5 Inspiring Steps for Forming Healthy Habits

Self on 07.09.13
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Let’s say you want to start exercising or eating better. Sometimes it’s hard to get started, and other times it’s hard to keep going! Here are five tips that will keep you inspired to form healthy habits.

1. Focus on the pleasure.

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Frequently when we try to form healthy habits, we do it grudgingly, or with an attitude of “should.” I “should” exercise for my health. Or I really “should” eat better, but we don’t actually feel like doing whatever it is we resolve to do. We take on the habit reluctantly, and we’re pretty sure we’re not going to enjoy it, but this is a recipe for failure.

The solution is to adopt a healthy habit for the pleasure of it. Find ways of moving your body that you enjoy and that make you feel good. Likewise, eat healthy foods that you find delicious and that you actually want to eat! If you hate rice cakes or yogurt or cottage cheese, then why the heck would you waste calories on foods you don’t even like to eat?

I happen to really love cheese. I lost 20 pounds in 6 months – slow and steady – and I included cheese in almost every meal. If I told myself that I can’t have cheese, I wouldn’t have lost the weight because I would have stayed stuck in a cycle of deprivation and indulging. But allowing myself to have reasonable portions of cheese a few times a day made me happy to stick to an overall healthy and balanced diet.

2. Get on board with “beneficial” pain.

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When we create pleasurable healthy habits, there’s always going to be a tiny amount of discomfort involved, especially at the beginning. Humans resist change. New habits can be difficult to adopt because our brains need to work a little harder while neural pathways are formed.

Let’s take jogging, for instance. When you first start jogging, it can feel like an extremely unpleasant undertaking. If you’re out of shape, you’re going to feel hot, breathless, and your heart is going to pound. A lot of times, when we feel this pain, the voice in our head starts saying things like, “Ugh, I HATE this! Who in their right mind would DO such a thing?”

However, when we keep in mind that some level of pain is beneficial while we adapt to a new habit, we’re able to shut out that wimpy inner voice. When we turn up the music and decide that we’re going to power through, we’re treated to the pleasure of endorphins. When we’re done jogging, we feel elated and accomplished. Our brain starts to associate jogging with pleasure, which actually makes us crave exercise. But if we never embrace beneficial pain, we won’t form the habit. When we see beneficial pain as simply a part of change, then we reap the rewards.

3. Journal your resistance.

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There are times when we have all these good intentions around forming a healthy habit, but we just don’t do it and we don’t even stop to ask why. We just shrug it off and say we’re lazy, or we didn’t feel like it, or we ran out of time.

However, when we pull out pen and paper and write down what’s really holding us back, and how we feel about the task ahead of us, we are given the chance to argue with our excuses and to come up with stronger reasons and ways to beat our resistance to change.

If you don’t air out your negative thoughts, you don’t give yourself the chance to turn them around. When you take just a little bit of time to write down what kind of excuses you’re making, you can head them off. You can figure out solutions and ways to forge ahead.

4. Acknowledge what you get out of failing.

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When we consistently fail at changing a habit, there’s usually a pretty good reason why we’re hanging onto it. Let’s take healthy eating for example. A lot of people rely on unhealthy foods as a means of distraction and comfort from situations in their lives that are less than ideal. Sometimes it’s easier to eat a pint of ice cream than it is to face whatever is making us unhappy.

Perhaps a person is stuck in a job that’s unfulfilling or draining, and so she lives for the weekends, which she fills with margaritas and pizza so that she doesn’t have to think about her career. When this person decides that she wants to eat healthy, there’s an awful lot at stake. When she stops turning to food as a source of comfort and distraction – if she’s successful at taking away her method of numbing herself – she will be faced with her unhappiness at work.

In order to be successful, she would have to face the very huge fact that the place she spends most of her time (work) is sucking the life out of her. She would have to commit to a much bigger change than simply the food she puts in her mouth. By failing, she gets to keep around her comfort foods so that she doesn’t have to face what’s really eating at her, that she hasn’t taken the time to figure out what kind of career would make her heart sing.

We often get something out of failing. Many of us spend years protecting a bad habit that keeps us distracted from the bigger issues. When we acknowledge what we’re trying to distract ourselves from, we can work to fix it. When we feel satisfied with our lives, we’re not likely to cling to bad habits, and healthy habits are way easier to form.

5. Associate small decisions with the long view.

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It’s a common mistake, when trying to form healthy habits, to discount all the tiny choices we need to make in order to each our goals. Let’s talk about adopting the habit of healthy eating again.

I had been a little bit tired of the plateau I hit after my 20-pound weight loss. After a long period of denial, I finally accepted what was holding me up: my daily coffee with sugar and cream. This has been the perfect example of discounting a tiny decision. I’ve thought, “It’s just a little sugar, it’s just some cream,” in my attempts to mentally minimize the impact of this habit. I make my coffee at home – it’s not like I’m ordering some crazy coffee drink from a chain! The fact is, drinking this load of calories every single morning was a bigger deal than I wanted to make it. Between the taste and the caffeine rush, I enjoyed it so much! I was very resistant to looking at the long view: that this is a habit that’s best not kept around if I want to be trim and healthy.

People are really good at sweeping these “small” decisions under the rug. It’s just one piece of chocolate. It’s just a little bag of chips. But when we consistently excuse these tiny slip-ups, they add up to one big zero when it comes to making progress. When we think little choices don’t matter, we train ourselves to steadily give in to temptation; we never give ourselves the chance to develop strength, willpower and resolve by resisting.

We need to value the tiny decisions and know that when we’re consistent and we run a tight ship and we do everything we know we’re supposed to do to get and stay healthy, that everything will turn out for the best in the long-term. Conversely, when instead we focus on the negative and think we will feel so deprived if we don’t allow ourselves all these little slips, we’re committing ourselves in the wrong direction.

When you keep up the good work and you value the tiny decisions, you’re rewarded in the long run. When you keep your head down, keep plugging along and have faith in the outcome, you’re bound for success.

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