If you ask just about anyone about their health and wellness, they’re probably willing to admit there’s room for improvement. Most adults simply aren’t as healthy as they want to be. And, at one time or another, most have tried to change this.
All too often, the story is the same. You decide to be healthier, and you come up with an action plan. Whether it is exercising more, eating nutritious meals, or a combination of the two. You stick to your plan for two weeks. Or a month. And then life gets in the way and your new habits get dropped just as fast as they came.
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Creating new health habits is a challenge, to say the least. Successfully adopting a healthier lifestyle requires persistence, the ability to identify good mistakes, and, in most cases, the willingness to start something again.
Step One: Identify Good Mistakes and Commit to Starting Again
Falling back into old habits can be discouraging. After all, nobody likes to set their sights on something only to fall short. But when it comes to health and wellness, as with so many other aspects of life, you can learn from your failures. It’s all about identifying good mistakes.
The term “good mistakes” sounds like an oxymoron. Mistakes are bad, right? Well, sometimes. It all depends on how you frame your thinking.
Mistakes without reflection can be bad, sure. But mistakes with reflection can be a powerful tool for change. Let’s think about this in terms of your lifestyle journey. If you tried to make positive changes to your lifestyle, but struggled to maintain those changes, you likely made a few “mistakes.” These mistakes could be things like skipping your workout for a few days in a row, allowing yourself too many “cheat” days with your meals, or simply trying to implement changes in your life that don’t fit your interests or abilities.
Turning these mistakes into good mistakes will require a little bit of self-reflection. Why did you fail to achieve your health goals? Did you set realistic, measurable goals for yourself? Did you schedule early morning workout time even though you are absolutely not a morning person? You know yourself better than anyone, and so you will be able to identify where you went wrong.
With this knowledge under your belt, it’s time to commit to starting again. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and dive right back into your health journey—but this time with a few changes.
The Psychology of Habit: Creating Routines That Stick
In most cases, you can’t change your health overnight. It’s an ongoing process that requires diligence and consistency—and the easiest way to maintain consistent behavior is to form habits. When people make lifestyle changes and then drop them within a few weeks, it’s often because the newly adopted behavior never became a habit.
This is all fine and good, but it raises a crucial question: how can you successfully create habits that stick? Fortunately, this is a question that psychologists have already sought to answer.
Studies show that one of the key elements of forming health-related habits is specificity. The more specific the desired behavior, the easier it will be to solidify as a habit. Take healthy eating, for instance.
Many people have a common goal: they want to “eat healthier.” While this is a great lifestyle change to try to make, this goal is very vague. A more specific goal might look something like this: “I want to eat more fruit every day.” Still, this isn’t as specific as it can get. Taking it a step further, we end up with this: “I want to eat an apple with lunch every day.”
The final version of the health goal outlined above has two key elements of habit-forming behavior: a when and a where. This hypothetical person will eat an apple with lunch (that’s the when—during lunchtime), wherever they happen to be eating (that’s the where).
When goals are specific, it becomes easier to measure progress and fidelity. If you struggle to keep yourself accountable, you may benefit from a log or other method for tracking your consistency. Going back to the example above, you could track that goal with a calendar and a simple yes or no mark. For each day that you ate an apple with lunch, you’d put a yes, and for each day that you didn’t, you’d put a no. With enough yesses, the behavior will become habitual—it may even start to feel strange to eat lunch without an apple.
Goal setting is a bit of a balancing act. You want to set goals that are achievable, while also ensuring that your goals push you to reach your potential. In business settings, many teams and individuals use the SMART framework for creating their goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound—all of these are qualities that your goals should have.
This framework can be applied to your health goals as well. Let’s go back to the apple a day example. This goal is specific, measurable (either you ate the apple or you didn’t each day), achievable, and relevant (it ties into the more general goal of eating healthier). But what about time-bound? Is there a time frame in which the goal should be reached?
To make this goal time bound, there needs to be some sort of deadline. Let’s rewrite it: “within one month, I will be eating an apple with lunch at least six days a week.” Now the goal meets all of the SMART goal criteria.
Choosing a Method That Works for You
There’s no one right way to make lifestyle changes. It’s an individual process that varies from person to person. So if SMART goals don’t seem like your thing, don’t worry! Find a method that works for you. And remember: failure doesn’t have to be the end. Reflect, turn your mistakes into good mistakes, and start again.