Nutrition Sustainability Series Part 2: Building Sustainable Health Habits
As yourself: what tasks do I do every day that are second nature? Any tasks, not just health-related ones.
Now, think back and identify if any of these tasks seemed difficult or daunting at first.
Finally, try to remember if these tasks used to take you more time and effort at first than they do now.
Chances are you were able to come up with several things you do daily that seem like no big deal and are simpler than they once were. For me, some of these tasks include packing my lunch and snacks for work the night before, making the bed as I get ready in the morning, and filling up my water bottle any time I leave the house.
You and I have done our respective tasks over and over again, for so long now, that they have become habits - we do them almost automatically!
Habits are things we tend to do on autopilot and are what we fall back on when our willpower has dwindled (1,2). Some of our habits serve us well, others maybe not so much. While some habits may get the best of us, we can harness the power of habits to help us!
Let's face it - the only constant in life is change so even the best-laid plans to make big sweeping health changes can quickly go awry, despite your best intentions! Throw the idea of "go big or go home" out the window. At The Functional Kitchen, we believe that small but mighty sustainable health habits are key to reaching your wellness goals.
1. Set a goal
The best habits to build are the ones that serve you well. Rather than just trying to establish a health habit your friend told you about or you saw online, stop and think about what you want to achieve. What is your health and wellness goal?
Once you have your goal, use that as your guide for the health and wellness habits you create and build on! Any time you start to work on a new habit, as yourself - "Will this help me reach my goal?" The answer should be "yes," and if it is not, reassess whether you need to adjust your goal or your habit!
Do not just take my word for it - research shows that people who are successful in aligning their behavior with their long-term goals rely on "effortless strategies," i.e. habits (3)!
2. Figure out your "why"
Your "why" is the deeper meaning behind your goal. It is the reason you set your goal in the first place and is what makes it so important to you.
For example, a goal could be preparing every weekday dinner at home instead of ordering out. Why is that important to you though? What will you get out of it? Maybe that goal means you get to spend more quality time with your family while eating food that physically makes you feel better, all while saving money - that's your "why" right there!
I like to think of your "why" as your north star. When things get challenging and it is difficult to keep working on your habit, go back to your why. It will help you remember why you started on this journey in the first place and can help keep you on track!
3. Start small and focus on one thing at a time
Ok, so you have your goal and you know your why. Now, pick one small action that you can repeatedly do, to help you achieve your goal.
Let's go back to our example of preparing every weekday dinner at home. That is a big goal, but we are going to break it down. What is one action you can take to get you closer to that goal? Maybe you start by cooking dinner every Monday night.
You keep cooking dinner every Monday night, over and over again, until it just becomes a regular part of your schedule. You will likely notice over time that you adjust other parts of your week to support you preparing dinner on Monday night - maybe you add a few more items to the weekly grocery list, maybe you start collecting recipes in an email folder, maybe you have the kids help you set the table and prepare parts of the dish.
Then, once it has become such an integrated part of your life (a habit), that's when you start to build onto it. Maybe you now preparing dinner every Monday and Tuesday, eventually adding Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday!
This is just an example, you make it your own! The overall takeaway here is that no action is too small or too easy. In fact, research shows that easier behaviors are better at facilitating habit formation, rather than difficult or too ambitious of behaviors (3). Little by little, a little becomes a lot.
4. Believe you can do it
The belief that we can do something is also known as self-efficacy. It is a well-known concept in the psychology of behavior change and is fundamentally helpful when it comes to habit building (2).
As Henry Ford said, "whether you think you can or you cannot, you are right." No one can create a new and beneficial habit for you, it has to come from you! Part of that means you have to believe in yourself.
Barriers are inevitable. They will surely arise as you try to build new habits that support your health and wellness goals. If you believe you can build your habits and achieve your goal, you will find a way around those barriers. If you do not believe in yourself, those roadblocks may just get the best of you.
You are worth it and you can do it, but you cannot take my word for it, you have to tell yourself that too!
5. Stick with it
If building sustainable health habits and achieving our wellness goals were fast and easy, we would all be where we want to be. Habits take time to build and it can take a different amount of time from one person to the next. Do not get discouraged if your action does not become a habit in a few days - some habits take a couple of weeks, others can take months (3).
The good news is, once you put the work in upfront, habits eventually become easier! You will have learned how to manage the barriers that may arise around them. Not to mention, they will be there to fall back on rather than habits that previously did not serve you and your goals. Finally your self-efficacy will only go up, helping you further sustain these habits (2,3).
1. Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012;62(605):664-666. doi:10.3399/bjgp12X659466
2. Stojanovic M, Fries S, Grund A. Self-Efficacy in Habit Building: How General and Habit-Specific Self-Efficacy Influence Behavioral Automatization and Motivational Interference. Front Psychol. 2021;12:643753. Published 2021 May 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.643753
3. van der Weiden A, Benjamins J, Gillebaart M, Ybema JF, de Ridder D. How to Form Good Habits? A Longitudinal Field Study on the Role of Self-Control in Habit Formation. Front Psychol. 2020;11:560. Published 2020 Mar 27. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00560