Consolidate Your Gains

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This New Year’s Day, don’t waste time contemplating the well-intended resolutions you made last year that never made it beyond a few weeks or even a few days. Instead, try a new tack: look back at all the positive things you did do over the year and resolve to turn them into habits.

What separates a habit from something people do occasionally, or start but don’t finish? Once an activity becomes habitual, studies show it is less likely to depend on conscious motivation or interest. It becomes automatic—like putting on a seat belt in a car or washing hands after using the toilet.

A habit generally takes between six weeks and six months to form, depending on the person and the habit, says Nancy Rudner, a George Washington University School of Nursing adjunct professor, family nurse practitioner, and health coach who specializes in workplace health.

That’s why it makes more sense to set intentions for shorter periods of time. Instead of resolving to do something for an entire year, plan how you will do a healthy activity for six weeks or two months. “And then,” Rudner says, “implement your plan and enjoy it.” 

Here are some tips for turning positive occasional behaviors into habits:

  1. Pick something you like. If you hate the gym but enjoy walking or riding your bike, a resolution to go to the gym three times a week won’t last long. But for a regular walker, vowing to walk five times a week provides positive reinforcement of a healthy habit and inspiration to do a little more. Sometimes this requires thinking hard about what appeals to you, Rudner says.“If you are switching to a healthy diet rich in vegetables, you need to find the you in the changes. Fix those vegetables in very attractive and enjoyable dishes and enjoy the crunch of eating some of them raw. If your habit is to increase exercise, find something you enjoy. For some, it is the social scene at the gym that keeps them returning. For others, it is the scenery on bike trails. You have to find your inner exercise bliss. “
  2. Identify obstacles to making a good but occasional practice into a habit and think about how to overcome them. A common one is lack of time. If your goal is more exercise, think about how to work it into your daily routine. Schedule specific days and times to exercise rather than leaving it to chance.
  3. Address your ambivalence about something you want to turn into a habit. For example, Rudner says, those who want to lose weight but don’t want to give up ice cream feel torn until the desire to lose weight trumps the desire to eat lots of ice cream. Resolving ambivalence requires some soul-searching and offering yourself compromises. My husband, a devoted hamburger eater, decided to allow himself only one a month. He now derives great pleasure from thinking about where to have that burger, what kind to have, and who to have it with, which has turned the once-a-month burger into a special ritual rather than a deprivation.
  4. Think of ways to trigger a desired habit. For most people, paying for a class or signing up to volunteer on a regular day of the week creates an obligation to go. If shopping at a farmers market tends to make you buy more fruits and vegetables, resolve to make it a weekly trip. Bringing a mat and clothes to work may prompt you to go to a yoga session rather than skip it. If your goal is to read more, start carrying a book or e-reader wherever you go.
  5. External messages that reinforce or steer us away from our habits can be effective, Rudner says. Social networks that practice healthy habits, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a yoga class with friends, parent groups, or walking buddies, can reinforce healthy habits. “Ads for restaurants and processed foods can tempt us off track for healthy eating,” she says. “Cigarette ads were banned because they were so effective in reinforcing smoking habits and encouraging smokers to light up again.”
  6. Learn to adjust course when you stray from your good habit. Many things cause people to fall away from positive habits—illness, a new job, a vacation. Getting back into it is easier if you feel you own the habit and really want to do it, Rudner says. “You can get right back on the path you want to be on, but it helps to resolve your ambivalence. Think of what got you off the good habit and how you might respond differently next time.” 

Cathryn Domrose has written about science, health, and fitness for more than 20 years, most recently for Nurse.com, a national publication for nurses. She lives and cooks in San Francisco.

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