How to build healthy habits

As I write this, it’s coming to the beginning of February. This means that, for most people reading this, their New Years Resolutions will already be broken. It’s estimated that fewer than 10% of people are able to stick to their resolutions each year. If you’re reading this, you’re probably interested in fitness and health, which means that your resolutions are likely fitness or health orientated. Failing to meet these new resolutions, which happens to most people, can have serious consequences, especially given that close to a third of people in the UK are classed as obese, and many don’t get sufficient exercise.


So why do people fail to meet their goals? Well, there can be a number of reasons. The first is that they set too many new goals. They want to lose that extra 10kg of fat and build 5kg of muscle. They want to break their 5km personal best and achieve new bests in the gym. This can be compounded by setting too great a goal; wanting to lose 10kg is a huge goal, especially when we might consider that 2-3kg per month is a sustainable fat loss goal for people who are overweight; it could take over three months to meet this goal – if done well – which often leads to people trying to lose weight in a much shorter period of time. This causes them to severely under eat, which makes them feel tired and lethargic, which in turn causes them to come off their diet – and therefore miss their goals.


Another common reason why people tend to miss their resolutions is because they don’t make it matter to them enough. Sure, they want to lose weight, but when most people are faced with a choice between eating a cookie or not, they’ll chose the cookie, even if their goal is to lose 10kg.


Instead, we need to reassess our goals, and also make them matter much more. The first step is to only start one new goal, or habit, at a time. My New Year’s Resolutions are to start some sort of mindfulness practice consistently, eat meat less often, measure my Heart Rate Variability (HRV) every day, and be consistent in my diet (basically by only eating out once per week, and only having alcohol once per week – if that). I could have started all of these on January 1st, but that would have meant that I would have been starting a number of new habits at once, pressuring my willpower and also making it tough to remember to carry out all the changes at once. Instead, my goal for January was to measure my HRV every day upon waking. To meet this goal, all I had to do was spend 60 seconds each day using an iPhone app. To make sure I didn’t forget, for the first week I put a reminder on a post-it note and stuck it onto my phone, so that I had to remove it to turn off my alarm, which in turn acted as the stimulus to take my HRV.


That’s not to say that I didn’t try and hit my other goals – I did – but I didn’t beat myself up over them if I missed out. My metric for success or failure for January was whether or not I measured my HRV every day. I did, which meant that I met my goal, for the grand total of 31 minutes of work this month. Taking my HRV first thing is now a habit, so I can spend less time thinking about this (in fact, it’s now automatic), and in February I can move to one of my other goals.


So we can see that smaller goals are far more useful than bigger goals. Part of this reason is because they’re easier to achieve, meaning that you keep moving forward, and also keep your motivation high. These smaller goals can form part of a bigger goal – mine is to lose 10kg and stay constant at around 90kg bodyweight – but they’re not overwhelming; they give you a place to start and make small wins, taking you towards your ultimate goal.


We also need to make ourselves accountable when it comes to our goals and habits. When we originally set them, we’re motivated to achieve them, but that motivation wanes with time, and often we fall off the wagon completely. Instead, make yourself accountable. This can be as simple as entering a 5km race in a few months, or a half marathon, and telling your friends and family about it. The fear of looking stupid can act as a powerful motivator. Something else that I find effective is making a bet against yourself. Last year I gave my wife £200 and told her that if I hadn’t lost a set amount of weight by a given time, she had to donate it to Britain First, a group that I despise. The thought of having to support those people (and declare it publicly on twitter) meant that I had a powerful motivator to meet my goal, which I did.



In summing up, setting smaller, achievable goals that lead to achieving a much bigger goal is a very useful step. This practice can keep you motivated for longer, and less likely to feel disheartened because it reduces failure. Only attempting one new habit at a time is also a good idea, because it makes change “easier” – and your brain likes things to be easy. Finally, commit yourself publicly to something – such as a competition – that will spur you on to meet your goals. If you manage to make these three things happen, there’s a good chance you’ll be in the 8% of people that do manage to keep their New Year’s Resolutions.

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