clear.
As I found out, James is a researcher and author who tries to help others improve their lives by creating good habits.
If I took one message from what James had to say it was this:
Whatever your goal, you must make the process to achieve that goal a habit. In fact, you must make the habit your goal.
Your habit needs to be part of your daily or weekly routine, where you no longer think about it. Don’t worry too much about the result. Focus on the routine and the results will take care of themselves.
I will give you an example of how it usually works. Let’s say you want to lose weight. And you set yourself a time frame, say, three months. You want to lose 10 kg. You know you’ve got to do something. You don’t really like exercise but you decide to give a personal trainer a go. The trainer says you need to train at least twice a week with him or her and once or twice on your own and you need to address some of your eating habits. You start training. You find it hard but you’re motivated, right. So, you keep going. You step on the scales at the end of every day expecting to see that you’ve lost weight. After 2 months, you think surely by now I’m close to reaching my goal weight. But during that time, you missed a few sessions and you didn’t change your old eating habits at all. You keep the training going for a couple more weeks but your own training becomes more haphazard and within a few more weeks you give the personal training away, go back to your old habits of doing next to nothing and back to your original weight.
According to James, it’s natural to focus on reaching the goal weight, but that’s not what you need. You need better habits.
But how do we create better habits? James says we need to follow three steps. He calls them the “3 R’s of Habit Change”1.
- Reminder (the trigger that initiates the behaviour)
- Routine (the behaviour itself; the action you take)
- Reward (the benefit you gain from doing the behaviour)
Use a current habit to trigger you into action on the new habit.
James’ research shows that it is a good idea to attach the new good habit to a habit that exists already. This is the reminder or trigger that initiates the behaviour or new habit.
For example, after your alarm goes off in the morning you get up and have a shower or brush your teeth. Either of these habits can be used to trigger the new good habit. They are the reminder. By performing these pre-existing habits your brain can be triggered into performing the new good habit.
If you have young children like us, you might need the help of a second party. This could be your spouse, partner or parent. As soon as they come home this is your reminder to perform your new exercise routine.
Or, when you get home from work and walk through the front door, that is your reminder to get into your exercise gear and make like the athlete you are.
The routine is that you get dressed into your training gear and off you go.
And the very important third step is to reward yourself. This could be telling yourself “Good on me. I’m taking control of my health and my exercise is done for the day”.
Another example might be that you want to include more plant based food in your diet.
In this case, the reminder might be morning tea. This is a great time to eat fruit and a few nuts. Eating nutrient-rich fruit and nuts is your routine. Instead of eating some nutrient-poor pastry, like a doughnut, take some fruit and nuts with you to work. This is a rather easy change to make to your diet but incredibly worthwhile. The reward is that you will not only feel better but be sure to remind yourself that you are giving yourself a better chance at living a long and healthy life. And when it comes to weight loss, it will help that as well.
Make your habits very achievable.
James says this is a very important factor when it comes to setting up a new habit and I must agree. In fact, and he quotes Leo Babauta, author of Zen Habits, saying “make it so easy that you can’t say no”.
It doesn’t matter at the beginning about your performance. It matters more that you become consistent with the task.
For example, you might want to ultimately run 5 km or for 30 minutes continuously. You could start with walking for 5 minutes. Walk 2.5 minutes away from home and then turn around and walk back. You’re done for that day. Do this 3 times a week, and then make it a 10-minute walk for a week, then 15 minutes and so on until you reach 30 minutes. Then start with a run for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes and so on. You could even mix it up with a walk run routine. Even if you don’t reach 30 minutes of continuous running, what you have done is to create a good habit of exercising consistently.
The point here is that it is not important how far or long you can run but that you are the type of person who now sticks to their new habit of exercising. You can build up your performance later once you have established a consistent behaviour.
Another example might be to get more vegetables into your diet. Start with one day a week, let’s say Tuesday, where you always make a salad or roast some vegetables. Neither of these vegetable dishes require great skill or a tricky recipe. Salads can simply be cut up vegetables with a little olive oil and lemon juice for dressing. And roast vegetables just need to be put in the oven with a quick spray of olive oil and a little salt and pepper. One half hour later, voilà, done. And guess what? The two can even be combined, giving you a roast vegetable salad.
This one day per week routine becomes your new habit. You can add another day a few weeks later where you try some other style such as stir-fried or barbecued or slow cooked vegetables. These are all easy cooking methods and can be easily added to your new routine. Just don’t try to change all at once. Get into a routine and then add other days gradually from there.
I am always reminding my clients about rewarding yourself. At the end of a training session or having prepared a healthy meal, be proud of yourself and give yourself a very big “tick” for your effort. In a world where three out of four people are either overweight or obese and lifestyle illnesses are a huge part of our society, give yourself regular congratulations when you do the right thing by your health.
There is a big reason for rewarding ourselves and that is that we want to continue doing things that make us feel good. A behaviour is only going to become a habit if it makes us feel good and feel good about ourselves.
And if you really feel the need for chocolate or a couple of glasses of wine, have them. Just make it once or twice a week after you have made a habit of completing your three or four training sessions and have added more plant based food to your diet for the week.
The problem with setting goals with an event in mind, such as losing 10 kg or running 5 km, is that until you reach that goal or event, there can be a sense of failure. Instead of an event being your goal, the goal needs to be creating and sticking to a good habit. Each day you stick to your habit is then a success. Your routine or habit needs to be your goal. The performance can be improved later.
Achieving good health can be complicated. There are many factors involved. I prefer to make it as simple as possible. Relying on motivation can wear thin. Building good habits regarding exercise and healthy eating are a great start. Turn more of your health goals into good habits and the results will take care of themselves.
Get to it!
1.Transform Your Habits: A Brief Guide on How to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. (3rd Edition) James Clear