6 Psychology-Backed Tips for Making Successful Lifestyle Changes
When the initial enthusiasm drops away, many of us give up on our attempts to make healthy lifestyle changes
Counsellor Miriam Christie offers 6 tips to help you boost your chances of making a positive change for good
Perhaps this feels familiar. You start a healthy new habit and this time it’s going to be different. This time it’s going to stick. It’s all going well for a few days, even weeks. Then life gets in the way. A string of friends’ birthday drinks, a late night in the office or that annoying cold that just won’t go away and plans of a ‘new you’ fall into the abyss with all the other lifestyle changes that were going to revolutionise your life.
Using a blend of psychology and mindfulness can help us to catalyse meaningful and lasting change, which can withstand the ups and downs of real life.
Habits are the practices of how we live our lives, and becoming aware of them is important for achieving what we want.
Many of our habits are so ingrained that we don’t have to think of them and that’s a good thing. If we had to consciously remember all the steps of our days, we would use up precious mental energy that we can put to better use. Becoming mindful of our routines, however, is the key to identifying what and where we can disrupt those habitual practices to allow for change.
Here are some practices to help you to shed light on those unconscious lifestyle choices so you can identify your change sweet-spots.
1. Build change into your current lifestyle
Recently people have been questioning whether setting goals is actually an effective motivator. Sometimes, our willpower to achieve the goal runs low or runs out so that we give up completely without making the change we really wanted to make. Once people achieve a goal their behaviour often returns to their old way of being. It’s as if the goal was the destination and, once we have arrived, we lost interest.
Psychologists now suggest that building in daily, weekly, or monthly habits can be a much more effective strategy to getting to what you really want. Well-known habit expert Gretchen Rubin is a proponent of a strategy called ‘pairing’, which she believes can be particularly useful for busy people.
Pairing describes the action of combining a new habit with something you are already doing. Exercise is a great target for pairing, because we can often do something else while we exercise, whether that’s catching up with a friend, reading, listening to a podcast, or watching television.
Pairing essentially gets you to engage in two activities at a time, such as watching television while you’re on the treadmill. The key is to think of the two activities together, so if you’re going to listen to the audio book, you need to be running or walking, for example. That way you double up on the things you want to do, using the same amount of time.
2. Visualise your big picture goal
It’s hard to commit to new habits when you don’t have a clear picture of what that change will really mean for you and your lifestyle.
Start by imagining an area of your life that you want to be different. If you would like to improve your overall health, for example, first get clear on what that means to you. What does being healthy look like, for you? Does that mean cutting out an unhealthy behaviour like drinking too much alcohol or is it about adding in positive changes like exercise or mindfulness? Maybe it means carving out time for being outside more or prioritising time with friends for your emotional well-being.
I find that creating vision boards can be a helpful – and fun – way to clarify both your umbrella intentions and the things that make up that bigger picture. It may sound a bit woo woo, but the practice has its foundations in neuroscience.
Neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart explains that the brain goes through a process of ‘value-tagging’ which imprints important things onto your subconscious and filters out unnecessary information. By looking at images on a vision board you prime your brain to focus in on opportunities that are important to you. Swart says that our brains assign a higher value to images than written words on a ‘to-do’ list and the more you look at those images, the more those images move up in importance.
3. Identify your ‘activation energy’
In any area of your life, there will be practices that underpin the overall vision you are aiming for. One strategy that many habit experts agree on is reducing the ‘activation energy’ required to get started on a positive habit.
Shawn Achor, the author of several motivational books including The Happiness Advantage, talks about how he was able to start practicing the guitar more regularly when he left the guitar out on its stand in his living room. This simple change meant that, when he wanted to play, there were very few barriers for him to overcome to pick up the instrument and begin.
This is often a good strategy to use if you want to make a change in lifestyle first thing in the morning because your brain encounters less resistance and fewer obstacles to getting started. The internal chatter is likely to be loud enough – “It’s cold, it’s early, do I really want to do this?” – so reducing decision-making moves you more easily in the right direction.
4. Monitor your habits
Gretchen Rubin identifies ‘monitoring’ as a powerful way to track our activity and build an awareness of what’s happening.
A friend of mine spent a last year tracking the number of days she drank alcohol and said it was useful to notice how her behaviour changed as a result. She would give herself a green dot on her calendar for the days she didn’t drink alcohol and a red dot for the ones she did. She described it a little like a child’s reward chart and enjoyed seeing when there were more green dots than red ones. And the reward for the good habit is the good habit.
This is where apps and technology can come in handy. Many apps allow you to track your habits and send you reminders about when it’s time to do something. If you want to improve your habit of practicing mindfulness or meditation, for instance, apps like Headspace and Calm can send you reminders, track your time spent practicing and how many consecutive days you’ve done. Being able to see a consecutive streak of several days encourages us to want to keep going.
5. Choose a strategy that fits your personality
A key aspect of breaking or creating new habits is to know yourself. Depending on what drives us, there are different ways to set and live up to expectations.
Do you tend to have an all-or-nothing personality, or can you do well with moderation or cutting down? For some people, going ‘cold turkey’ is too extreme, but others will need boundaries to be set firmly.
If you respond well to external deadlines and accountability, enlisting a buddy or coach could be a useful way to keep you working towards new commitments. Rubin defines four types of ‘tendencies’ that help us identify how we respond to outer expectations. She calls these upholders, questioners, obligers and rebels. Knowing which you are can help you and your accountability buddy to keep you on track.
6. Be kind to yourself
As you’re embarking on something new, remember that it takes conscious effort to develop a new habit. Eventually, it will become easier but, in the beginning, you will need to be kind to yourself.
If you slip up and lapse back into an old habit, remember that you’re human. Just because you make one misstep on the path doesn’t mean you have to call off the whole expedition.
Kristin Neff, an expert on self-compassion, reminds us to extend the same compassion and kindness to ourselves that we would to a friend or loved one when we’re going through a challenge or hard time.
Trust yourself and allow yourself to experiment. Revisit your big picture goal frequently and consider how your daily actions can become the foundational practices that support your lifestyle change.
Miriam Christie is a verified Welldoing counsellor in South East London and online