We’ve all done it. Waded enthusiastically into the New Year, bursting with grand plans for a total lifestyle overhaul. We tell ourselves that this time, it’ll be different. This time, we’ll stick to the plan.
But February comes around and we find the same thing has happened. The kale is wilting in the fridge. The gym bag sits accusingly on the hall floor, gathering dust. Our healthy-living dreams have come to nothing.
But it really can be different. Here we’ll explore some simple ways to succeed with healthy habits in 2022. This article may, literally, change your life.
1. Pick one thing
When you’re building a house, you have to start with one brick. And it’s the same when you’re shaping your lifestyle. If you try to overhaul your entire way of living, you’re setting yourself up to fail. So pick just one goal to focus on. This might be something diet-related, or maybe building in more activity, or drinking water.
Success in one area builds confidence to make more changes in future. And once you’ve got one habit embedded, you can add another, and another.
2. Make it a tiny thing
As James Clear puts it in his book Atomic Habits, it’s easy to believe that massive results must come from massive changes1. But the difference that a tiny improvement can make over time is enormous.
Choose small things that need very little willpower to succeed. Cut one teaspoon of sugar from your coffee. Take the stairs instead of the lift once a day. Jog for 2 minutes and walk the rest. Instead of 4 biscuits, have 3. While each time you take the action there’s no noticeable change, over time you will see a result. Tiny decisions, on repeat, make a real difference.
You can, if you want, start to build on your goals once the small habit is in place. For example, to build arm muscle, start with half a chin-up per day. There’s no barrier to this, no reason not to try a singular chin up. It takes seconds. Then after a week, maybe it’s 2 chin-ups. Then 3. Form the habit in super-easy increments.
3. Celebrate every good decision
You might feel like your new tiny thing is not enough to celebrate. But it is. Every single time you make the decision to do or not do the tiny action, smile at yourself and give yourself a mental pat on the back. Because you’re on your way to your new healthy habit.
And if things go wrong and you make the wrong decision - and sometimes you will, because you’re human - that’s OK. Move straight on and focus on making the right choice the next time it comes up.
4. Attach it to something you already do
We all have certain habits that are well-formed and automatic. Tooth brushing is a great example. Most of us do this twice a day, probably at specific times. Attaching a new habit to an old one can act as a trigger to help you remember. For example, psychology professor B J Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, uses bathroom visits as a cue to do 8-12 press-ups2. And by the end of the day, he’s done more than 50.
So think of something you already do habitually, and piggyback. Maybe you could do your pelvic floor exercises while you brush your teeth. Meditate for a minute every time you boil the kettle. Or drink a glass of water with each cup of coffee.
5. Pair with something you like
Pairing can work even better if you combine your new habit with something you love. Try pairing something that you should do with something that you want to do. For example, if you love stories but not running, use your run to listen to a great novel.
It’s called temptation bundling3. It works because it changes something that gives you delayed gratification - say, running on a treadmill to drop a dress size - into something that gives you immediate gratification - listening to the next instalment of a gripping drama.
So if your New Year's resolution is to go to the gym, and your guilty pleasure is reality TV, allow yourself to indulge in Selling Sunset during your indoor cycle.
6. Change your environment
It may sound obvious, but lots of us fall at this hurdle. Shape your environment to make it easy to stick to your goal. If your goal is to cut back on chocolate, remove the sweet treats from your home. This way, to get hold of your next taste of cocoa, you have to head out to a shop. A much higher barrier than opening a cupboard. Because if the temptation is close at hand, you have to work hard to resist it.
And on the flip side, if you want to do more of something, make it easy. If you want to eat more fruit and vegetables, have these to hand at all times. Keep a well-stocked bowl of fresh fruit on your desk as you work. Or a bag of carrot sticks in your pocket.
7. Remember why
Everything we’ve talked about so far has been about reducing the need to exert too much willpower. Making the thing you want to do as easy or fun as possible, and building in triggers to remind you. This approach tends to work better than changing motivation. But, motivation still matters.
And that’s why it’s important to remember why you want to change in the first place. If you align your health goals with your life goals, you’ll find it easier to succeed. So take the time to work out what really matters to you, and why you want to make a change. It can help to give yourself a visual reminder of this. For example, keep photos of your family close by if you want to lose weight so you can have fun with them.
Armed with these simple tips, you’re all set to make changes that last. Good luck - and Happy New Year!
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1. James Clear, Atomic Habits, Random House Business 2018
3. Milkman KL, Minson JA, Volpp KG. Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Manage Sci. 2014;60(2):283-299. doi:10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784