As a registered dietitian, my role includes two major responsibilities: 1) provide evidenced-based nutrition information in an easy-to-understand way, and 2) help individuals create sustainable healthy habits to achieve their wellness goals. And while the former is incredibly important, my passion is the latter.
I love working with individuals, getting to know them, their childhoods, their environments, their family dynamics, their stresses, their passions, their comfort foods, their motivations (essentially, everything shy of their social security numbers). Each has contributed to where someone is now on their wellness journey, and will influence how he or she will continue to make sustainable healthy habits.
So, how do we take all of that information, and actually use it in a way to create healthy habits? What else do we need to know about habits to make them sustainable? Where do we even start!?
Sifting through the research
Habits, or automatic behaviors, are sequences of actions that are learned progressively and often become performed unconsciously. Our brain is busy, and in an effort to simplify its daily responsibilities, it looks for ways to become more efficient. By “filing” actions we do repeatedly as habits, it can do those unconsciously while being available to help with things that require concentration.
Equally impressive to the brain’s ability to maintain habits is its capability to change, adapt, and re-organize neural pathways to create new ones as a response to various situational or environmental changes. After all, when you think about it, creating a sustainable healthy habit is really modifying a current, unhealthy one.
But how long will creating a habit take?
Well, as most things in life: it depends. Despite hearing that 21 days is the magic number, it’s not that cut and dry. (Shocking, right!?) In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers sought to investigate just how long it actually takes to form a habit.
The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt. Researchers concluded that, on average, it takes 66 days for a behavior to become a habit; however, habit forming can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the situation circumstances. The study also found it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit1.
Although I can’t provide the exact date for when your new behavior will become a sustainable healthy habit, I can offer some evidence-based suggestions on how to do it:
1. Choose ONE goal you’d like to address that you feel both motivated and confident to change.
Drink more water. Eat healthier. Put down the wine. We all have at least a few wellness goals, but trying to address all of those at the same time can be incredibly challenging and unsuccessful. Research supports client-centered techniques, like Motivational Interviewing (MI) and agenda setting can increase likelihood to achieving desired health outcomes2. To improve your chances of creating sustainable, healthy habits, strategically choose one at a time.
- Step 1: Create a list of healthy goals you’d like to make into habits.
- Step 2: Choose one.
- Step 3: Ask yourself the following questions:
- On a scale of 1-10 (10 = “I’ve totally got this”), how confident am I to change this?
- On a scale of 1-10 (10 = “I’m so beyond pumped”), how motivated am I to change this?
- Step 4: Repeat steps 2 and 3 for the remaining healthy goals.
- Step 5: Choose the one healthy goal that rank highest on both your confidence and motivation scales.
2. Make it a S.M.A.R.T goal.
Now it’s time to convert your desire to “Drink less wine.” Into something that’s a little more specific by creating a S.M.A.R.T goal. (Not sure what that is? Rather than recreate the wheel, check out this killer article and then come back). According to the research of Dr. Edwin Locke, a pioneer on studying goal setting and motivation since the late 1960s, there is a relationship between how specific a goal was and people’s performance of a task. He found that specific goals led to better task performance than vague, unstructured goals3.
3. Set yourself up for success.
If your S.M.A.R.T. goal is to “Drink one green smoothie every morning between Monday and Friday.”, hook yourself up with a variety of tools that will make this easy peasy. For instance:
- Use a special cup (a mason jar works great too), and use it every day.
- Set a reminder on your smart phone to go off about 10 minutes after you wake up.
- Stock your pantry, office drawer, or car with Vega Protein & Greens for a little flavor boost.
4. Plan for setbacks, be compassionate with yourself, and persevere.
Life happens. Summer vacations, weekend getaways, s#it, even a random Tuesday where you feel the world is against you can threaten your quest to forming a healthy habit. However, if you plan for setbacks, you’re more likely to overcome them and continue your pursuit. Recent research reveals that when people perceive themselves as having control over the setbacks they encounter, a particular part of the brain is engaged, and they’re more likely to persist in their goals4.
Don’t waste your time on quick fixes. Take the time to set yourself up for success when planning to tackle your sustainable healthy goals.
What is the healthy habit you’re going to plan and tackle this week?
1. Lally, P. et al (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Physchology. 40(6): 998-1009.
2. Spahn, J. et al. (2010). State of the Evidence Regarding Behavior Change Theories and Strategies in Nutrition Counseling to Facilitate Health and Food Behavior Change. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 110(6): 879-891.
3. Strecher, V. et al. (1995). Goal setting as a strategy for health behavior change. Health Education Quarterly Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 22(2):190-200. Accessed on July 24, 2015 fromhttp://www.researchgate.net/publication/15577534_Goal_setting_as_a_strategy_for_health_behavior_change.
4. Bhanji, J. and Delgado, M. (2014) Perceived Control Influences Neural Responses to Setbacks and Promotes Persistence. Neuron. 83(6): 1369-1375.
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