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How to change your habits

We all know that if we want to lead a healthier lifestyle – get fitter, have more energy or achieve lasting weight loss – we have to make changes to our behaviours and food choices.

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs you’ll know that I don’t believe in a big bang approach when it comes to change. Instead I believe in a gradual process of making small manageable changes and adding to them over time. Lots of small changes eventually add up to a major lifestyle overhaul.

But why can even small changes feel so difficult? Well, if you’re trying to change a habit which you’ve had for years, it’s going to take more than a couple of weeks to change it. And despite self-help gurus telling us that it only takes a certain number of days (21, 28, 66, take your pick or make up your own) to change a habit, there are so many variables involved in habit change I don’t believe it can be boiled down to one magic number.

So if you’re trying to change well-worn habits, first of all give yourself plenty of time, and accept that it might involve a few slip-ups and backward steps. Our brains are lazy and, when they can, they will fall back into old time-worn patterns as those patterns take less mental effort.

Also, habit change very often involves giving up something that, if we’re honest, we’d actually prefer not to give up – chocolate, a nightly glass or two of wine, sugar in our coffee. We fell into these habits because they are pleasurable, so we’ll miss them.

So secondly, if your habit change relates to reducing something or cutting it out totally try to reframe the habit change as the reward, not the deprivation. For instance, if you’re giving up your weekday evening drink, tell yourself it’s not about going without the drink, it’s about waking up feeling fresher in the mornings, or the positive effect on your waistline (and possibly wallet).

However I believe that the best thing you can do for yourself when you’re changing a habit is not to leave a gap. What do I mean by this? Well, if you’re planning on giving up chocolate biscuits with your mid-morning coffee, if you still have the same coffee at the same time but don’t have the biscuits, the lack of biscuits will be at the forefront of your mind while you’re drinking it. When something is missing from a well-worn routine it will be conspicuous in its absence.

So when you’re changing habits, think about what you can do/eat/drink instead. For instance, instead of having nothing with your coffee, try a handful of nuts. You’re still developing a habit of not having biscuits, but you’re making it easier on yourself.

You can also change the situation – if you know you’ll miss biscuits with your coffee, try having tea instead. Or rather than making your own coffee in the office, pop out to a coffee shop and buy a better quality one – anything to change the scenario so that the gap left by the biscuits isn’t so keenly felt.

So when you next decide to change a habit think about how you can make it easy for yourself – give yourself time, don’t leave an obvious gap and get creative with ways to break out of your well-learned rituals.

Let me know how you get on.