How to Set Good Habits and Keep Them

Whether it’s the harm to your health that comes from chronically failed New Year RE-solutions, blaming yourself for not being able to create and maintain healthy habits, feeling intimidated by setting “the right” fitness habits, you certainly aren’t alone.
Many Americans resolve to create healthy habits to lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier and according to research by the Social Network for Athletes, Strava, who analyzed more than 31.5 million online global activities last January, January 12th is the date when most people report failing in their New Year resolution habits. In fact, only 8% of people actually succeed in establishing and maintaining habits of health. Grim.
Why? The problem is your habit creating and habit maintaining system, not you. And your head can spin from the glut of information that’s out there on how to create good habits.
From Jack Hodge’s “The Power of Habit,” Tynan’s “Superman by Habit,” to Stephen Guise’s “Mini Habits,” Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” and James Clear’s “Atomic Habits,” it appears there are a plethora of systems to use, tens of thousands of tips to follow, and a flood of blog posts on creating good habits. How many ways can you read the same tips, twisted a bit differently and continue to fail.
Focus on consistency…use your mistakes to your advantage…it’s all about cue + routine + reward…believe you can change…don't be a “dreamer,” be a “doer”…it’s your lack of willpower…apps, that’s the answer, use apps…it takes 21 days to create a habit, no it takes 30 days, no it takes – you get the idea…ahh, you’ve got to set SMART goals…see the benefits of a new habit and that’ll help you keep a good habit. And on and on it goes.
With all of the information out there, you may begin to think, in all or nothing terms, “Since I can’t be, or haven’t been, successful, why bother at all?” But habits ARE important because they are necessary to help you become the person you aspire to be, and help you live your life as you choose, in optimal health and wellbeing.
Will Craig, author of “Living the Hero’s Journey,” is quoted as saying, “The life you live is the outward expression of your inner journey.” Perhaps it’d be wiser to better understand yourself before figuring out a new habit, since the purpose of a habit is to help you become your habit. I’d add, “mean your meaning.” James Clear in his recent book, summarizes the “Four Laws of Behavior Change”:
  • Make it obvious, that’s the “cue” and your intention and how you design your environment to help sustain your habit.
  • Make it attractive, that’s what your craving, the benefits you see.
  • Make it easy, that’s the response that you can do easily, quickly and successfully.
  • Make it satisfying, that’s the reward you give yourself immediately.
There is no one right method to create and maintain healthy habits. It needs to be personal and fit you, while following these four general “rules” of universal behavior change.
It’s essential to understand:
  • Why do you want a new habit?
  • Is your intention tied to a clear, concrete and easy to measure, achievable plan?
  • Who is your support team to help you across the finish line?
  • What celebrations and/or rewards do you have planned for establishing your new habit?
When I thought about why I wanted to live a healthy, fit life, I knew that meant I’d need to find a method, a process, to build physical activity into my daily life. I made that my #1 habit, the driver of everything else in my day.
I made a 100% commitment, not an 80% commitment. I left no wiggle room. Jack Canfield’s (“Chicken Soup for the Soul” author) observation that “99% is a bitch” sure made sense. I created easily attainable, daily achievable and realistic goals, and I do not miss a day, nor do I ever stop making improvements. I knew my dream, my intention and the steps I needed to take to get there. I assured myself that I truly wanted to do better at achieving my intention, and was fully willing to put up with the discomfort the effort of acting differently would naturally bring.
I took small, tiny, steps and insured that I had social support to help me get to the gym or do home-based workouts on my Total Gym equipment. I started with what Stephen Guise calls “stupid small” workouts. I spent lots of time “working in” before I began “working out” with “neurohacks” that set my mind in the right direction. But I also didn’t rest on “mind first” and instead changed my behavior and found my mind followed.

The Real Key to Habit Change

With all of this said however, by far the most valuable tool in creating habits that stick is to think backwards from the future, not think forwards to the future. Huh? It’s simple. I imagine myself on the cover of “Daily Workout” Magazine. It can be any magazine that relates to your selected habit. I imagine it’s one year from today. I imagine a reporter from this invented (or real) magazine calls and says, “Hey Michael, a year ago, you weren’t working out at all and now you are a daily workout guy. How’d you do it? We want to put you on the cover of our magazine!” I imagine telling him all of the tiny, easy steps I took over the imagined past year to arrive at my sustained daily workout habit. I tell him about the answers to the questions I described above, the community I used, the reward games I used, and how I built in unfailing repetition.
Then I use those steps as my going forward plan to create and sustain healthy habits. It works…
Let me summarize:
  1. Huh? You DON’T write, daily, in a journal or write out your goals for the new year? So, what! You don’t really need to.
  2. Wait. You’ve been fooled into thinking motivation is a feeling? Nope. It’s your genuine reason for changing a behavior. If you don’t have a reason, a real one, you won’t create a new habit, let alone one that will stick.
  3. Oh, you think your habit, once you’ve made one will stick? Nope. Sorry, but you will need a strategy. Think backward from the future to see what your successful strategy will be.
  4. Include positive cheerleaders, do what you prefer to do only after you do what you’d rather not do, find a comfortable, pleasing place (gym, home, etc.) to do the uncomfortable, etc. Get it?
  5. No, it’s not all drudgery. But these effective tips beat pouring wasteful $$ in the pockets of journal manufacturers, don’t they?

Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael R. Mantell, Ph.D. has been providing psychological and coaching services for nearly 5 decades and continues to empower positive change among his global clients to enhance life in every way. He is a highly sought-after healthcare professional coach, an executive and team building consultant, and a longtime specialist in cognitive behavioral coaching.

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