Life transitions, such as moving or starting a new job, hold both the excitement of untapped opportunity, and the stress that comes with change. During these transitions, health and wellness-related goals often take a backseat.
What if it didn’t have to be that way? What if you had created healthy habits that were as second nature as brushing your teeth, so no matter your life situation, your health remained a priority?
Make the Smallest Possible Change
We often think that healthy living involves immense effort, deprivation, and energy. Believe it or not, a healthy lifestyle doesn’t require dramatic changes in order to be effective. In fact, the smaller the change, the more likely you are to stick with it for the long haul, including during challenging life transitions. Healthy habits are more likely to stick when they are only slight variations from how you already do things.
Keep the Reward; Change How You Get There
Think of a familiar route you routinely travel. You likely put little thought into how to get to the destination. Now imagine you drive to the same destination, but take a different route. The new route would take time and conscious effort to navigate, but in the end, you’d arrive at the same destination. If you wanted to make this new route habitual, you would rely on willpower or conscious effort for a while, until eventually the new route became second nature.
Steps To Healthy Habit Change
Healthy habit change is similar. Let’s say you have the “destination” of de-stressing at the end of the day, but you want to change the “route”, or the way you go about de-stressing, to make it healthier. For example, rather than watching TV and snacking all evening, you could unwind by going for a walk, making a savory meal or spending time with friends.
Healthy Habit Change can be broken down to three steps:
- Recognize the BEHAVIOR you want to change. (Watching TV and snacking all evening)
- Recognize the REWARD you’re getting from the behavior (Relaxation, Unwinding, Entertainment)
- Find an ALTERNATE, more health BEHAVIOR that provides you with a similar REWARD (Walking on a treadmill while watching TV; Spending time cooking with friends; Reading a book)
If you want to replace an unhealthy behavior with a healthy one, you’re more likely to stick with it when it satisfies the reward you’re craving, whether that’s relaxation, relief from boredom, or eating delicious food.
Another way to reward yourself for new health behaviors is to simply notice how good you feel during or afterward. The simple act of recognizing the reward can help reinforce the behavior.
Some possible small changes you could make:
- Add a fruit or vegetable to each meal (or to one additional meal per day).
- Incorporate a 10 minute walk to your lunch schedule
- Snack on veggie tray while making dinner
- Meditate in the morning while having your coffee
- Have one active outing with your partner, friend, or kids each week
- Make a firm bedtime so you get 7 to 9 hours of sleep (start your bedtime routine earlier in order to acheive this)
- Substitute one high-calorie item you eat regularly with a lower-calorie option that you would nearly equally enjoy.
- Try one healthy meal per week, in order to expose you to healthy options that you may not have known you’d enjoy.
Believe that your efforts make a difference
A big difference between people who make small health changes over time and those who give up shortly after starting is belief in the process; successful people believe that small efforts really make a difference, so they stick with it. If you exercise 10 minutes each day over the course of a year, you will be in much better shape than if you waited out the year until you found the time to commit to hour-long workout sessions. Healthy habit changes–even small ones– add up, and really make an impact on your overall health.
For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible. And most often, that belief only emerges with the help of a group, so find friends, neighbors, or co-workers who are willing to join you in your new habit changes.
Whether you’re anticipating a move, job change, or just the regular busy-ness of life, try making one small change toward healthier living, and see what difference it makes in a week or a month. You might be surprised!
(Reference source: Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, And How To Change It; 2012; Random House. New York.)