This dreadful, chaotic year we have experienced has come to an end. FINALLY! Traditionally, the end of the year is a time of reflection. Across the globe, people take a moment to look over everything that happened during the past 12 months and start to envision what the following year might bring. We often conjure up resolutions and plans to improve our quality of life during this period by developing healthy habits. While the future might still be a question mark, it can be helpful to set a goal; or at least go into the new year with gratitude that you survived the previous one. While there will be plenty of differences in the lists we conjure up, it’s likely there will be a few overlapping goals.
According to the results of a government issued survey administered in 2019, the top five resolutions were exercising more, saving money, eating healthier food, losing weight, and reducing stress. You might observe that most of these have a common thread: developing healthy habits. With the various stressors and distractions in our daily lives, we don’t always prioritize our mental and physical health; however, it’s something of great importance to most people, as most of these are healthy resolutions.
When deciding what changes are most likely to improve our lives, it makes sense that health would be at the forefront of our minds- especially after a pandemic. Unfortunately, often these resolutions get put aside over time. Research shows that up to 80% of resolutions are abandoned by the second week of February. As it turns out, there’s a crucial step that most people miss when making their resolutions.
The Importance of Having a Plan
Why is it that, despite having extremely positive goals and priorities at the start of the year, we’re unable to see them through? The problem is that often when drafting a list of resolutions, the work ends there. We think about things we’d like to improve in our lives but fail to consider how those things might be achieved. Picture yourself preparing to head out on a cross-country road trip. Could you hop into the car and drive in a random direction? Sure, but you’re not likely to get much out of the experience.
You need to start by determining your destination, so you know how long it will take you to get there. You then can use that information to plan the details, such as picking places to eat or packing food to take, ensuring you have access to gas stations, picking some entertainment for the ride, so you don’t get bored behind the wheel, and more. Deciding upon resolutions for the new year can be done in much the same way. It’s easy to say you’re going to do something. It’s a lot more difficult to make a plan and take those steps to actually do it.
Applying the Road Trip Metaphor to Your Goals
As with the road trip, start by determining your destination. What would you like to be the result once you’ve accomplished your goal? Maybe you want to ensure that your body mass index is lowered to a level recommended by your doctor. Maybe you want to become more organized because your home’s clutter stresses you. Your goals can be more abstract, as well. Perhaps you want to be more adventurous and fill your days with new experiences. This is usually the only step people take when determining their yearly resolutions. However, this is only the beginning of the process. Once you’ve figured out where you want to be by the end of the next year, you have to start considering how you’re going to get there. What route will you take? What preparations will you have to make along the way? Determining the answers to these questions is vital to your success.
Understanding How Habits Work
A habit is any behavior that we do on a routine basis, such as brushing our teeth or combing our hair. At a glance, they might seem like an inevitable, insignificant aspect of our lives; however, the importance of healthy habits cannot be overstated. As certain acts become more automatic, your mind is afforded more freedom to focus on other aspects of your day. Picture the day that you first learned to drive a car.
Student drivers can often become easily overwhelmed with the sheer number of tasks they need to complete to drive around the block. Checking mirrors, adjusting the seat, remembering to signal, keeping an eye out for other cars, keeping the appropriate distance between vehicles, stopping for a red light on time, and more. At first, it can be very stressful to accomplish just that. However, years later, drivers are often able to keep an eye on the road while adjusting the air conditioning, choosing a radio station, chatting with their passengers, and more. The reason? All the little details of driving have become habitual. Your body knows how it needs to move to handle most of the work on its own, allowing your mind to tackle other tasks.
The Problem With Habits
Unfortunately, once formed, habits can be extremely hard to break. That’s why even after years on the road, it can be difficult for someone who’s only ever lived in a sunny, southern state to drive in the middle of a midwestern snow blizzard. Their automatic driving behaviors don’t correspond to the new scenario, and they might find themselves traveling faster than they should because of those old habits. Those same habits that were previously so helpful are putting them at risk of getting into a car accident.
The same is true of other habits in your life, and not all of those habits are good. You may have an unhealthy habit of staying up too late, disrupting your sleep schedule, or indulging in fast food after work every day. While routinely engaging in these behaviors, you’ve subconsciously trained your body to think of these as automatic. Trying to alter that routine can make you feel stressed and uncomfortable, making it much harder to sustain the changes overall. With this in mind, it might start to feel as if the challenge is too great, but there is a way to turn this situation around and accomplish your goals in the process.
Learning to Change Your Habits
Making changes to your habits can be difficult, but it is possible. Habits usually take about two to three weeks to develop. This means that while you will likely have to put in some extra effort during this transitionary period, you can rewire your body and teach it entirely new, productive, healthy new year habits in just a matter of weeks. Once those new habits have been built, you’ll find tasks that previously felt difficult or unnatural are suddenly automatic parts of your routine.
Because of the mental and physical energy required to accomplish such a change, it’s best not to try to do too much at once. Look over the various things you want to accomplish in the year and pick out one of those goals to begin. Then, take stock of what habits you’ll need to change to accomplish that goal, and start to tackle those habits one by one.
During the transition, it is so crucial that you remain focused and highly motivated to stick with the new behavior. Depending on your preferences, you can apply a few different strategies. If mental reminders are helpful, consider writing down your goal and habit changes and displaying them somewhere very visible. This will help remind you of what you’re trying to accomplish when things get hard.
Another strategy is to track your progress. Tracking how far you have come can be fun and rewarding in itself! It can be difficult to put effort into something without seeing results. For instance, let’s say that one of your goals is to improve your health, and the first habit you wish to work on is to increase your intake of water to half a gallon a day. Instead of just waiting to check off a box when you’ve accomplished this change, you could break it down into smaller pieces by tracking your daily intake of water. This becomes a visual representation of your journey and allows you to take stock of the progress you’re making quickly. At the end of each day, you can celebrate a small victory, further motivating you to keep going.
Confide in someone you trust to help keep you accountable. For many people, social interactions form a big part of their lives. Deciding to drink more water, spend an extra hour at the gym, or practice mindful yoga every night can be easier when you have someone outside of yourself reminding you to do so. You don’t want to let your friends down. Some people benefit even more from having someone doing tasks alongside them. When working on your habits and goals with a friend, you not only get to celebrate your successes, but you can also celebrate theirs as well. This creates a mutually supportive environment.
5 Healthy Habits to Include in Your Resolution Planning
Determining which habits to focus on to achieve your goals can be a little daunting. That’s why we’ve come up with a list of good habits to start on New Year’s Day that is applicable in most situations, addressing both mental and physical health. Incorporating these into your daily routine can ultimately improve your quality of life and put you well on your way to accomplishing your resolutions. So, what are the five healthy habits?
1) Make Your Bed Every Morning
This might seem like a very basic habit, but there’s a very good reason why soldiers in the military are trained to do this every day beyond simple hygiene or neatness. When you kick off your day with this one task, you start the day with an automatic win. On a psychological level, this increases your confidence and better prepares you to tackle the day’s challenges.
Engaging in manual tasks such as making the bed can also be the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness. While making the bed, reflect upon the things you’re grateful for to improve your mental state further.
2) Keep Your Body in Constant Movement Throughout the Day
Exercise is a basic need for your mind and your body. However, given the high number of desk jobs in modern society, people often spend most of their day seated, neglecting their bodies’ need for movement. Being in a global pandemic where people are advising you to stay inside doesn’t help. Get your butt moving! By setting hourly reminders to stand up and stretch, you’re already making a great improvement. Over time you can start adding exercises that can be done at your desk, helping you stay fit without causing any major disruptions to your lifestyle.
3) Plan Your Meals
Ugh, meal prep? Isn’t that just for body builders and super models? No. There’s a reason preparing food ahead of time works. A big part of why we often struggle with making good food choices is a lack of planning. When faced with an empty fridge, we’re more likely to go after the easy, low-hanging fruit, such as ordering in foods that are not good for our health. Not only does planning your meals ahead of time help prevent such scenarios, but it also helps you be more aware and intentional about the ingredients you’re incorporating. It can also save you some cash. Ordering pizza all the time gets expensive.
4) Take More Ownership Over Problems in Your Life
This habit is a little more abstract but still extremely important. When things go wrong, we can often become easily demoralized, especially when there are factors beyond our control. Sometimes it can seem like we’re powerless to alter the course of our lives; but, that is not the case. The key is that instead of focusing on all the external obstacles involved, we need to take stock of what is within our control and what we can do to improve our situation. For example, if you’re in a toxic work environment with no possibility for advancement, you may be unable to convince your supervisor that you are worthy of a raise or a promotion. However, you can spend your free time teaching yourself valuable work skills to make yourself a more valuable candidate and start looking for job opportunities elsewhere.
Writing down what problems you’re facing, along with what aspects of the issue are within your control, and creating a plan to move forward is a great way to start putting this philosophy into practice.
5) Learn to Say “Yes” More Often
Humans can be very analytical creatures, a useful skill when confronted with stressful situations and difficult choices. We often fall into the trap of overanalyzing our circumstances, missing out on potential opportunities in the process. By saying yes to more situations, you open yourself to new possibilities. For example: deciding to go to a networking event despite being a little tired could be the deciding factor that results in you being offered the position of your dream
Keeping a journal or creating a scrapbook to take stock of your new adventures could help track your progress while developing this habit
Recognize the Difference Between Stumbling Blocks and Excuses
Even with all of this in mind, you still might find yourself falling short from time to time. Maybe you slept in a little later than intended, and you weren’t able to squeeze in a morning run that day. Or maybe you got so distracted by a work event that you made poor dietary choices. Those with a perfectionist mindset might think: “I’ve already failed. What’s the point in even trying anymore?” This is not a healthy mindset! Mistakes happen, and it’s important to be kind to yourself when faced with these stumbling blocks. Focus on the next task you can accomplish to get yourself back on track instead of beating yourself up for something that is now in your past. Think of the big picture.
That being said, there’s a big difference between the occasional stumbling block and a pattern of behavior where you’re constantly making excuses for falling into old habits. The former are genuine accidents. The latter are falsehoods we tell ourselves to feel better, such as “It’s okay to sleep in today; I’ll just go on an extra-long run tomorrow morning instead.”
You can’t build healthy habits by trying to bargain your way out of them. Doing so sets a poor precedent that can rapidly derail you from your goals and undo any progress you’ve made.
Realize Your Vision For 2021
Regardless of the specific goals and resolutions, you’ve decided to set for the upcoming year, sitting down to develop a plan and incorporating the five healthy habits we’ve described above is a great start. At Sage Neuroscience Center, we believe in a whole care approach for our patients, meaning that our integrated behavioral health and primary care team focuses on supporting both your mental and physical health and providing you with personalized attention every step of the way. We’re invested in helping you achieve your goals to improve your quality of life and readily assist all our patients in their self-improvement journey. If you’d like to schedule an appointment to speak to a member of our team and see how else we can help you develop healthy habits, please contact us anytime.
Congratulations, you made it through 2020!