It’s always a good time to start a new healthy habit; there’s no good reason to wait for the new year or next Monday. Just know that it will take 66 days to actually form a habit.
Tips on how to develop healthy habits were the subject of the monthly segment of the Infinite Mindcare Talk Series at Books & Books on Jan. 20.
Psychologist Lili Wagner said that many people choose a particular day, like Jan. 1, to make the decision to start a new habit, but one reason most New Year’s resolutions fail in a short period of time is that people don’t form habits out of their desired actions.
“The brain needs constant repetition,” she said, noting that the book “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning,” by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel outlines tips for developing a new habit. Those tips include using forceful verbs when talking about your desired habit. Wagner said that instead of saying, “I want to…” do something, people should say, “I commit to…” doing whatever it is.
Making that commitment public by telling friends or posting it on Facebook is another way to create psychological pressure to stay committed to a new behaviour.
Scientific studies have shown that one way to form a healthy habit is to start by forming “tiny habits” first.
Other tips include recommitting verbally every day to continue with a particular behaviour and using constructive imagery to picture ourselves in the future as a result of sticking to that behaviour.
When people stick to their resolutions, it increases self-confidence and self-esteem, Wagner said.
“The more we stick to it, the more we feel better about accomplishing our goals.” Developing a plan and then visualising that plan from beginning to end is another method of forming healthy habits.
“Imagining is a powerful way of training your brain,” Wagner said. Having a friendly support group is also good when you’re trying to form a new habit.
“That’s why Weight Watchers and those types of groups tend to work,” she said. Wagner said studies have shown that it takes 66 days for people to develop a habit, so they shouldn’t be too hard on themselves if they slip in the process of trying to form a new habit.
“You want to have self-compassion and tenacious persistence,” she said, adding that slipping off course doesn’t mean a person has to abandon a new habit.
“You can say to yourself, ‘This moment is a whole new moment,’” she said. “We can choose to treat the moment now differently than the one before.”
Starting a new habit, particularly if it’s considerably different than a person’s current behaviour, can be overwhelming. This is one of the reasons so many New Year’s resolutions fail so quickly, Wagner said.
Scientific studies have shown that one way to form a healthy habit is to start by forming “tiny habits” first. For example, if you wanted to start exercising every morning, you could get up, and put on your exercise shoes, Wagner said. The tiny habit that you are trying to form is simply putting on your exercise shoes. If you then decide to go back to bed after putting on your shoes, then you can.
The next day, however, you should get up again, put on your shoes and walk to the door. You don’t have to continue beyond that point if you don’t feel like it.
The third day, you can put on your shoes, walk through the door and get in the car.
“Maybe at that point, you’ll say to yourself, ‘Well, I’m already in the car, I might as well go to the gym.’” By starting small with an anchor habit — that of putting on shoes — it can lead to the larger habit of going to the gym regularly.
“Because it’s so small, the brain isn’t fighting it,” Wagner said. “It’s not overwhelming.” No matter how small the habit is to start, Wagner said people should celebrate immediately for accomplishing it.
“I’m not talking about celebrating with a doughnut,” she said. “Look at yourself in the mirror and give yourself thumbs up and a big smile.”
By keeping goals realistic and being persistent, people can train their brains to accept change. “Change is difficult, but not impossible,” she said. “That’s what we have to remind ourselves.”
Understanding the kinds of behaviours that cause positive feelings and those that cause negative feelings in important in forming habits, Wagner said. She suggested looking through the previous year’s calendar and making a list of the top 10 per cent of things that cause negative feelings and the top 10 per cent of things that cause positive feelings. After making the list, people should commit to do more of the positive things in the current year.
She said people have to fight against negativity, which can frame the mind.
“Automatic negative thoughts are called ANTS,” she said. “We have to crush those ants.”
Wagner suggested living by the words of two of her favourite quotes: “Do something today that your future self will thank you for,” and “I want to die young at a very old age.”
“We have to take care of our body, soul and brain,” she said. “You want to stop bad habits by bringing in new, good habits that will push out the bad habits.”