As the calendar flips to a new year, many of us are thinking about living, eating and feeling better in the days and months to come. One person who has been thinking about improving our habits for a lot longer than that is Heather McKee, PhD, a behavior change specialist who describes herself as “obsessed with habit maintenance.” She studies how we develop good habits, how we shake bad ones and how we maintain our approach in the long-term. (You might know her work from the popular podcast “Bite-Sized Habits.”)
We spoke with her to get some tips on how to move toward our health and fitness goals today, tomorrow, in 2020 and beyond. Here’s what she told us:
TRACK AND IDENTIFY WHAT TRIGGERS YOUR BAD HABITS
Maybe it’s an afternoon cookie. Or maybe it’s skipping a weekly workout to chill on the couch and binge-watch TV. Whatever it is, it’s likely a recurring challenge that can be identified by simply tracking it. “Habits are formed through context and repetition,” McKee says. “It’s not one habit alone — it’s a series of micro-habits woven together.”
Take that afternoon cookie. Chances are, what actually happens is you’re working on a project at the office. You start to get bored. Or tired. Or you just need to stretch your legs. You find yourself moseying over to the vending machine, and there you go, it’s cookie time. Do that often enough, and you officially have a cookie habit. Looking to break the cycle? Begin by logging it, either physically or mentally. (As it happens, logging your meals and snacks with MyFitnessPal is a great way to discover long-term patterns in your habits.)
DETERMINE WHAT YOU’RE REALLY TRYING TO ACHIEVE
Again, let’s use the cookie example. “In my studies, people give in to temptation around 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” says McKee, adding that in her native U.K., this is known as the biscuit slump, which is infinitely more charming-sounding than whatever you call it. As mentioned earlier, the root cause could be boredom, stress, fatigue, even loneliness. So by all means, you can try to address the issue by removing sweets from your immediate vicinity. But you also have to address the root craving to make any progress.
EXPERIMENT WITH REPLACEMENTS
Now that you’ve determined you’re actually bored at work, and boredom triggers you to seek a cookie, what do you do? Experiment with other behaviors. Maybe it’s about keeping healthier snacks, like almonds, on hand. Maybe it’s about asking your boss for more interesting assignments. Maybe it’s about going for a walk around the block instead. Maybe it’s something else.
The point is, give yourself permission to try different things, rather than just making a resolution to stop eating cookies at work (which often makes you crave cookies even more). “Experiments make us feel safer,” McKee says. “People who are best at achieving goals tend to be the ones who are best at self-compassion and kindness. Experimenting makes you less worried about repercussions, less fearful of failing because you have flexibility and the mindset to try again” if something doesn’t work.
BEGIN WITH AN EASY WIN
McKee compares a bad habit to a deeply tangled knot. At first, untying it can seem overwhelming, even impossible. But if you begin with the easiest part, you’ll start loosening it thread by thread, until eventually, you achieve your goal. She recommends a similar approach with breaking a bad habit (or forming a good one): Begin with the easiest thing. “That gives you the boost in confidence to give you that momentum,” she says. “Then systematically work through those habits and behaviors to ultimately find what works best in the context of your life.”
Maybe that daily cookie becomes a four times a week indulgence. Or maybe it’s just about altering your routine so you don’t walk to the bakery. Just achieve something simple to give yourself confidence. Then, even if you have the occasional setback, you’ll still know you have the ability to resist temptation. “The first step is you being the best support for yourself,” McKee adds. “Those who maintain healthy habits, the biggest difference is they have a different outlook. When they did something contradictory to their goals, they looked at it and learned from it instead of berating themselves. They understood that the lapse was temporary. So they examined why they failed and what they learned from it.” Toward that end, she recommends doing a self-care check-in when you’re feeling tempted. Ask yourself what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling emotionally and physically, perhaps even socially. Ask yourself if you’re OK, and you might determine what you’re really craving isn’t that temptation, but something else that can be addressed in a healthier way.
This also applies to forming good habits, by the way. Go for an easy win — setting out your workout clothes in advance, for example — and watch as the wins start getting bigger.
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU’RE GAINING, INSTEAD OF WHAT YOU’RE LOSING
The ironic thing about trying to live healthier is that the culture, including what you see on TV, is often actively working against you. After all, every junk food is designed and marketed to trigger you — just look at those colors and fonts in the snack aisle. And on the healthy side, well, as McKee puts it, “How often do we see kale being advertised?” (Never. The answer is never.)
This can create a false sense that you’re missing out by making a healthy choice, when in reality, you’re often gaining something — real nutrients, in the case of the kale. In the case of regular exercise, you are likely both extending your lifespan and improving the quality of that lifespan, in areas ranging from mental health to stress level. You’ll improve the time you spend with friends and family, as you’ll have more energy. You’ll likely get better sleep, which in turn creates a virtuous cycle where you’re also eating better. If you make your healthy habits social — by going to an exercise class with a friend or making healthy meals with a family member — all the better. This year, and beyond, remember not just what you’re losing, but all you have to gain.