How good habits are formed

Personal development coach Annette Paterakis shares some simple tips that can help you stick to your new lifestyle goals.
1 June 2016

It’s the same old story isn’t it? You know something needs to change.  You know you owe it to your health to create better habits. However, try as you might, you quickly found yourself unable to stick to your new lifestyle routine – despite starting off with huge amounts of motivation.

The issue is, because we want to see results fast, we feel like we need to change everything in one go. We try to eat healthier, exercise three times a week, sleep more and stop drinking alcohol (that alone will put you off). And this is where we slip up.

Although we start with good intentions, the moment we cannot commit to all of these changes we feel like we have failed – and that's an immediate demotivating influence. We feel like we must stick to the plan 100%, with no slip-ups or mistakes allowed. As a result, if we stray and end up indulging in one cheeky cookie, we end up thinking the whole plan has gone to pot – so we might as well have the rest of the cookie jar.

Start with small steps. Make it so ridiculously easy you can’t possibly fail.

Adopt gradual change

However there is a much more effective way of approaching your lifestyle change – doing it more gradually. Incorporate new habits a few at a time and attach them to your existing ones.

Say, for example, you want to drink more water. Why not start your day by drinking one big glass first thing. You could attach this to your (hopefully) existing habit of brushing your teeth. And make this easy to remember by having a glass ready next to your toothbrush so you won’t forget.

Create new habits

The way habits work is that they need to be repeated for long enough to create a new neural pathway. That’s how it becomes an automatic reaction. Research by the University College of London has shown that on average it takes about 66 days for you to create a new habit. In other words, if you repeat a certain action often enough you won’t have to think about it anymore as it has become an automatic response.

For example, if you would like to go for a run three times a week for 30 minutes. You could start by building the habit by going on set days like every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The moment your schedule gets messed up because your meeting goes on for longer than expected and you only have 25 minutes left (and still need to change), don’t cancel or say “I’ll try again tomorrow”. Instead, it would be much better to stick to your plan and go anyway – even if it is just for 15 or 20 minutes. It is much more important you create and stick to that habit, instead of doing it perfectly.

It is much more important you create and stick to that habit, instead of doing it perfectly.

Quick tips

Here are some techniques I find useful to help you get going:

  • Make sure you know “why” you want to incorporate this new habit so you can battle any “how”.
  • Start with small steps. Make it so ridiculously easy you can’t possibly fail.
  • Link or replace current (bad) habits to create new ones.
  • Strive for improvement not perfection.
  • Integrate more habits as you go, think long term progress.
  • Make sure you can still have a bit of fun along the way.

About the Author

At Central YMCA we work with a variety of experts in health and wellbeing to help people live happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives.

Annette Paterakis

Founder of The Third Life

Annette Paterakis is an Applied Psychologist graduate, certified EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) therapist, Mindfulness trainer and Equicoach. She is the founder of The Third Life a training and coaching company aimed at personal development, primarily through a combination of science, stress management and mindfulness. Her customers include entrepreneurs and executives in London, Olympic athletes and the Dutch police.

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