A Behavioral Expert's Tips For Setting Healthy New Habits
by Emilia Benton
While many of us go into the new year with positively charged intentions to start fresh, prioritize our well-being, and finally put some healthy new habits in place, even the best laid plans can sometimes be derailed.
But it’s never too late to put yourself back on track, and make this year your best yet. Whether you’ve been meaning to adopt a specific habit, defeat the snooze button once and for all, or simply get better at prioritizing self-care, taking a closer look at your lifestyle—and even your physical surroundings—can be a powerful first step towards making positive changes stick. Here are some tips to do so from Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, an educational psychologist, therapist, and integrative mental health expert.
See it to believe it
Sometimes visualizing a new habit can be helpful in manifesting it, whether it’s running a marathon, moving up in your career, or going after a job change. Even if it’s something you’ve never done before, you’ve likely pictured what it might look like.
Harnessing the power of visualization is an impactful way to achieve your goals, and creating a vision board is one way to do that, Dr. Capanna-Hodge says.
“Having images, words, and phrases that guide you to your goal can help the subconscious brain to keep moving forward,” she explains.
Adopt a mantra
It may sound cheesy, but talking yourself up can make all the difference when you’re feeling stressed and allowing negativity to get the best of you.
“When you have a positive saying that guides you in your life, it can make it so much easier to deal with stress, negative thoughts, and moments of failure,” says Dr. Capanna-Hodge. She recommends identifying a motivating phrase and repeating it to yourself during those times when you begin to feel doubt creeping in.
Even a simple “you’ve got this” can help you get through a moment of weakness and stick to a specific habit you’ve set out to incorporate into your life.
Enlist an accountability buddy
While your goal of adding a specific activity or behavior to your lifestyle may be novel to you, chances are you’re not the only person in your personal or professional circle with your eye on that prize.
“Getting a friend or somebody else to join you in staying motivated and on the path towards a shared goal can be a powerful way to stay on track,” Dr. Capanna-Hodge says.
Maybe you’ve already experienced how committing to a gym date makes it that much harder to skip a workout, or how the workout itself seems to go by faster when you’re sharing the experience with somebody else. Working together towards a shared or similar goal can make all the difference.
Be kind to yourself
Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in our own thoughts and anxieties that we don’t even realize we’re digging ourselves a deeper hole. Negative self-talk can be especially destructive when we’re trying to form new habits that aren’t sticking as easily as we’d hoped.
Instead, try to focus on celebrating the wins, no matter how seemingly small, says Dr. Capanna- Hodge.
“There is no tougher critic than our own inner thoughts,” she says. “Flip that script by saying kind things to yourself when you are able to take positive steps towards your goals, and get rid of that unproductive language.”
Put it in writing
Even with all the technology that we have at our fingertips, paper journals remain a staple of some of the most productive and disciplined people around.
“Committing to goals in writing is a powerful way to stay motivated and committed,” says Dr. Capanna-Hodge.
Even if you already know exactly what you want to achieve, writing it down in a journal makes it that much more real. Moreover, every time you see it, you’ll be reminded to think about how your new habit is coming along and feel all the more inspired to keep it up.
Give yourself time
If your new habit is to run a couple of miles a week, but you can’t remember the last time you ran a mile without stopping, don’t expect to be perfect on the first day, Dr. Capanna-Hodge says.
Instead, you might want to consider one of several popular “Couch to 5K” programs. These can help to introduce the extra activity into your routine with a run-walk regimen that starts you off with short intervals. Regardless of your end goal, a slow-but-steady approach will leave you feeling accomplished as you continue to build up towards it.
Similarly, sometimes you need to get rid of a bad habit in order to make room for a good one. Dr. Capanna-Hodge says it takes at least 10 straight days to unlearn an unhealthy habit, but this can differ from person to person. The point is to realize that this is all a process, so you aren’t discouraged when change doesn’t take hold right out of the gate. Stay focused and trust the process; you will get there.