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Follow Through On New Habits

A strategy to implement—and adhere to—healthy changes.

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A strategy to implement—and adhere to—healthy changes.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Even triathletes, who are widely perceived as strong in willpower, struggle with behavioral change. Implementing a healthy habit is not so hard, but making it stick can be very challenging. Why? Because self-control is a limited resource. Engaging in self-restraint in one domain depletes the reserve of energy available to apply self-restraint in another. Plus, relying on willpower can set us up for failure. As soon as we put too much faith in willpower, we are more likely to neglect practices that are actually useful in maintaining habits.

According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 8 percent of people achieve their New Year’s resolutions. Even triathletes, who are widely perceived as strong in willpower, struggle with behavioral change. Implementing a healthy habit is not so hard, but making it stick can be very challenging. Why? Because self-control is a limited resource. Engaging in self-restraint in one domain depletes the reserve of energy available to apply self-restraint in another. Plus, relying on willpower can set us up for failure. As soon as we put too much faith in willpower, we are more likely to neglect practices that are actually useful in maintaining habits.

So how do we make those healthy habits last?

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Follow these guidelines.

1. Make it enjoyable
Trying to force yourself to do something you typically don’t do AND don’t enjoy is very challenging. Focus on what Nir Eyal, author of Hooked, calls the “minimal enjoyable action.” When trying to form a new habit, keep it to the absolute simplest action possible—make it too easy to fail. When that is established, you can embellish it. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, focus first on chewing slowly and eating your food without distraction.

2. Get Specific
Be concrete about the changes you want to make. According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, top resolutions include “enjoy life to the fullest” and “stay fit and healthy.” What do those really mean? What direct impact will your goal have on your behavior each day? Be clear about the limits and scope of the change.

3. Monitor yourself
Make sure your habit can be tracked by an actual measurement. “Eat healthier” is much harder to measure than “have salad for lunch every day.” We tend to underestimate what we eat and overestimate how much we have exercised. Monitoring can be active (logging food intake and/or exercise) or passive (trying on a tighter-fitting piece of clothing
as a checkpoint).

4. Change the environment
Research has shown that environment is a big factor in driving behavior, as behavior is context dependent. Structuring our environment to make desired habits convenient enable healthy choices. Keep healthy snacks at eye level in the fridge. Conversely, make unhealthy choices inconvenient, like keeping the chips on a shelf you cannot reach without assistance.

5. Take advantage of high motivational states
Rather than labeling yourself as a person with high or low willpower, understand that all of us experience fluctuations in our motivational state. Capitalize on high motivational states—cut up fruits and vegetables so they are available in the fridge when you get home tired.

6. Team up
Make your goals public and share your successes and failures with a group. It can hold you accountable and recruit support. Social media can be useful for this, as well as various social activity sites
such as Strava.

7. Beware of the finish line
Setting an endpoint can help people reach a goal, but as Gretchen Rubin, author of Better than Before writes, “The reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits. A finish line marks a stopping point, and once we stop, we must start over, and starting over is harder than starting.” Even if the finish line feels like the reward, the real reward for a good habit may be the habit itself.

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