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How to Make Healthy Habits Stick

Shannon Harvey

I had the great pleasure of spending last weekend with a group of people who had just been through an amazing transformative experience.  

All week they had been eating amazingly healthy food, exercising, meditating and practicing mindful activities like Tai Chi and Yoga. They had no alcohol, caffeine or chocolate, which some of you might think sounds like torture, but these people all had the healthy-shiny-glowy look of well people.  

They’d been through a program at The Golden Door health retreat and it culminated with a screening of my film The Connection, followed by a Q and A with Dr. Craig Hassed who is one of the experts in the film.  

One common thing that came up for the people at the retreat was how to maintain the lifestyle changes they had embarked on when they returned to the real world. When facing work stress, holiday season silliness and the challenges of every day life, how would they stop themselves from returning to old habits?  

I’ve been delving into the latest research on habit lately, and what is astonishing to me is that while there are numerous studies looking at habit change from all different perspectives; the secret is surprisingly simple. To form a new habit, we need to repeat an action consistently, in the same context. Researchers have found that with repetition, the mental effort to initiate a new habit gets easier, and over time the action becomes second nature.  

While the repetition is important, so too is the context in which the habit is performed. If we repeat the behavior in the presence of consistent cues,  the habit soon becomes triggered automatically. These cues can be so powerful that habits may actually dominate over our intention.  So for example, if we decide that we want to stop eating chocolate after dinner, but the habit is triggered by finishing the washing up or boiling the kettle after our meal, we may eat the chocolate despite setting the intention to stop. In one fascinating study people with a habit of eating popcorn at the cinema did so even if the popcorn was stale.  

I was also surprised to come across this recent study, which generated a lot of buzz because it busted the myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit. The average is more like 66 days and varies anywhere from 18 to 254 days. The researchers found that forming new habits is dependent on the individual person and the degree of difficulty of the habit.  For example, it's easier to train yourself to drink a glass of water after breakfast than to go for a daily run.  

I realize we are now entering the thick of the Silly Season and I’m aware that this is going to be a very tricky time for anyone to consider introducing new healthy habits.  In fact, research has shown that our brains have a limited capacity for willpower. In this study students who were tasked to remember a seven number sequence were far less likely to resist chocolate cake, over students only tasked to remember two numbers who tended towards choosing a fruit salad.  

If you’re anything like me, your brain is pretty full right now wrapping up the end of the year and wrapping up presents. It’s not the best time to start a major lifestyle overhaul. But I’ve written here about how it’s important to be consistent in our wellness routine if we want to effect change.  

I see my recovery from an autoimmune disease as an evolution rather than a revolution and whilst I did do numerous retreats, yoga challenges, health fasts and various other things that all contributed to a steady incline in wellness, it wasn’t one thing that ultimately did the trick. It was an accumulation of a number of consistent years looking after myself.   My advice to the fresh-faced people at the retreat was to start small, but start with conviction. Pick just one or two achievable things and stick to them without compromise. My own health goals over the silly season are modest. I’m calling it my New Year Evolution. This is what I’m working on:  

  • Forming a habit of writing three good things nightly before I go to sleep (this is because I’ve been looking at the health benefits of gratitude lately)
  • Maintaining my yoga and meditation practice even though I’ll be out of my usual routine and traveling a lot (this is because I’ve been looking at the importance of consistency lately)
  • Breaking one bad habit – more on this in another post soon

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