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Mental Floss: How to Create Healthy Habits

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So you want to create healthy habits.

Nothing wrong with that. More power to ya!

But the problem is – these attempts often fail. Let’s consider New Year’s Resolutions. It’s staggering when you consider a whopping 80% of these resolutions go the way of the dinosaurs within a month.

Why the heck is that?

Because many of us just don’t know how to create healthy habits.

(Pssst – if you like this article, check out our other entries in the Mental Floss Series like How To Get Moving – Exercise for Low Days and the ever popular How To Create a Safe Space.)

My Journey Towards Health and Why it Kept Failing

I make such a bold statement because I’ve lived it. A few years ago, I unintentionally began a journey towards health both mentally and physically.

As I moved towards health I realized either I had never been taught to make a healthy choice or it had been so long I’d forgotten. So I was left trying desperately to “make good choices” when I really had no idea how to. It was incredibly frustrating to fail over and over again. It really felt like I wasn’t capable of having a good, healthy life.

But the reality was, I just didn’t have the skills I was expecting myself to have as a 28 year old human. Once I realized that, it was like a weight was lifted. There wasn’t something wrong with me as a person, I just didn’t have enough knowledge.

Once that light bulb went off, I realized I had to do some serious research. And that I did, for years and years. And I’m still going (and growing)! This article is meant to be a synthesis of what I’ve learned so far, what’s worked, and what methods didn’t really hit the mark.

So get in winner, we’re creating healthy habits.

How to Create Healthy Habits:

1. Start By Doing Your Research

When times get tough, the tough get Googling. Seriously! If you’re not sure where to start just Googling the question “how to create healthy habits” is a great step. My suggestion here is to read as many articles as you can. Watch YouTube videos. Listen to Podcasts. The more perspectives you have, the more likely you are to succeed at creating healthy habits.

If you need a kick start, here’s a short list of channels, podcasts, and influencers that have helped me build a healthier life:

“NPR’s Life Kit” Podcast

With the tagline, “Tools To Help You Get it Together” you better believe this collection from NPR won’t let you down. The Life Kit is divided up into four collections: Health, Parenting, Finances, and Lifeskills. Each episode is short (between 10-20 minutes) but is packed full of relatable tips to help you skill build your way to success! Here’s a few choice episodes to get you started:

  1. 7 Ways to Get Out of Medical Debt https://www.npr.org/player/embed/694670747/713998102
  2. 5 Tips to Stop Stress Spending https://www.npr.org/player/embed/915289340/916073912
  3. An Illustrated Guide to Showing Up For Yourself https://www.npr.org/player/embed/856152729/856881722
NPR's Life Kit Podcasts: Tools To Help You Get It Together : NPR

Sarah Sapora

Sarah is NOT your average health and wellness influencer. Since I’ve started following her on Instagram she’s always been radically open about her journey to health as a bigger woman. She was the first person I came across that let me know it was okay to love the body you’re in, be frustrated with it (and society as a whole) and still work to make yourself healthier.

Sarah helps others heal holistically, which means she encourages those looking to make a healthy life change to build habits in ALL avenues of life, not just fitness. Her site and workshops are great for anyone looking to create healthy habits with a spiritual twist.

Screenshot_20190217-123918_Instagram.jpg
Photo Cred: Sarahsapora.com

Manager Tools Podcast

Don’t be fooled by the title of this one. On the outside this podcast is about surviving the corporate machine. But once you listen to a few episodes, you realize hosts Mark and Mike are dispensing incredibly valuable life advice. I’ve learned SO much from them about good work habits including effective time management, work life balance (i.e. that it doesn’t actually exist), and personal organization.

Some choice episodes to get you started:

  1. Behaviors to Improve Focus
  2. Sunday Evening Planning
  3. Time (Priority) Management

2. Decide What Methods are Right For YOU

Here’s the breaks my friends: you’re going to kiss a lot of frogs when it comes to finding the right habit building method for you.

As you Google, you’ll undoubtedly come across a plethora of methods promising to keep you on track with habits. And there’s value in each and every one of them. But, of course, we’re not all created the same so what works for me might not do the trick for you. You may find success by tracking your habits with a bullet journal while others may have more luck with a digital tracker connected to a device like a Fitbit.

You’ll likely have to try a lot of different methods, devices, and programs to find the one that fits you. The problem with that is it can be really discouraging if a method doesn’t fit. It can also be EXPENSIVE to try different programs, gyms, products, etc. My best advice for all that is to step back and remember, there’s SOMETHING out there for you. It’s just going to take time to find it (or build it yourself).

I also encourage you to do your research very, very carefully before spending money and committing time to a program. Be wary of anything that makes you pay up front without giving a trial period. Bonus points if whatever you’re engaging in has free cancellation, full benefits during your trial, and/or no contract.

Some questions to ask yourself as you search for the right habit building method:

  1. Do I prefer digital or analog methods? Which have I been more successful keeping up with in the past?
  2. Do I prefer a lot of support, encouragement and assistance or do I prefer a hands off approach?
  3. Do I have time to commit to this program, e-course, etc. right now?
  4. Am I in a good place mentally, physically, and emotionally to be successful with this method right now? (It’s okay if you’re not and you should try anyway if that’s what you want. Just know it may be harder and the results will be different than when you’re at your best)
  5. Does this program have positive reviews and how user friendly is it?
  6. Do I have any cognitive processing differences or life experiences that would make this program difficult or unsuitable for me? What accommodations might I need to be successful?

3. Track Your Habits!

If it isn’t measured, it isn’t managed.

If it isn’t measured, it isn’t managed. Tracking your progress is an amazingly powerful tool for success when you want to create healthy habits. Why? For a few reasons.

First, it’s satisfying AF to track your progress when working towards a goal. Say you’re trying to quit smoking and you keep a calendar that shows how many days it’s been since you had a cigarette. It’s an awesome hit of dopamine to get up each morning and cross off another day smoke free. This satisfaction gives you something to look forward to and the repetition helps to ingrain the habit in your neural pathways.

Second, having historical data can help you predict your future behaviors AND help you improve your process in the present. If you’ve tracked long enough (weeks/months/years) you can use that data to run any number of valuable statistical analyses. For instance if you are on a journey to healthy eating habits and have a slip, you can go back to your data and see what happened to make it occur (stress/holidays/environment). The data can help you develop a new process and even avoid the slip next time.

Here are a few methods for collecting your health habit data

  1. For the aesthetic paper lovers: Bullet Journal Habit Trackers (here’s one of my fave how to articles on this from Little Coffee Fox)
  2. For techies: Devices like Fitbit, Garmin, or Apple Watch and their corresponding stats apps.
  3. For those looking for a total health and wellness app: My Fitness Pal App from Under Armor which can be used just with a phone or in conjunction with a device
  4. For science lovers: The Clear Habit Tracker by James Clear and Baron Fig – the ultimate habit journal with 24 built-in templates and guides informed by science and psychology

4. Build Habits Holistically

We’ve all been there – we want to go on a diet. So we cut out all sugar, carbs, and high fat. We set a calorie budget. It’s tough but you stick it through because you know that’s the way to make change. But a couple weeks/months/even years into it we give in and go back to our old ways.

Why does this always seem to happen? Because abstinence, while an important and powerful tool for change, isn’t the only method we need to employ to create healthy habits. You see, bad habits are really there to cope with a deficiency in something. They often develop as a way to satisfy an unmet emotional need. Bad habits could result as a coping mechanism to deal with a neurochemical deficiency. Or they might be created because we were just never taught the healthy option.

Whatever the case may be, bad habits fill a void for us. When we remove them there’s nothing there but empty space that can so easily be filled up with another bad habit (or the same one) if we don’t manage it correctly.

So what can we do about this? Well we need to use ALL of our tools to create lasting change. We need to replace the bad habits with healthier options. We can do this by:

  1. Learning what has worked for others through research
  2. Joining a support group focused on breaking the habit you’re trying to change
  3. Practicing moderation (when applicable)
  4. Learning the opposite habit/behavior to the one you’re trying to change
  5. Exploring the reasons why you engaged in the bad habit (could it be due to trauma, a neurochemical imbalance, or just environmental stress?) to help yourself change it in the future.
  6. Changing your environment to get away from bad habit triggers
  7. Getting support from friends and family

And lastly, remember that the more good, healthy stuff you add to your life, the less room there is for bad habits. Thinking this way helps you stay on track because you don’t have the pressure of black and white thinking lurking behind you every time you look sideways at a cupcake.

5. Expect and Plan for Failure

This is the last, but probably most important, part of my advice. You will slip. You will slide. You will get bored.

You will fail.

And that’s okay.

Let me explain. There’s always going to be a moment where you feel like you can’t go on. It’s all a part of the journey. This is the point most people give up completely and go back to old habits. But it doesn’t have to be.

It’s the perfect time to step back and consider what’s not working with your plan of attack. Maybe you need to take a break. Maybe you need more support. Or maybe you need to tweak your daily routine so you don’t get bored. Failure can be a great teacher if you just learn to listen properly.

During this time it’s important not to kick yourself for slipping up. That kind of shaming just creates more pressure and pretty much ensures that you’ll never try again.

Instead try employing these strategies:

  1. Create a “failure plan” before you even start (what could cause you to fail and a list of strategies you’re going to employ to get through it)
  2. Practice mindfulness
  3. Consider how much you’ve learned and grown already during the process and use that to move forward
  4. Lose the parts that don’t work for you
  5. Keep going even if it isn’t your ideal action (walk instead of run, eat low carb instead of carb free, write a blog post instead of a book chapter). Doing so will keep you in practice and may even re-ignite your motivation

Wrap Up: What DOESN’T Work for Creating Healthy Habits

Now there are many, many ways to achieve your healthy goals. More than I could ever list here on a simple blog post. But there IS a much shorter list of things that will absolutely sabotage your healthy habit process. Here it is:

  1. Shaming yourself into changing
  2. Changing to please someone else
  3. Removing a habit and NOT changing the reason behind the behavior
  4. Having an binary view of what health is
  5. Using a method that’s not tailored to your experience
  6. Forcing yourself to change to meet societal/community/or organizational expectations

Basically anything that forces you to be someone you’re not is going to end up being toxic and unsustainable. So if you find yourself changing habits, maybe consider the following:

  1. Changing because you love yourself and want a long healthy life
  2. Building healthy habits because YOU want to
  3. Working to understand why you engaged in a bad habit
  4. Having a multidimensional outlook on what health means to YOU (health is relative and personal)
  5. Researching the best methods for you as an individual
  6. Accepting that you don’t need to change to meet societal expectations

And last but not least, no matter what habits you have, YOU ARE WORTHY, AMAZING and A BEAUTIFUL HUMAN BEING <3

Much Love,

MB

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Mad as Hell Mental Health Rights Advocate. Likes margaritas, long walks on the beach, and JUSTICE.

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