One of the hardest parts about making commitments and then actually making changes to your health (or anything else) is the use of willpower. Sure, at the beginning of January, for example, you think you can do anything and, for a couple of weeks, maybe you stay focused and push it. But chances are that you’ll either give in to some food craving or laziness and let it derail your whole plan, or you’ll injure yourself (also derailing your whole plan). Believe me, I’m very experienced with this. I have tried to change countless times in the past few yeas, but it never lasts. And the main reason for that is that we, as humans, are limited in how much willpower we have (especially if we haven’t been using it much lately, as it’s kind of like a muscle that can grow or shrink depending on use).
My strategy to avoid this has been to change my habits on a scheduled basis. Instead of jumping up on January 1 and saying “OK, time to overhaul my entire diet and start a new workout plan and do all this other stuff” (which wouldn’t have been entirely true – I was already mostly gluten free and dairy free by then anyway), I broke it down into smaller habits that I could work on, moving on to the next after the first was established. Because once something is established as a habit, it no longer takes anywhere near the amount of willpower to keep doing. I’ve assigned each month an overarching goal, with habits that will (hopefully) help me to meet that goal.
I’ve read different things about how much time it takes to form a habit – anywhere from a week to a month. I think it’s probably about 3 weeks, give or take depending on how major of a change you’re making.
I started January with the general goal of establishing healthy eating habits, which I then broke down into 3 categories: dairy free, gluten free and sugar free. I made a chart on my wall and marked my progress with stickers. As the gluten free days got easier and became more of a norm, I had more time to focus on dairy and sugar. OK, so I’m still not there with sugar, but with gluten free and dairy free (and eating more vegetables, which wasn’t originally a goal but was a pleasant side effect that I have also worked to make a habit) becoming habits, I was ready to move on into February.
The goal for February is, in addition to maintaining my January habits (which means continuing to work to limiting my added sugar intake), Get Moving. I’m tracking a few things for to build these habits: minimum daily steps on my pedometer, regular practice of yoga and daily stretching. A few other things end up coming into the picture as mini-goals, but they’re more like “side bonuses” and are not nearly as important.
Fist, I’m making sure that I walk a minimum of 5000 steps/day (10000 would be ideal, but I’m realistic and don’t want to set myself up for failure). Also, I’m now taking a weekly yoga class and doing my own personal practice at least 2 times per week (I subscribe to MyYogaOnline which provides a good variety of courses depending on my needs on any given day).
Finally, I’m really trying to establish a daily morning stretching routine. I think that this will be good for a few reasons. One, it really helps me to get out of bed and get moving right away in the morning. Working from home, it can be easy to stay in sleepy-mode late into the morning, but I always feel more energized after my stretching routine and have an easier time getting my day started. And two, it’s invaluable for some of my chronic pain issues. I need to stretch at some point in the day no matter what, and setting a convenient time and making a habit of it will make sure that it gets done. I don’t do much static stretching in the mornings, since my muscles aren’t warmed up. I start with dynamic stretching, like cat/cow, 1/2 sun salutation and neck rolls before moving into anything more intense or focused. The exact stretches vary from day to day depending on what my body needs, but the format remains pretty much the same. Maybe another day I will take a video of my routine and post it here.
Assuming that I can get those habits down by the end of the month, I hope to spend March focusing on mindfulness (making a regular habit out of meditation, which I already do, but not often enough) and on really making sure that I’m staying on track with the habits I’ll have spent January and February building.
One other thing: you may notice that the habits that I’m trying to build are pretty specific. I do this so that they are trackable. Personally, I like having a chart upon which, at the end of the day, I can mark off all my successes. I’ve tried doing this on an app, but I prefer a real life chart that I mark off with stickers. Something about seeing all the stickers on the chart makes me feel very accomplished. It also helps me to see where my weaknesses are and where I might need to put more focus.
So that’s my strategy for creating habits and focusing my willpower where I really need it instead of depleting it by trying to do too much. I know that some would probably say that I’m still trying to change too much at once, but here’s the thing: 1) I’m an incredibly impatient person and so it’s really big for me to have even broken it up like this and 2) I happen to have a lot of time on my hands at the moment (my job is only part time), which means that I have more time and more mental capacity to expend on building these habits. Have you had any success with this type of strategy? I’d love to hear other people’s experiences.