Your motivation coach Anna Geary on how to futureproof the healthy changes you have made so far, and stay on track when your willpower starts to wane
You are well on your way in our Fit Summer Series. You are moving more with purpose; listening to your body in order to eat more intuitively; practising self care and becoming aware of the language you use.
A few weeks into any programme can get tricky. Around now, people may find that they struggle with willpower. The excitement of starting something new has worn off, maybe you didn’t have a “good week” and now you are contemplating packing it in and starting again “once the summer is over”.
Don’t do it. Don’t underestimate the work you have already put in. Today’s piece is around setting up processes and systems that kick in when your willpower fails you, and it will, because it happens everyone
According to Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” He is referring here to the value of repetition. How you live your day is how you live your life. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true.
Habit formation is the process by which our behaviours become automatic. Habits can form without us intending to acquire them too. Your brain doesn’t not recognise whether something is “good” or “bad” for you, it just notes the frequency and repetitive nature of that action and then in similar situations, repeats it. So your life today is essentially the sum of your habits.
Often it’s the case that we go into autopilot. Do you hit the snooze button three times before getting up every morning? Or have a biscuit with every cup of tea? These may not be conscious habits we have built, but they are still habits.
In order to break the cycle of any habit, rather than trying to ditch it, I’m a believer in replacing it with a newly-formed habit.
For example, I used to love the snooze button function. Now when my alarm goes off, I’ll count back from 10 and get up. Then I tell myself, “if you want to go back to bed in five minutes you can”. I never do.
So think about the habits in your life that don’t add value to your day. Write them down, then alongside them come up with new habits to replace them. Focus on creating one habit at a time.
Now that you know what habit you want to create, it’s about building a system to facilitate it. James Clear is an expert in habit building (you may have heard of the book Atomic Habits), he believes we don’t rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems.
In order for a habit to work, you need to make it obvious. I like to train in the morning, so to make sure I put myself in a position to do that. I don’t just organise my workout gear the night before, I place it on the floor in the middle of the bedroom, so I physically need to step over the clothes to leave the room. It’s a cue for my brain that a workout needs to happen. When it comes to food, if there is fruit on the counter, it’s more likely you will eat it. However, if the first thing you see when you enter the kitchen is a sweet jar or biscuit tin, that’s what you will gravitate towards after a long day.
With any habit you need to remove the barriers to ensure successful implementation. Sit down and analyse your schedule. What can you do to make things easier in the areas you want to create habits?
For example, if you want to eat home-cooked dinners, check what days you may be very busy (days you may be late home or will be particularly tired). When you come home from work and the local take-away is on speed dial, having dinner prepped or cooked in the fridge will be a game-changer for staying on track.
Think about what your goal is, then what habits do you need to create to move you towards that goal? Goals are about the results you want to achieve. The systems (habits) are about the processes that lead to those results so invest your time in developing them.
We all want instant gratification, but it’s important to be realistic with the timeframe for building habits.
There is a misconception that it takes 21 days to build a habit. It takes a lot longer, so if you are struggling after three weeks, it’s normal so stick with it. Trying to develop better sleep hygiene, curbing your late night snacking, beginning to exercise are all undeniably hard, so focus on the repetition — consistently doing things every day.
Doing something, no matter how small, is better than doing nothing.
On average, it takes more than two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic, 66 days to be exact. In many cases it can take longer, so be patient.
An interesting study in the US found that people who habitually eat popcorn at cinemas are so accustomed to it that even when researchers intentionally gave them stale popcorn, they didn’t even notice and ate just as much as they normally did!
However, when the audience were instructed to eat the stale popcorn with the opposite hand than they normally used, they ate much less. Changing hands was a cue to make them more aware of its low quality. This shows that small disruptions to our routines can jolt us out of unconscious habits.
The average person swipes open their phone 60 times a day and usually doesn’t remember even clicking into their apps, or why they did so. Setting up a password after 9pm, means you need to unlock your apps when you want to get into them at night. That cue, or interruption, may make you reconsider scrolling on your phone. I did this and it certainly helps (mind you, it’s a work in progress).
A gradual build-up in the frequency and intensity of any habit will make it far easier to sustain in the long-term than leaping right in. This is especially the case if you are starting something like a new exercise habit, where throwing yourself into a rigorous training regime before your body and mind are ready could result in injury and set you back more than it helps you.
How many of us strive to be multitaskers? Think about how many job adverts include the inevitable line, “must be able to multi-task”? There is an expectation on us all to multi-task in our lives.
For me, I am infinitely more interested in improving my ability to focus on one task at a time and see out tasks through to completion, efficiently and effectively. It’s better for energy conversation too as you can your focus your mind on just one thing, with far less decisions to make simultaneously. It’s the same with trying to build habits.
As it stands, it is estimated that the average adult makes about 35,000 decisions each day. If you get distracted doing multiple things, the quality of your decisions may suffer and you might have to redo certain tasks, wasting even more time.
Be it your food preparation or stretching before your workout, try to concentrate on just one thing and you will find it’s done faster as your thought process isn’t interrupted with something else. I also find when I do this I am more productive at completing my ‘to do’ list.
Declaring your new habit to others is a great way of getting support from people around you, and it’s a great way of adding a healthy dose of accountability to your situation too.
Being accountable might involve enlisting the help of a dedicated ‘accountability buddy’ that you check in with on a regular basis, or going public with your new habit to your wider circle of friends and family.
Habit pairing (or habit stacking) involves taking a consistent, already long-established habit, and adding a new one to it, until the new one also becomes a regular behaviour.
So when having your daily shower, perhaps try 60 seconds of mindful breathing while you are washing your hair. Brushing your teeth is a daily habit so maybe during the two-minute brushing ritual (recommended time), do a little stretching.
Starting small is crucial with anything new in your life. It’s also good for counteracting demotivation. You are more likely to be consistent with something if it doesn’t seem too taxing.
If 20-30 minutes of daily exercise seems too daunting then commit to just five minutes of exercise.