You’ve figured out a dietary or lifestyle change you want to make. You’ve gone through some of the Stages of Change already and you realize that now is a good time to make that change and you’re ready to prepare for taking action. Here are three tips to help you in the preparation stage because, you know, failing to plan is basically planning to…let’s just say that good prep is key to success.
Choose Your Focus
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you first start trying to make a change. It pays to put some thought into where to put your efforts first. After all, you don’t clean your house by whirling around doing one task in each room and then circling back around, do you? I didn’t think so. Pick one area—one dietary change, one lifestyle change, one exercise change and then set up a progression in that area before moving on to something else. For example, maybe you will focus on getting a short walk in before breakfast. Once you’ve got that down and it’s become habitual, then consider tackling your next goal, maybe something like having some fruit in addition to your post-walk coffee each day. You might find that achieving success (even a small one!) in one area sets you up for success in the next area.
Make a Measurable Goal
I find that writing down a goal works better for me, but regardless of how you record your goal (notebook, on your phone, sticky notes on the mirror), the key is to make is measurable. Vague goals like “drink more water” don’t work as well because they cannot be tracked. (Remember, small goals are fine—you don’t have to think big here, the idea is to make a change and make it stick; baby steps are fine and for many, more achievable.)
So, if your goal is to drink more water, for example, it would be better to state it as: drink 6 glasses of water per day. Even better, be more specific, such as drink 6 cups (8 oz.) of water daily, for 5 days per week. You can always bump it up to 7 days a week once you get in the swing of it. Then, you can keep track of each day’s water consumption on a chart or some other way, like a phone app.
Give Yourself Cues
A big part of achieving one’s health goals is making healthy behaviors a habit. Once you don’t have to think about something—you just do it automatically—you know you’ve really made a change. How great to not have to think so much about every glass of water you need to drink, or talk yourself into taking that walk each morning—it just happens! Research indicates that habits that rely on cues for behavior may be more successful long term. For example, the cue might be seeing your exercise clothes each morning, so you put them out each night so that those clothes are the first thing you see in the morning, making it easy to put them on, and then you’re prompted to take your morning walk (because hey, you’re already dressed for it). Another example to go along with our water drinking example in this post might be connecting water drinking with specific times during the day, such as brushing teeth (have one cup of water after brushing in morning and again at night) and eating a meal (have a cup of water before each meal of the day). The book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, is a great read that gives info on how habits get formed, lots of examples of habit, along with guidelines for developing your own effective habit cues.
Keep in mind that real change doesn’t happen overnight. You may have heard that habits get formed in 21 days, but I’m not sure that’s the whole story. I would not feel bad if it took longer than that—one study has shown that it varies greatly, from 18 to 254 days, for study subjects to be able to automatically do a health behavior that they chose. We are all different and it’s not a race. Embrace the journey and take one step at a time. Every day that you do something healthy for yourself not only builds the habit, but is a success for the day that you can feel good about no matter what else happens.