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Smart ways to form (and keep) healthy habits

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Smart ways to form (and keep) healthy habits

I just need to get into the habit.


How many times have you said that to yourself? It’s a noble goal that works, for a few weeks anyway -- maybe even a few months! But suddenly life gets in the way, and before you know it “taking one day off” turns into months and you’re back at square one.


This is especially true as the new year approaches and resolutions come out in full force, and I know from personal experience that the adage about gym memberships picking up in January and February is 100% true. Around March or April, though? Those people who were once so gung-ho start to reschedule, and eventually cancel, their appointments.


It’s not for lack of trying, but the brain can be stubborn when it comes to forming new routines. How can you find the discipline to not only start a new habit, but keep it up until it just becomes a natural part of your day? It’s not easy. 


That’s because a habit is something we do automatically, from muscle memory, like putting on your seatbelt when you get into the car. There’s no contemplating whether we should, or planning the day around it, or arguing with ourselves over whether we should actually do the thing -- we just do it. 


Until we get to that point, though, we have to think about whatever it is we want to do and make the conscious decision to do it, and that’s where many people fail.


The popular idea out there is that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but the answer is more complicated than that. If you’re ready to start some new, good habits (or finally kick some old, bad ones) here are some ways to make whatever it is you want to do as automatic as putting on your seatbelt.


1. Take baby steps Don’t go all in, all at once. You may do great at first, but your chances of burning out are much higher. If candy is your weakness, for example, allow yourself only three pieces a day until you’re completely okay with it and not craving more. Then bring it down to two pieces, then finally one.


2. Take advantage of technology If exercise is your goal, set phone reminders to get up and move. This is especially helpful if you have a desk job, where time can get away from you without you realizing it. If you’re trying to quit a bad habit, those reminders can even be words of encouragement. “Alexa, remind me at 2 pm that I’m doing a great job and I don’t need a cigarette just yet.”


3. Reward yourself, even for the small stuff Give yourself little rewards, especially if you have an activity you really enjoy doing. If you love to read, for example, don’t pick up that book until after you’ve held a plank for 60 seconds. This technique requires quite a bit of self-discipline, so be sure that the reward is a really good one. What’s your most favorite thing on the whole planet? What would motivate you to do the thing you don’t want to do? The reward doesn’t have to be super high-value until the end of time, but it can work wonders if you’re having trouble getting started. 


4. Tie your new habit to one you already have Your evening routine, for example. Do you want to take better care of your skin? You already brush your teeth as part of your routine, just add in washing your face right after you’re finished with the rinse and spit. Want to take more time for yourself? Setting your alarm an extra 20 minutes early can give you plenty of time for a short mindfulness practice before the rest of the household wakes up.


5. Make peace with your lizard brain You made it a week without eating junk food, but then life stopped cooperating. You were late for a practice, didn’t have time to go all the way home to cook, or -- let’s be honest -- just really wanted French fries. That’s your lizard brain talking, and the more you try to fight it the harder it fights back. The key to winning the battle with your impulses is to fall forward: don’t beat yourself up over a moment of weakness, but turn it into a positive moving forward. Did you go five days without hitting up the drive-thru this time? Next time, make it eight. And every time you reset your habit clock, make the goal farther down the road.


Are you ready? Start today with the 28-Day New Year Healthier Me Challenge (no matter what time of year it is.)


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