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How to Build Healthy Habits that Last

We all have goals and dreams. Maybe you want tolose weight,quit smoking, orexercise more; or perhaps it’s to land a better job, toget more sleep, or just feel more content with life. But too often when we do actually try to achieve our goals, we don’t really have a plan — we just jump in with both feet. Sound familiar? 

Here’s what typically happens next. Everything goes great for the first week — you are on your way. Same goes for the second week too, but then week three hits and with it comes frustration, burnout, and soon the return to the original unwanted or unhealthy patterns.

Why does this happen? Why do so many people struggle to set and meet the goals that will clearly give them a better, healthier life? The answer might surprise you.

Creatures of Bad Habits

Psychologists explain that we often fail at goals because we are creatures of bad habits, especially those that make us feel temporarily good or boost our mood. It’s very easy to become comfortable with certain bad behaviors, like eating the wrong things, or smoking, and then our brains (triggered by the stimulatory effects of these behaviors) make these habits part of our everyday unconscious behavior.

So, if it’s so easy to develop bad habits that lead to problems, why is it so hard to developgood habits that set us up for success? Psychologists also tell us that the reason we fail at our goals, and struggle to change our bad habits can often be traced back to a failure to plan. Many of us jump right into our new lifestyle, expecting immediate results — and when we don’t see the expected results quickly, we let our habits and behaviors slide back to what we are comfortable with.

Here’s the good news: you really can change your behavior. You can swap bad habits for healthy habits, but it takes time and patience! You have to build up healthy habits over time. Despite what so-called “behavior experts” or “life coaches” might say, the boot camp mentality is not the answer. Changing behavior isnot about willpower. Very often, changing our behavior is all about planning.  Successfully developing healthy habits occurs as a result of building a long-term plan that sets you up for success, and it’s not as difficult as you might think. Let’s take a look at how you can start building healthy habits today!

Why We Don’t Achieve Our Goals

Before we dive into the art of building healthy habits, let’s take a look at why people fail to reach their goals in the first place. It’s safe to say that nearly everyone understands on some level how important it is to set goals. Surprisingly though, research shows that approximately 80% of people never actually set goals for themselves! As shocking as that is, it does shed some light on why we are seeing so many people with social, emotional, financial, and health issues today. 

The oft quoted hockey great Wayne Gretzky once said,you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. And that’s true for meeting your goals and changing your behavior as well.  If you’ve read this far, hopefully you are (or are becoming) one of those who set goals, have set goals, or at least are thinking about setting goals for yourself; so, congrats for at least taking the shot.  

Unfortunately, the research also tells us that 70% of the people setting goals fail to achieve the goals they set.  So, let’s do some quick math: out of 100 people, only 20 will set goals for themselves; and of those 20, only 6 will achieve their goals. That means only 6% of people meet their goals. That number might look grim, but don’t let that discourage you.

Charting the Path To Healthy Habits: The Devil is in the Details

So, let’s take a look at some of the most important, but often overlooked steps to setting goals and developing healthy habits that last.

There are two types of goals to consider: “be” goals and “do” goals. In other words,who do you want to be or what do you want to achieve? Within each category, there are four areas of goals: wealth, health, relationships, and self-fulfillment. So, any goal you strive for will generally fall into one of these areas[1].  It’s also important to keep in mind that a healthy, well-rounded life requires balance in all four areas: financial health, physical health, relationships, and self-fulfillment. It also requires focus on both types of goals.

Speaking of goals and setting healthy habits, here are the top five most common goals people set:

  • Developing a deeper level of commitment and drive to challenge ourselves
  • Improving personal relationships
  • Being happy
  • Finding our purpose in life
  • Becoming more fit and/or healthy

So how do we reach these goals? Below we explore a fewresearch-based ways to help you stop trying to change your behaviors thewrongway and begin taking therightsteps to achieving the lasting healthy habits you deserve!

Know Your Habits

We are creatures of habit — most of us get up the same time every day, drive to work the same way every day, drink our coffee at the same time and same way every day... we just do most things the same way, every single day. But are we really fully aware of what we do each day?  Studies show that most of us are not. Try this little exercise: pay close attention to yourself for just one day (maybe try writing things down as you do them), and if you can stand it, try two. How you act or behave and the things you unconsciously do without even knowing it might really surprise you. Compulsive behaviors, strange facial expressions, speech patterns, andmindless eating are just a few examples of the hundreds of things people find out about themselves. 

The first step in building healthy habits and attaining your goals is to be aware of what you are currently doing. As you observe, pay attention to certain patterns that trigger the unhealthy or harmful behaviors that you want to change. For example, pay attention to how much ice cream or how many chips you eat while you are binge watching your favorite show; in all likelihood, it’s more than you realize.

Stack Your Habits For Success 

Behavioral scientists have learned that the most effective way to develop and maintain new healthy habits is by connecting them with your current, existing habits. Start by looking at the patterns and behaviors you observed from the exercise above and look for opportunities to create or add new, healthier habits.  Let’s take binge watching your favorite show as an example.  Instead of mindlessly eating a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, try a huge plate of fresh vegetables with hummus, orother healthy snacks; chances are you’ll enjoy it just as much, you’ll feel better, and you’ll be on your way to a new, healthier habit. 

Slow and Steady Wins the Healthy Habit Race

Remember to start small. Going too big, too soon results in failure nearly every time. Start small and be patient - success will come over time. Research from Stanford University confirms that big changes in habit or behavior require intense levels of motivation that rarely can be sustained. 

Start small, like swapping veggies for chips during tv time or bytaking a walk before trying to run a mile — and this is key:tie the new behavior or habit to an already existing habit. So if you have your lunch break at least 5 days a week, stack your walk with your lunch break and do it every day!

Be Patient, But Do It Today and Do It Tomorrow and Do It The Next Day… 

New habits require consistency, that means you have to commit to doing them every day. Here’s why: a recent study, published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, demonstrated that making a new habit or behavior become automatic takes anywhere from 3 weeks to 9 months, with a median time of 66 days.So be patient and be consistent!

Celebrate and Reward Yourself Early and Often

Don’t be hard on yourself; we are not robots and behavioral change is not easy work. Keeping this in mind, make sure you are recognizing and rewarding your accomplishments along the way. It's important to reward yourself with treats that aren’t going to undermine the sweat equity you’ve already dedicated to your efforts! Remember, behavioral change and especially physical changes, like health improvements, take time. Recognize your achievements every couple of weeks with a healthy treat. Did youwork out like you planned to for two weeks straight? Don’t celebrate by hitting the drive through; treat yourself to some new workout attire! Support your cause with rewards that motivate and inspire you — the point is to focus on long-term rewards, not immediate gratification!

Creating new, healthy behaviors isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either.  Really, what goal-setting and behavior change boils down to is a common maxim:those who fail to plan, plan to fail

Identify what you want to change in your life; observe what you are currently doing every day; then find a way to attach a new, healthy behavior to something you are already doing. Start small and take baby steps, but do it every day. Being consistent is key, so make sure to celebrate your successes — after all, you are on your way to creating a new, healthier version of you!


[1] "Why People Fail to Achieve Their Goals - Reliable Plant." https://www.reliableplant.com/Read/8259/fail-achieve-goals. Accessed 18 Jul. 2020.

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