• Dr Lottie Miles

4 Steps for Building Good Habits and Breaking Ones

The Coronavirus pandemic is a stark reminder of how important it is to be active and look after your health.Yet the closure of gyms, sports facilities and other social clubs has changed, and even stopped many of us from exercising. The kitchen is also closer than ever too, so the consumption of snacks and comfort food is on the rise as well.

Changing your routines and adopting new healthy habits isn’t easy. Maintaining these habits (beyond lockdown) is even harder. A Sport Mentality reader asked for advice on this topic, and indeed, there are lots of handy strategies you can use to help make the good habits stick and break down the bad ones. I've put together 4 vital steps to help you find success.


Your Daily Habits

Habits are the things you do regularly. They are behaviours that ‘short-cut’ the decision-making process – you don’t think, you just act. The accumulation of these everyday habits is what makes you into the person you are.

Adopting new behaviours and turning them into habits does not happen overnight – it takes a lot of repetition to make a behaviour autonomous. Using self-control and will power alone is a pretty unpleasant approach, and it’s rarely enough. Even the most disciplined people have limited reserves of will power.

So here we go, 4 steps to get you on the right track and make your changes stick...


4 Steps for Building New Habits and Breaking Bad Ones

1. Treat the Cause

When you become ill you have two choices; you can treat your symptoms, or you can treat the cause of the problem. Treating symptoms is an appealing solution because it addresses your discomfort quickly, but it is also just a temporary fix - it won’t stop the illness from reoccurring. If you can eliminate the cause of your condition, then you’re making serious progress.

This is why it is so important to address your daily habits. Your habits and choices are the cause of your current ‘condition’. If you want to permanently change your condition, you must change your habits.

2. The Power of Accumulating Gains

Always start with a small and manageable change. When you decide to build a new habit, or break a bad one, your aim should be to alter your current trajectory, not fix the problem in a week.

A small change might seem pretty insignificant because the adaptations are slow. You won’t be thinner after avoiding a single biscuit and you won’t be fitter after performing 10 sit ups. This makes it easy to dismiss a small change in your habit or allow lapses to happen. But, if you stay true, and repeat a small change over and over again, magic happens! Eliminating one biscuit a day adds up to nearly 30,000 calories a year – that’s the same as two miserable months on a crash diet (and you probably didn’t even miss the biscuit after the first few days!).


One thing to remember, is that changes don’t happen in a linear fashion. Plateaus are normal and when you experience one, don’t fear that your efforts are being wasted. Small changes accumulate and compound – you are always making progress, but the outcome is delayed. Keep repeating your new habit or keep avoiding the bad one and you will break through.

Transformation comes from the accumulation of small changes that are repeated over and over again.


3. Consistency is King

Small changes are important because they are easy to repeat, and repetition is the only way for decisions or behaviours to become habitual (automatic). Consistency is far more important than perfection when it comes to forming habits and breaking bad ones.

If your goal is to start to exercise, focus on doing small, even tiny amounts of exercise on a regular basis – just a few minutes is enough to start. You'd be better off doing a 2min walk/jog around the garden than struggle through a 10mile run. The reason is simple; you will feel willing and able to do another 2min jog tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that…

You need to master ‘showing up’ before you worry about anything else!

Only once you’ve mastered the art of starting (or stopping) your habit, should you allow yourself to think about what you do to progress it. Even then, only gradually increase the amount you do and always stop before your new habit feels hard or tiresome – keep yourself in the mood to do it!

Planning, organising and preparing are all helpful activities for forming and breaking habits, but they are completely useless if you don’t act. You can spend hours planning a run, but if you don’t actually put one foot in front of the other, you have not succeeded in making a difference.


4. Identify with your New Habits

Your identity is a set of beliefs you hold about yourself. You form this identity based upon what you do repeatedly. If you always get up early, you identify yourself as a morning person. If you don’t drink alcohol, you identify yourself as tee-total.

Therefore, if you change a behaviour, (even just a little bit), it’s important that you also change your identity to reflect the person you have become. For example, if you decide to give up smoking, are you a smoker who quit, or a non-smoker? (Hint: you're a non-smoker!). There are no rules about how much you need to do something to identify with it either – a person who runs for a few minutes here and there, is a runner.

Take pride in your identity and fight to protect it. Every time you perform your new habit, or avoid a bad one, you cast a vote for your new identity and it strengthens. When in doubt, or if you feel unmotivated, take a moment to reflect on how the type of person you want to be would act? A walker would go out in this rain, and as you’re now a walker that means you will too!

The more you behave like the person you want to be, the more you will become them… after all your habits and thus identity are formed by what you do repeatedly!


Summary

Habits are autonomous behaviours you perform on a regular basis. If you change your habits, the outcome will take care of itself. The key to forming a successful new habit or breaking a bad one is to start with a small change and master the repetition of that change, over and over again. Gradually develop your habit into something more substantial over time, but remember consistency is more important than perfection. Finally, identify with your new habit. You are what you do, no matter how big or small your new behaviour is.


Next week's post will discuss the motivational effect of fitness trackers and the dangers they can also present. Is your smart watch helping or hindering you?

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by dr Lottie miles