April 7th is World Health Day. This is a good time to be successful in making changes towards the healthy lifestyle you’ve always imagined. Many of us, through sheer force of willpower set the alarm for 5:00 in the morning to get to the gym before work.
And some of us will choose to go after work, despite how tired we are.
We put ourselves on the strictest diets, never deviating from our rigid eating regime. At least we are able to do it as long as motivation is high, nothing distracts us, and our willpower is working in overdrive.
What happens though when the motivation dips, we get distracted by other pressing issues, or simply get tired?
Many of us give up, become discouraged and revert to unhealthy habits.
It’s a tribute to our internal strength and fortitude that we are able, time and time again, to muster the energy and willpower to repeat the whole process, only to end up with the same frustrating results.
Not being able to stick to our plans can have a negative effect on our mental health. We can become discouraged, depressed, overwhelmed, and filled with self criticism and even self loathing when we can’t seem to turn our goals into reality.
B.J. Fogg PhD, a social scientist and behaviour researcher at Stanford University, has studied over 3,000 people to determine the most effective way to bring about healthy changes.
He found that starting small (minuscully small) is more effective than committing yourself to a big, bound to fail, plan.
Using small habits to piggy back onto other habits, you can slowly bring about the long term change that you want. Of course, it’s not as effective in the short term as throwing yourself into a strict eating or exercise regime, but it will be more effective in the long term.
For many people who work full-time, squeezing our healthy lifestyle into the wee hours before work or the late hours after work requires too much willpower and not enough habit.
How can we use our work environments as a place where healthy lifestyle choices are reinforced?
Let’s suppose that you would like to use your lunch hour to get exercise by going for a 45 minute walk every day. Most of us would muster our willpower and simply start walking everyday. After a short period of time we might find the walks fall off and then stop completely.
When we apply the principles of starting small to create habit, we might first establish the habit of stopping lunch at a specific time each day, and going outside for a breath of fresh air.
Once we had developed that habit we could add walking around the building, gradually adding a few minutes to the walk. If going outside starts to feel that it’s requiring too much effort, then you’re moving too quickly.
The difference between habit and willpower is that willpower involves forcing yourself to do something you really don’t want to do, that isn’t comfortable, and that requires tremendous mental energy.
Habit is when you are doing something that feels routine, effortless, and requires little mental energy.
You could increase your habit of walking at lunch by inviting others to join you. You might even try taking a meeting outside. In addition to going outside on your lunch break, you could step outside on breaks to talk with co-workers, or to have a private discussion with an employee.
The more you make a habit of popping outside or air and a brief stroll around the parking lot or building, the easier and more natural it will feel to start walking.
Some healthy workplace habits don’t necessarily take a lot of willpower they just take remembering to do them.
For example, you may want to establish the habit of doing a few stretches a couple times a day but you keep forgetting to do it.
According to Dr Fogg, one effective way to establish a habit is to anchor it to an already existing habit.
If you always have a couple cups of tea or coffee at work, then anchor your new habit to that. Drink your coffee then do some stretches.
When you tie a habit you are trying to establish with an already existing habit, you strengthen the habit you are trying to form.
For example, many work places have co-workers or bosses who regularly bring in donuts, muffins, or other poor health choices. A discussion may reveal that many find the food sabotages their efforts to eat healthier.
Everyone might be willing to agree to only healthy choices being brought in for sharing.
Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
Sometimes the greatest reward is simply saying encouraging, supportive things to yourself.
If your goal is to become a healthy eater, one the best ways to reward yourself is to allow pride in your accomplishment. Rather than focusing on our successes, we berate ourselves for our slow progress or focus on the unsuccessful times.
Stop thinking in terms of success or failure.
Everything is a learning opportunity. If you were not successful in making healthy food choices today, use this as an opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t.
Constantly hone your understanding of what you need to be successful. Practice, practice, practice, then evaluate, evaluate, evaluate.
It takes time to create a new habit, but not as long as you might think. By employing these strategies, Dr. Fogg found that the majority of his research participants were able to establish habits in as little as 5 days.
Healthy habits will lead you to a healthy lifestyle, one that can withstand lapses in motivation, energy, and willpower.