How to Build and Stick With Positive Habits

January 14, 2020 - 11 minutes read

Strategies for creating healthy habits to eat better and exercise more.

Every year, goals surrounding weight loss, healthy eating and going to the gym top the charts of new years resolutions, but the stats on how many people follow through and accomplish these goals by the end of the year are rather grim.

When it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, we all have our challenges. According to Precision Nutrition’s 2020 Special Report, the top reasons for making poor nutritional choices include stress eating, a lack of planning, cravings and snacking when not hungry. The same study looked at common barriers to exercise and found that demands of daily life, not enough time and a lack of motivation tend to sit among the top three.

Interestingly, “not knowing what to do” didn’t score anywhere near the top for either of these goals.

When it seems we have both a strong desire and a basic understanding of eating well and exercising, why is it so hard to build healthy habits that last?

A fear of getting started

Change is always difficult, no matter how beneficial the end result may be. It forces us out of our routine and challenges us to adapt to new conditions, without ever providing a guarantee that we’ll be successful in reaching our desired result. With so much uncertainty, it becomes easy to postpone taking the first step towards a new goal until the conditions are just right but, unfortunately, this ideal always seems to fall into a vague future that occurs sometime “after the holidays” or “once work slows down”.

The truth of the matter is, there will never be a perfect time to make a change. You’re always going to be busy, there will always be financial issues, and you will always find something more important to do with your time.

But knowing this can be empowering. When the time “isn’t right”, it takes away the pressure of making your one shot count. It allows you to try things out, see what works and, when things don’t, gives you permission to make adjustments and course-correct rather than give up altogether. Sometimes the “wrong time” gives you more leeway to get it right.

The mistake of motivation

All too often we set a lofty goal like “I want to exercise more” then try to incorporate it into our current lifestyle like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. When we miss a few workouts because of work conflicts and dinner plans, it feels like we’ve fallen off track and we deem the attempt a failure. We think it’s faulty motivation that’s to blame for our missteps but, more often than not, what we really lacked was a plan.

Motivation is a great tool to get started but as distractions and challenges arise, willpower alone isn’t enough to keep you going in the long term. It’s important to create a plan that will help shift that positive momentum over to a more sustainable system before the initial boost of inspiration has depleted.

Creating a plan

We tend to favour the path of least resistance so when we’re trying to create a new routine, it’s important to make it as easy as possible to complete the new action while removing obstacles that can shift you off track.

Start by creating a scheduled plan as to when and where the new action is going to take place. By creating a tie between a specific time and location and the action you want to complete, you’re committing to give that habit priority over a conflicting event that might come up.

Write your schedule down as a daily intention or book the task in for a specific day, time and location in you calendar. For example, “I will exercise at 7:00am in my condo gym”. Additionally, you can even pair the new action with a habit you already complete regularly. For example, “I will do 5 squats in the morning while I brush my teeth”. If at one point you do have to miss the action due to unavoidable conflict, allow yourself to miss it once but never twice in a row.

The second step involves designing your environment to make sticking to the plan easy. If you tend to get stuck at work late, plan your time at the gym for the morning; if you consistently forget to take your vitamins, place them in a visual area that’s easy to access with a glass of water; if you know you have a sweet tooth after dinner, stock the fridge with fruit and remove the sugary snacks from the pantry.

Focusing on consistency and progress

Eating one salad isn’t going to change your pant size, just as going to the gym two days in a row isn’t going to make you fit. While it can be frustrating to not see big results early on, especially in an age of so much instant gratification, the magic of consistency lies in the fact that the effects of your actions multiply as you repeat them.

Think of habits like compound interest in your bank account. Not only are you receiving interest on the amount of money you put in to start with, you’re also receiving interest on the interest you made last month. Much the same, when you complete one workout, you’ve made a small incremental change in your fitness. While it may not be noticeable to you in the moment, if you complete a second workout within an adequate timeframe, you get to build upon the success of that first bout to push you even further along your trajectory. This is called “compound returns”. Over the course of time, these small, incremental changes add together to result in a cumulative success.

This long-term approach may lack sticker-appeal, but just as you wouldn’t put all your life savings into a trendy stock, we shouldn’t expect that a fad diet craze or blitzing the gym for a couple of weeks will put us on the path to overall fitness. A long term, gradual evolution of habits and values can produce enduring results, and are much easier to adapt to than a radical change.

Becoming that person

While you may not currently feel like someone who’s accomplished your biggest goals, it’s easy to image what that person might be like.

Take a few minutes to frame out the characteristics of someone who has already accomplished your goal. Imagine how they act, what they value and whom they surround themselves with, then throughout the day ask yourself: what would they do in this situation?

Consulting your inner goal achiever before you make certain decisions will allow you to say yes to more of the things that move you closer to your goal and no to those that move you further away.

Additionally, commit to surrounding yourself with people that help curate an encouraging environment that will help your habits grow. Whether that means hanging out with someone who’s already living your goals or connecting with a practitioner like a dietitian, personal trainer or councillor that can help you set up strategies to keep you progressing, build your support group with people who will keep you accountable and make you feel good as you continue to progress.

The take away

Building good habits isn’t about seeing instant change or creating an all-or-nothing attitude, it’s about being the person who shows up and learns to love the process.

If you complete a workout you’re not happy with, it’s still a win because you added to your habit of attendance. If you grab a pizza one night but eat well the next, it’s still a positive because you got back on track without quitting. Start the process by building a habit of consistency, then shift over to progressing and perfecting your habits over time. While the change may seem small in the moment, by getting just 1% better every day you’re taking big steps over time toward becoming more and more like the ideal persona you began emulating in the first place.