January 19, 2017

Creating new healthy habits

Maybe it’s the New Year, or even a certain birthday milestone – the time comes when we plan to make healthy lifestyle changes like exercising regularly, eating better, or finally getting that dental check-up.

And, soon after we find our good intentions have faded only to be replaced by old habits. It happens to the best of us. But there are ways to make changes that actually stick. UW Health psychologist Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, says the secret is patience (in addition to hard work, of course).

“There is a science to changing our behaviors,” she said. “By using certain strategies, we can successfully build new health habits, but we have to remember that it takes time.”

Build new habits to override not-so-good habits

When it comes to changing behaviors, it helps to think in terms of building new habits. And when we do, Mirgain said, it can have a positive ripple effect throughout many aspects of our life.

Habits, as we all know, are those things we do automatically – something we don’t even have to think about, like brushing our teeth or our “midnight snack" time. The thing is our brain doesn’t distinguish between good and not-so-good habits and it’s our unhealthy habits that can undermine our efforts to make positive behavior changes. That midnight snack habit might be what keeps us from losing weight, for example.

Mirgain said that when we form habits, we’re actually forming pathways in our brains. As a consequence, we never really get rid of negative habits; we just create good habits that override the undesirable ones. But it takes time to do so.

“When we struggle to make changes, it’s often because we’re not engaging in the new behavior long enough to make it a habit," she said. "One study found that it took an average of 66 days for something to become a habit, but there was still a lot of variation among people."

Keep working on new habits

The takeaway is that it often takes longer than we expect to form a new habit, and the real reason we’re not successful is that we don’t keep at it. To help, Mirgain offers a few suggestions:

Find your motivation

Exercising because it’s good for you isn’t a strong enough motivator to change your habits. And studies have shown that we can be overconfident in our ability to ward off health problems and we tend to ignore the risks to our own health. But when we start to think of others, it can change our perceptions.

“When we shift our focus away from ourselves and how our habits affect our own health to instead focus on how our habits affect others, we actually experience an increased motivation to act,” Mirgain said. “We connect the changes to a deeper purpose and that can help us be successful.”

For example, a smoker might not be motivated to quit because of the effects on his own health, but when he thinks about how his smoking habit will affect his new baby, he may find the motivation.

To help find what your motivation is, Mirgain offers a few questions:

  • What do you want your health for?

  • Why is your health and well-being important?

  • What health habit will help you connect to what is most meaningful in your life?

  • What habit would you like to develop?

  • Why is this new habit important to you?

  • What will be the impact if you were to implement it?

Create 'If that, what then' plans

Research has shown that there is only a 50 percent chance our intentions to change will actually lead to change. Even if we get started toward making change, often what happens is our efforts get derailed even by something as simple as a meeting running late. That’s why we need to create “If that, what then” plans.

“When we anticipate and plan for barriers, it can help us overcome obstacles when they arise – and they will arise,” Mirgain said.

Planning for the if/then situations help us increase our chances for success because we can think about opportunities we might have otherwise overlooked. For example, if exercise plans over the lunch hour get disrupted because a meeting runs late, then make a plan to take the dog on an extra-long walk after dinner.

Identify your cues

Routine behaviors can make creating new habits challenging. Familiar contexts can trigger urges, making it difficult to sustain new behavior changes long enough to develop new habits.

For example, someone who smokes might have a habit of having a cigarette with the first cup of coffee in the morning. If he is trying to quit, having that morning cup of coffee might trigger the urge for a cigarette. Waiting until later in the day for the coffee could help reduce the urge for the cigarette, making it easier over time to go without.

Mirgain suggests changing routines or the surrounding environment to help make it more difficult to follow unhealthy habits or to reinforce new healthier habits. A few suggestions include:

  • Visual cues: Have visible cues around to promote new habits. It might be keeping a bowl of fruit on the counter for a healthy grab-and-go snack. Setting out workout clothes the night before can help you be ready to go as soon as the alarm goes off. Removing cues helps as well – such as taking the TV out of the bedroom to help with ensuring a good night’s sleep.

  • Piggy-backing: Try adding a new habit to an existing one, such as flossing after brushing your teeth.

  • Social accountability: Tell people who will be supportive of the changes you’re trying to make. Having cheerleaders can not only help keep you motivated, but it also creates a sense of pressure and accountability – you know they’re going to ask how things are going, so that could help you feel compelled to keep going even if you want to give in. Also, when you swerve off track, these supporters can help you quickly correct course and stay motivated in working towards your goal.

"Health is not a destination. It’s a journey," Mirgain said. "Every step you take will help you along the path – you just have to get started."