Making lasting, positive changes to your health takes time. Experts say it takes at least 2 months to form a habit, and every little bit helps.
Here are 6 ways to get a habit-forming advantage.
1. Track your actions
When you’re trying to get used to doing something new, it’s important to feel like you’re making progress, especially since lots of healthy habits — exercising, flossing, learning to speak French — don’t yield immediate rewards. If you take a step back and track what you’re doing, you may see patterns or pitfalls that you couldn’t before. The way you track something can be as simple or sophisticated as you like:
- Mark the days you exercise on a wall calendar with a big checkmark
- Log your meals using a nutrition app
- Track your spending in a spreadsheet
- Use an online system to log your smoking habits
After a few weeks, you should be able to see the spots where you made progress and the ones where you slid off track, and you can adjust your long-term plan accordingly.
BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can do all of the health-related things above using the wellness portal, so be sure to see what tools are available to you if you’re a BlueCross member so you can take advantage.
2. Change your focus
Once you’ve started tracking your actions, you may find another change comes naturally: focusing on the behaviors that will get you to your goal rather than the goal itself. When you shift your focus from a future outcome to the action you’re performing now, the process gets easier.
That’s because little wins give you the same kind of immediate gratification you’d get crossing something off a to-do list. For example:
- If you want to save money by eating out less, make your goal to pack your lunch 3 days a week.
- If you want to cut back on sugary soda, make your goal to swap 5 sodas per week for a healthier alternative.
- If you want to lose 10 pounds, make your goal to log every meal you eat in a nutrition-tracking app, or to take your dog on 4 extra walks per week.
By turning the steps themselves into your goals, you’re accomplishing something every day, and that’s a lot more gratifying than waiting weeks or months for your work to pay off.
3. Build 1 habit at a time
Most people think they’re good at multitasking, yet research shows only 2.5% of us are actually able to do it (if anyone can, which is debatable). So pick one habit and start there. If you start trying to add 50 crunches and walking the dog and flossing your teeth into your morning routine, you may not be able to focus on any of those things. Your attention will be split, as will your willpower, and something will eventually give. Start small, get your first habit solidly under your belt — which, again, can take 2 months or more — and only after you feel yourself doing the first habit automatically, add in the next.
4. Make habit-building enjoyable
Connect an activity you already enjoy to a habit you want to build. If you decide you want to start walking on your lunch hour, reward yourself while you’re doing it. Save your favorite podcast, audiobook or new album by your favorite band to listen to only while you’re walking.
Connecting something you can’t wait to do with a habit that’s good for you may help you stick with it, and it may even help your brain build positive associations with that activity. Often when we set a goal, we reward ourselves only once it’s been reached, or only after we hit certain milestones. But if you can find a way to make your actual habit more enjoyable, take it.
5. Anchor yourself to good habits
Triggers are things that set us off on bad patterns — a bad day at work leads you to order pizza instead of cooking a healthy dinner — and the opposite of those triggers are called anchors. Anchors are things — a photo, mantra, song, meditation or stuffed animal — that bring you back to a strong, positive frame of mind. When you come in contact with your anchor, you relive the good feelings that are naturally attached to that action.
- If you want to recycle more, put a picture of a sea turtle free of plastic next to the trashcan to help you remember why it’s important.
- If you want to start reading before bedtime, put your book on your bedside table (and consider hiding the remote).
- If you’re more likely to cook at home when you have fresh produce, try a delivery service or CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Seeing a colorful bowl of fresh vegetables can help anchor you to cooking.
- When you’re exercising, pay attention to the songs or playlists that boost your mood and bookmark those. When you find yourself struggling to finish a workout, play your high-energy songs and see if it gets you through.
Think of anchors as your safety nets — the last line of defense — that can help you remember why you wanted to build a habit in the first place.
6. Practice it daily
Repetition is the key to forming habits. The more you think about or do something, the more likely you’re going to keep doing it until the action becomes automatic. If you’re only doing something twice a week, it might take longer for it to become something you do without thinking. Even if you don’t intend to, doing something every three or four days tells your mind and your body that it’s not a priority.
So try to pick habits you can do every day, the same way you brush your hair or drink water. If daily is too much, try every weekday. The more you do something, the faster it will become second nature.