ch- ch- ch- changes...
As we leave New Year and all its good intentions in the rear-view mirror, it seems as good a time as any to talk about how to maximise our chances of making long-lasting, positive changes to our lifestyle.
Something that I’ve noticed in my work is that lots of people describe themselves as having an ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to making improvements to their health and they're really keen to go away with a plan for an immediate about-turn to their lifestyle. On closer discussion, it often turns out that this is a strategy that they’ve employed a few times before, managing to sustain it for a few weeks, or even months, before ending up back where they started.
This isn’t surprising at all as lots of studies have shown that humans find it really difficult to use willpower to drive changes in behaviour over the long term - although of course we do need a bit to get things going.
So what’s the alternative? There has to be a way to successfully change things up so that we’re happier and healthier. The key seems to be to pick one or two actions, and repeat them often enough that they become habit - requiring very little thought and no willpower to complete. Once these are bedded in, it's time to pick the next actions to implement. These might be something as basic as having eggs for breakfast instead of toast, or adding a big pile of salad leaves to dinner each night. Through repetition and making these actions just something that you do, you open up the space for more positive changes and often, the success of creating the first couple of habits gives people the energy and self-belief to keep moving forward.
Another consideration is enjoyment and again, it comes back to the fact that having to constantly deploy willpower usually leads to throwing in the towel. For example, there has been so much coverage in the media of the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation - and for many people it’s a lovely practise. However, if you don’t enjoy it, resent the time you have to spend on it and can’t detect any benefits - don’t feel obliged to persevere. There are lots of other activities like walking outdoors, drawing, listening to music, even petting the cat, that push similar buttons so go for the one that works for you. The same goes for food, if you don’t enjoy a food, don’t force yourself to eat it. We have so much choice these days that there’s usually a good alternative (although, if it’s the super-nutritious oily-fish that I’m always banging on about, please try it a few different ways before giving up!).
Finally, if at all possible, find a buddy or two with similar goals who’ll help as you get your new habits established. These are the people who’ll be happy to swap a catch up in the pub with a dog walk if you’re cutting back on the booze. For me, getting up for a 6am gym class twice a week just wouldn’t happen if I didn’t go with a friend to share the pains and gains.
So, whatever you’re planning to make happen in the coming months, here’s to your