Habit Formation for Successful Behaviour Change

Why is it so hard to change a behaviour and more importantly maintain that behaviour long term and what can we do to help ensure successful behaviour change when it comes to our health? It is clear that simply knowing what lifestyle changes you should be making to support your health and even having the best intentions to make them, does not equate to changing and adhering long term to these behaviour changes.

Healthy Eating

One explanation for this lack of adherence to long term behaviour change for health is a failure to successfully change an individual’s habits so those old habits keep us doing what we always do. Key to successful behaviour change is incorporating the strategies needed to break unhealthy habits and/or form new healthy habits.

A habit is a behaviour that is recurrent, is cued by specific context, and acquired through frequent repetition e.g., putting on your seat belt every time you get into a car. Habits shape our existence and ultimately our future, accounting for about 40% of our everyday behaviours. New habits take anywhere between 18-254 days to form, with an average of 66 days. This broad timeline accounts for some habits being easier to form than others and some people find habits easier to form than others.  The good news about habits is that they gradually become easier over time, as they become more automatic and less intentional.

Firstly, you need motivation, it is what gets you started on your journey to change a behaviour. The more you personally believe in the value of changing a given behaviour the greater the likelihood of it becoming a habit. This means you are ideally doing it for yourself, free of pressure or evaluation by others.

Healthy lifestyle habits

While motivation will get you started on your journey, setting goals will help keep you going, they allow you to develop a plan so that your new behaviour can become a habit. Goals should be determined by you and not others. To make a new healthy habit, decide on a goal that you want to achieve for your health. Let’s say your goal is to exercise a minimum of 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. You then want to choose a specific action that will help get you towards your goal which you can do daily e.g., go for a daily walk. Then you need to plan where and when you will go for your daily walk, be consistent here e.g., in the morning when I wake up, I will go for a 10-minute walk. Every time you encounter that time and place do the action until it becomes automatic. Monitoring your progress can be helpful. Try keeping a weekly tick sheet: tick off each day you did the action, at the end of the week tick if you did it 5 times or more. Rate how automatic the action felt on a scale of 1-10. When it becomes a 10 it is automatic, and you’ve successfully made a healthy habit 😊.

When you choose an action there are several things you need to take into consideration. You want to be confident you can achieve that action and keep doing it until it becomes a habit. This means start by choosing an action that is really simple and then you can build on that success over time. Be inspired by others like you who have had success.

I think it is important to have someone who believes in your ability to make the behaviour change, who is there to encourage and support you on your journey, to help you put strategies in place, to help overcome barriers and to deal with any setbacks you may have.

An action will be more achievable if you pay attention to who you are, your strengths, tendencies, and aptitudes. For example, don’t plan an action such as I am going to wake up 15 minutes earlier and go out for a walk every morning if you are a night owl and not naturally a morning person.

You will most likely need to change or modify the environmental stimuli. What do I mean by this? Say you usually wake up in the morning, reach for your phone by your bed and start scrolling through the latest posts on Instagram and Facebook. Instead, each night before you go to bed leave your phone in another room (out of sight out of mind) and lay your exercise gear out ready for your walk. In the morning when you wake up there is no phone to tempt you but instead, just your exercise clothing in full view cueing you to get up and get walking.

Exercise for health

Lastly, you want to think about and be prepared for barriers that could stop you from doing your chosen action and put strategies in place to overcome these barriers. e.g., You wake up and it’s pouring down with rain in the morning and you don’t want to go out walking. Have a 10-minute exercise routine planned that you could do inside instead.

Changing a behaviour for health is not easy, start small and build on your success. There will be setbacks along the way but know that each day you do that chosen action it is going to get easier, it will become more automatic and less intentional and with perseverance and the right strategies that behaviour can become a lifelong habit, a habit that supports your health and quality of life. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, just get going one small step at a time.

“The past is history, the present and future lie in the choices you make today”.

References

Bushman, B., & American College of Sports Medicine. (2017). ACSM’s Complete Guide to Fitness & Health, 2E. Human Kinetics.

Cleo, G., Isenring, E., Thomas, R., & Glasziou, P. (2017). Could habits hold the key to weight loss maintenance? A narrative review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 30(5), 655-664.

Cleo, G., Isenring, E., Thomas, R., & Glasziou, P. (2017). Could habits hold the key to weight loss maintenance? A narrative review. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 30(5), 655-664.

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