Establishing Healthy Habits for the New Year

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If resolutions aren’t your thing, maybe habits are. I’m firmly in the habits camp. And when it comes right down to it, most of us know what healthy habits look like. Balanced eating, regular physical activity of some sort, adequate sleep, and drinking an appropriate amount of water. It’s not a mystery at all. We know what is required. 

But, thanks to science and nonstop information, sometimes the simple messages can get twisted, stretched, and tied in knots. Pretty soon the healthy lifestyle information we hear sounds super complicated and, well, off-putting. I’m here to help fix that before you find yourself wishing you’d never even tried to do better. Here are three strategies you can employ to make healthy habits simple and effective.

Pick one priority

The “back to basics” approach of working on one thing at a time might sound a bit boring. However, here’s a reason we go “back to basics” as often as we do in life. They work. And we understand how to do them. Working on one habit at a time allows our overstimulated brains to get really good at something. Our brains turn repeated actions into neural pathways that play on repeat without us having to consciously think about it. That’s what a habit is! Initially, this seems like the slow route to change (as opposed to working on many things at one time). But in the long run you’ll be further ahead with the lasting change that comes from fully ingrained habit pathways. Prioritizing one habit at a time prevents you from dividing, and therefore diluting, your efforts. The more you repeat that habit and give it your all, the more likely it will stick with you.

Make it easier to do your new habit

One of the foundational principles of intentional habit formation is to make it easy. In Atomic Habits (one of my favorite books), James Clear writes about why and how to cultivate habits more easily. (He has a free, 30-day habit course if you’re interested.) Basically, you want to make the healthy choice, the easy choice. And there are two ways to do that in general. 1) Set things up around you to encourage your healthy habit. 2) Make it more difficult to choose the less healthy option. When it comes to eating and exercise habits, my main recommendation is to curate your environment. Here are some ideas: 

  • Looking to eat more fruits and veggies?
    • Put them front and center in your fridge. Keep fruit in plain sight on the counter.
    • Buy or prep some basic raw veggies for the week.
    • Stock plenty of frozen veggies for when you’re out of fresh or only have energy for microwave cooking.
  • Want to drink more water?
    • Keep non-water beverages in the far reaches of your refrigerator.
    • Keep canned and bottled drinks that aren’t water or seltzer in the pantry. (If they aren’t cold and ready, you’ll be less likely to choose them.)
    • Have plenty of water options around (have several reusable water bottles, and stock up on healthy water-y beverages).
  • Want to start walking after work?
    • Choose an obvious, dedicated place for your sneakers, where you can’t miss seeing them (like right inside the door).
    • Set an alarm/reminder on your phone for the time of day you want to walk.
  • Want to eat less candy, chips, crackers, etc?
    • Give away these items if you have them on hand.
    • Store them in hard-to-reach places. Effective spots include the depths of the freezer (for candy), above the refrigerator, or on a high shelf. Understandably these measures can be tricky if others in your household eat these items. 
  • Want to control portion sizes?
    • Keep measuring cups next to where you serve yourself food.
    • Keep a tablespoon near your coffee-making set-up so you can measure cream.
    • Start using smaller plates, and keep your larger plates out of the kitchen or on a high shelf.

Focus on the daily actions

It can be hard to contain one’s excitement for starting a new habit, and that’s a good thing! A new goal gets you going with an extra pump of motivation and optimism. Over time, though, we start getting impatient for results. We start doubting our ability to reach our goal or achieve the outcome we originally envisioned. That’s when it’s good to remind ourselves that healthy habits are comprised of small daily actions. The morning walk with the dog. The “at least two veggies” at dinner. The full glass of water in the morning instead of just a sip. It’s like saving money — modest amounts saved regularly usually add up to more than larger, more infrequent deposits. 

Coaches say “fall in love with the process.” And while that’s easy to agree with, it’s not as satisfying as loving the outcome, regardless of your goal. Weight loss, better blood pressure or blood sugar levels, more stamina, or increased strength and flexibility—consistently following a process is what produces results. One of the best ways to maintain focus on the daily actions is to track some aspect of your habit. Of course there are lots of tracking apps (many of them free).  But you can also track progress on your calendar by checking each day  you worked on your desired habit. It doesn’t have to be complicated — even tick marks on a pad of paper can do the trick. Eventually the daily actions will bring you a measure of pleasure, even for just having completed them. And until then, tracking can provide a sense of accomplishment and help you keep going strong.