Another new year is right around the corner, and maybe you’re thinking, this will be the year I [fill in the blank]. Here’s a tip: if you spend all your time thinking about the long list of goals you want to achieve and forget to consider why you want to achieve them and how you’re going to do it, you could be setting yourself up for failure.
Before piling on the pressure and ratcheting up the restriction, you need a realistic strategy. As a certified holistic health coach, I specialize in human behavior, and specifically, in changing unwanted behavior patterns. I know relying on willpower alone won’t help you create real, lasting change. Using scientific evidence (in a friendly, digestible format—promise!), I created an actionable plan to help you understand what’s keeping you stuck in unwanted habits and how to make this the year you set and reach your healthiest goals.
Our brains are finicky, and they need more than wishful thinking and sheer will to change. In a fascinating study about thought suppression, social psychologist Daniel Wegner found that when we set out not to do something, it becomes much more attractive to our subconscious mind. We’re wired to take the easier path—which is usually the familiar one—so when we’re faced with making a change, our brains tend to put up a fight.
The other problem is that willpower itself is finite, meaning it can be depleted or exhausted like any other resource. That’s why the all-or-nothing mentality that often accompanies our biggest goals inevitably leaves us feeling empty rather than empowered. So if you’ve ever tried (and failed) to white-knuckle it through a major habit shift, you can let yourself off the hook. It’s not you, it’s willpower. Putting all your faith in willpower alone is like buying a lottery ticket versus taking a finance class: one relies on hopeful thinking, while the other uses proven strategy to get results.
When setting out to create new habits, we have to do it in a way our minds are willing to accept, otherwise we are going to find ourselves in the all-too-familiar place of realizing nothing has actually changed (cue disappointment and self-sabotage). Habit building is a science, so the best approach to doing it successfully is a science-based one that works with our brains, not against them.
This exercise is designed to be a painless and productive way to really understand the habit you’re trying to change and intentionally replace it with a new habit.
Let’s use one of my unwanted habits as an example: I’ve gotten a little too friendly with the snooze button in the mornings.
Step 1: Identify The Trigger
The more specific you can be about what triggers your habit, the more effective you’ll be at replacing it. To figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing, establish the following:
My trigger is my alarm at 6:30 AM. I’m tucked into my comfortable bed, deep in sleep, and I’m not feeling ready to get up. Just like clockwork (literally), I hit the snooze button.
Step 2: Analyze The Old Habit
Next, have an honest conversation about the reward and cost of your habit. What are you getting out of it, really? Our comfort-seeking brains tend to put rose-colored glasses over our less desirable habits. When you take a closer look, you might be surprised. Are you actually benefiting from the behavior, or is it just what you’re used to?
The reward I get from hitting snooze every morning is the instant gratification of 60 more minutes in bed and the belief that I’m getting more rest. But what’s the habit costing me? If I’m really honest with myself, I actually feel even more tired after snoozing for an hour. I rush my morning routine and start my day feeling behind.
Step 3: Choose Your New Habit
Working out more and eating healthier are popular New Year’s goals, and they are perfectly good ones. But before you commit to making any life change, take a moment to reflect on what changes you really want to make and why; that knowledge can go a long way towards inspiring you to stick with it.
Why do I want to quit the snooze button? I want to gain back that extra time in the morning to fit in a workout. I want to do that because I know I always feel better when I work out first thing in the morning. I feel less anxiety and more productive all day. I also love the feeling of accomplishment as I’m working through my day knowing my workout is already done! Those are pretty powerful motivators.
From there, my advice is to start with a tiny goal. Setting simple, accomplishable milestones on the path towards the big goal gives us a fighting chance against our brain’s attempt to talk us out of it.
Instead of making my new habit “get up early and work out for an hour every single morning”—which, let’s be honest, isn’t entirely realistic—my tiny goal is just to get out of bed and put on my workout clothes. Committing to sliding into yoga pants and a sweatshirt every morning at 6:30 AM is much less intimidating than committing to a pre-dawn HIIT class…but once I’m dressed, I’m halfway there.
Since I won’t be able to root you on in person every day, here’s some pocket wisdom as you embark on your personal process of improvement.
Physiologically, excitement and anxiety feel almost identical in the body. It’s your brain that decides the narrative, so when nerves, doubt, or negativity creep in, try reframing your thoughts.
Anxious about showing up to the gym for the first time in months? Imagine the adrenaline rush you always get after those first few sweaty minutes. Trying to eat more plant-based, but worried you’ll feel deprived? Bookmark some delicious-looking healthy recipes you’re excited to try. Focus on the positive, find joy in the journey, and celebrate every win.
Need some inspiration for keeping it positive? Here are a few ideas that always work for me:
If you consider yourself particularly change-averse, habit stacking might be your new favorite thing. This method involves making small tweaks to already-established behavior patterns.
Let’s say you want to commit to a supplement regimen in the new year. Rather than adding a whole new step to your routine, “stack” the new habit you want to set on top of an existing one. Maybe you already brew a pot of coffee every morning. You never forget to do it because your brain is trained in that pattern. Keep a bag of functional mushroom powder next to the coffee machine and stir a spoonful into your mug, or store your bottle of fish oil supplements beside the tea kettle and knock one back while you wait for the water to boil. Easy!
My favorite ways to habit stack are adding a scoop of tasteless, quickly dissolving collagen to my morning coffee and keeping my nighttime supplements next to my toothpaste to take before brushing my teeth.
Lastly and most importantly, listen to your body and trust what it tells you. Is your new habit causing you excessive stress? Give yourself a break. We’re all balancing a lot, and if your healthy goals are having adverse effects on your wellbeing, it sort of defeats the purpose. (And it should go without saying, but if any changes to your routine are causing concerning symptoms, stop what you’re doing and talk to your doctor.) Personally, I like to have calming supplements (like magnesium, CBD, and adaptogens) on hand to keep my cool in times of stress.
Take your time, honor your needs, and lean into the excitement of trying new things. Remember that the Thrive Market team is here to support you in doing healthy your way.
*This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.
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