Make simple lifestyle changes to build new habits
Simple lifestyle and dietary changes can go a long way to improving, or even reversing, ill-health, chronic and autoimmune conditions. Achieving true health is a journey, not a destination, and every journey must start with a single step.
Making fundamental changes to our established and ingrained routines is not always easy - but it can be easier than you think. In this post, I'll share how taking these first, simple steps will often mean abandoning long-held habits and how we can make changes that stick.
Hard habit to break?
Habits are the actions we take automatically every single day without a second thought - getting dressed when you get up in the morning, making breakfast, leaving the house at the same time for work perhaps.
There is no mental energy needed to accomplish these tasks because the habits are ingrained in our brains through a process of cue-craving-response-reward:
- The cue - our phone buzzes or beeps
- We immediately have a craving to see what’s in the message/email/notification
- Next comes the response - we grab the phone and see what it is
- The reward - craving satisfied. Grabbing and reading our phone becomes the ‘habit’ associated with it buzzing or beeping.
We are rarely fully conscious of what we are doing because the habit kicks in when the cue happens. But when we are trying to change these habits, it becomes a challenge - habits make our lives easier and we’re reluctant to mess with this.
“Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.”
- Maya Angelou
Time to change
Changing often life-long behaviours - what we eat, when (if?) we exercise, what time we go to bed - is difficult because they are so deeply ingrained through the cue-routine-reward process.
To break these ingrained habits, we have to deliberately and consciously interrupt our routines and replace the 'old' behaviours with new ones to see which will offer the rewards we are craving.
For instance, almost all of us crave more (and better quality) sleep. Our ‘old’ routine might be to have that sneaky last glass of wine and stay up a little too late. And when we do eventually turn in, we just need to check Facebook (for half an hour more!)
Our reward here might be entertainment, or the chance to mentally ‘wind down’ before we go to sleep. (But the blue light emitted from devices messes with our sleep patterns, hence our desire to make a change.)
Why not put the phone away and listen to some music? Or read a book? Listening to music will satisfy our craving to ‘switch off’ mentally, while reading a book feeds our desire to be entertained.
Any change in long-held behaviour will require motivated effort on our part, but as time goes by, these new routines become more strongly connected with the cues and rewards and soon become automatic, with little conscious thought required.
Fail to prepare, or prepare to fail?
For the best chance of success in making lasting changes, it’s important to remember a couple of things:
Choose the goal for yourself: Don't rely on the suggestions of well-meaning friends and family. If someone suggests, for example, that I should exercise more, but I'm not 100% invested in that (and perhaps even resentful), ‘failure’ is much more likely.
But when I identify the behaviours I most want to change and get clear on my 'why' (how my life will be different as a result - more energy, stamina, flexibility, enjoyment in nature), I'll be much more motivated to work towards and achieve the outcomes.
Start simple: If my goal is to write for two hours a day, every day, it's better I go for 30 minutes initially and build from there. It’s easy to get over-motivated and go in all guns blazing, only to become disheartened when life takes over and things don’t happen overnight!
Use reminders: It really helps to surround yourself with reminders of your goal. Put reminders up in the places where we want to make the change: you want to cut out the screens at bedtime, put a reminder on your bedroom door. Or, better yet, get into the habit(!) of leaving your screens downstairs.
Use EFT: 'Tap' your way into sustaining and consolidating a new behaviour with Emotional Freedom Technique. I gave up alcohol for Sober October, I found that tapping in the late afternoon helped me to avoid those 'sun's-over-the-yard-arm' moments. It's now January, I'm still abstaining and in (the few) moments of weakness tapping has helped me maintain my goal.
Use serendipity: For example, you've been thinking of giving up coffee, but the thought of it is terrifying... you really need that shot of caffeine. Then one day you find it's already 11am and you've not had your usual caffeine hit.
Before rushing for a coffee, ask yourself how you feel, delay having a coffee and drink a cup of warm water instead and then monitor how you feel. You may well find that actually you feel OK... and two or three days later, not only do you still feel OK, you feel great - nothing terrible has happened!
You cannot 'fail' - you just get another opportunity to succeed
Don't let one or two bumps in the road derail your journey towards success. If we pick up where we left off, there is no shame, guilt, judgement, nor any reason at all to abandon the plan! Just keep on keepin' on...
“And that is how change happens. One gesture. One person. One moment at a time.”
- Libba Bray, The Sweet Far Thing