Present habits = future outcomes
Here’s a phrase I’ve started to use more and more: I don’t have a crystal ball.
I wish I did. If only I could peek into the future and act accordingly in the present. A crystal ball would have been especially handy over the past few years. Imagine if you could foresee, pre-empt, and prepare for all the changes throughout the past few years. But I’m more into medicine than magic; I’m more content running a discounted chemist than trying to predict the future.
But there is something that comes close to seeing the future: looking at your habits.
When you see someone’s habits today, you get a glimpse at the person they will become tomorrow.
Of course, there are limits to this. Life happens. The unexpected always finds a way to burst in – sometimes as a welcome but unexpected guest, and sometimes as a grim and painful reality.
That said, there is something undeniably powerful and predictive about habits. The right habits are like a favourable wind for a little yacht charting a profitable course in a vast ocean. As John Irving writes, ‘good habits are worth being fanatical about.’ Crafting such habits is like drawing the blueprint for your dream house.
Health and habits
Everything I have said so far relates to habits in general. I want to talk about habits to help your health in particular. Healthy habits that stick like velcro rather than disappearing like the morning mist are rocket fuel for a healthy life. To improve their overall health and well-being, Australian adults should aim to build habits that help them to do things such as:
- Maintain a healthy body weight by selecting a balanced diet appropriate to your individual needs
- Stay active by engaging in regular physical activity, pursuing outdoor activities, maintaining involvement in community sport, and conscientiously seeking other avenues to keep active
- Reduce alcohol intake, substituting such beverages for water or healthy alternatives
- Get enough sleep to encourage alertness and cognitive functioning during the day, and to avoid sleep disorders.
Perhaps you expect me at this point to pitch a range of discounted chemist products to you. Of course, I’m convinced that medical products can lead to a better, healthier life. But the best product in the world will be of no help to you if you don’t have the right habits. I’ve used a few metaphors for habits already, so hopefully another won’t hurt: a habit is like the foundation of the building. If it’s strong, the whole thing will last forever. If it’s not, cracks will start to show.
What even is a habit?
Metaphors aside, what is a habit? Perhaps the best way to think about a habit is to identify one that you already have: brushing your teeth. You already do this many times a day, basically without thinking, and you likely brush your teeth at basically the same time each day.
But you weren’t born with a toothbrush in your hand; at some point, someone had to teach you the process. You could probably do it blindfolded today.
More than that, you probably don’t have a reminder in your phone that goes off when it’s time for you to brush your teeth. Brushing your teeth is almost as engrained in your life as breathing.
Brushing your teeth then is something that:
- You can learn through deliberate practice
- Is triggered by certain cues – like getting ready for bed – rather than an alarm or verbal reminder
- Involves very little cognitive effort; in other words, you don’t need to use a huge amount of your brainpower as your brush your teeth.
To think this through more, picture your brain, which is a little smaller than a pineapple and weighs a little more.
Each time you complete a task, your brain can commit fewer cognitive resources to it. In other words, your brain gets more used to the task, making it easier to complete and – ultimately – more automatic. This process of repetition leads to actual, observable changes within the brain as repeated behaviours shape your neural pathways and imprint the new habit onto the brain.
Seven ways to build healthy habits
Of course, just because we know what habits are doesn’t mean that we always make them With this in mind, how do you go about building healthy habits?
- Address the purpose
This step involves identifying why you want to build a particular habit. It is often best to try to connect this to your values in life. Imagine that you want to build a habit of a daily half-hour walk. For you, perhaps it’s that you want to be the healthiest version of yourself for your family. If you like tangible, concrete goals, it could be that you would like to run a half marathon in a year. Maybe it’s that you like the idea of being a healthy person. Whatever your purpose – the why that fuels your habits – make sure that it is crystal clear. Write it down somewhere that you will see it often. You may even like to share it with some friends.
- Build in the right cues
The reality is that many of our behaviours are driven by social and environmental cues. Let’s return to the teeth-brushing example; environmental factors like walking into the bathroom or seeing the toothbrushes in a cup on the sink naturally remind us of the habit.
If we are aiming to exercise three times a week, we might decide to leave our running shoes by the entry to our apartment so that we are constantly reminded of the new habit that we are trying to build.
- Bundle new habits with existing habits
If you want to develop a new habit, tie it into an existing habit. Perhaps you are aiming to drink more water; aim to drink a glass every time you go to the bathroom (I am assuming that this is a habit that you very rarely miss!). Imagine that you are trying to avoid using your phone before you go to sleep to limit disruptions to your sleep patterns. If you are already in the habit of packing your bag for work the next day, switch your phone off and place it in your bag.
- Celebrate the victories
Psychologists talk about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. Intrinsic rewards occur when we satisfy the inner motivators that drive us forward. Often these are linked to powerful emotions or desires.
Extrinsic rewards, on the other hand, are motivated by things outside of ourselves: money, status, or even the sneaky chocolate bar that we reward ourselves with after a trip to the supermarket (not all of these rewards are healthy enough to be endorsed by a discounted chemist!).
One way to activate both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards is to find a way to celebrate your success in a meaningful manner. If your aim is to eat more healthily, after a month of replacing takeout with hearty home-cooked meals, treat yourself and a loved one to dinner at a local sushi restaurant. After spending all of the summer building a habit of staying active, book a weekend away in a nice part of your state and enjoy a walk in the wilderness.
This last step is both the easiest and the hardest. It’s the easiest because it requires no explanation: a habit is – by definition – something that needs to be repeated. It’s the hardest, though, because repeating something takes time, commitment, and attention. If it’s for the sake of your health, though, you can’t make a better investment.