Seven easy steps to build healthy habits

This week’s blog comes courtesy of Dr Hanna Eklund-White, a neurodevelopmental specialist, chartered life coach and friend of Muto.

Over the last few years I have become somewhat obsessed with how to implement new habits. Having helped hundreds of people to reach their goals, I have learnt that the process of implementing new habits is something that intrigues most people yet very few understand the process and fewer still have mastered the skill. Given that our habits have such a profound impact on our quality of life, it pays to look at why implementing new habits is so challenging and what we can do to ease this process.   

The challenges involved in building new habits lie deep within our brain in an area referred to as our ‘reptilian brain’. This is the oldest part of our brain and it is behind most of what we do. This part of the brain is acutely tuned in to any potential threats in our environment and plays a critical role in preparing our bodies to act appropriately. This is amazing, of course, but our reptilian brain also comes with flaws and biases. One of these flaws is an immense dislike for anything that requires effort that isn’t directly related to our immediate survival. Our reptilian brain prefers to conserve valuable energy and cognitive and physical resources for those ‘life or death’ emergencies.

Our reptilian brain also prefers quick fixes and immediate gratification to long-term gain. This is a real challenge when it comes to implementing ‘good’ habits which usually involve some level of immediate pain or discomfort rather than immediate gain. The reverse, of course, is true for ‘bad’ habits. Even though you know that eating that cookie is a bad move given you’re trying to reduce your sugar intake, from a survival point of view your brain will almost certainly congratulate you if you eat it and will reward you for providing it with such a wonderful sugar rush by releasing dopamine and other feel-good chemicals into your bloodstream.

So, what are we meant to do to override this default setting and help ourselves build healthy new habits?

  1. Form positive associations with the habit you want to create

Think very creatively about how you can link short term pleasure with the habit you are trying to establish. Are you trying to get fit but lack motivation to exercise? Ask yourself if you have chosen the right form of exercise for you? Consider if going to a bootcamp in the park at 7 am on winter mornings is the best way to get you into a habit of exercising and think about choosing an activity that you enjoy rather than choosing one just because other people are doing it. If that bootcamp session in the park is right for you, then think about what you can do to make the session even more enjoyable. Perhaps going with your best friend could make it more fun and mean that you can focus on the laughter and spending time with your friend instead of the short-term pain or discomfort experienced whilst exercising? Linking as many pleasurable things as possible to any action will go a long way towards increasing your chances of repeating it.

  1. Remove distractions and road-blocks

Next, amplify the actions by removing distractions and obstacles. If you want to do yoga but keep getting distracted by messages on your phone or thoughts about work deadlines, remove your phone and computer, go somewhere where you can’t access internet or your phone. Make it so unlikely for you to become distracted that there is nothing else to do apart from yoga. 

  1. Implement the 2-minute rule

Make the start really simple by implementing the ‘two-minute rule’. Focus on just the first two minutes of any habit you want to build. If it’s going for a run, focus on getting dressed and leaving the house. This may seem trivial but if you focus on making the first few minutes as smooth and automated as possible, the task is likely to feel less daunting. Like a snowball gathering speed, motivation is likely to build after you get started.

  1. Focus on doing often rather than doing well

When it comes to implementing new habits, quantity matters more than quality. Doing something badly is better than not doing it at all. Consistency and repetition are key so try to focus on small improvements rather than trying to do too much too soon. Aim for a level that does not feel too hard but has a manageable level of difficulty which will increase your chances of reaching a state of flow. Each time nudge it forward just a little. A habit must be established before it can be improved.

  1. Accountability and consequences

Establish some accountability for your actions. Consider creating a ‘habit contract’ with a friend or loved one where you write down some achievable habits for the next few months. E.g. ‘I am going to see my trainer twice a week, and have at least four teetotal days every week”. Then write down the consequences if you do not do these actions. ‘If I don’t do these things I have to wear X all weekend’ (e.g. this could mean wearing an Arsenal football shirt if you hate Arsenal.) Think of an unpleasant consequence that would work for you, then sign the contract and ask your friend to sign it.

  1. Call yourself out if you begin slipping back into old habits

Try calling yourself out – aloud – if you find yourself slipping back into old habits. ‘I am about to smoke this cigarette’. By saying it aloud your brain has a better chance of processing it and after a while it begins to take notice that this is not the sort of behaviour that you want to keep doing.

  1. Allow yourself the chance to get out of a ‘problem mindset’.

This is where you move your body vigorously for one or two minutes to help yourself make a shift from a ‘problem mindset’ to a solution mindset’. The idea is that we are much more likely to make good decisions and act in accordance with our goals and values when our minds are in an empowered, solution focused state. So, the next time you feel yourself slipping back into old habits or need a bit of motivation, allow yourself the chance to move vigorously and get yourself out of that problem mindset!

To summarise then, associate pleasure with your new habit, amplify your actions by removing distractions, focus on the first two minutes and the frequency of the habit rather than quality of execution. Look for ways to make yourself accountable for your actions and try calling yourself out and making a shift into a solution focused mindset to help build those habits that will last.

Dr Hanna Eklund-White
BA (Hons), Pg. Psych. Dip, PhD.
Neurodevelopmental Specialist and Chartered Life Coach

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