Some of us are thinking about goals for the new year. Some are thinking over the goals we set for this year and evaluating them. Some of us feel like we put our lives on pause when the pandemic began, and goals don’t even seem relevant to our lives right now. It might be the perfect time to think about a different way to approach your health: forget the goals and develop habits instead.
The power of habits
Imagine what it would be like to make decisions about everything you do all day. You’d start in the morning with a decision on whether or not to have a cup of coffee, considering the possible health effects of coffee and the environmental track record of the brand in your cupboard. Then you’d move on to a decision about whether to drink a glass of orange juice. Half an hour later, having seriously considered every liquid in your house and made a decision on what to drink, you’d start considering foods.
That’s not how it works. For decisions you make regularly, there is a cue that starts a habitual response. “I’ve got this!” says the habit center of the brain, letting your higher thought center move on to more serious issues, like what you’ll say at today’s important meeting. Your habit center (the basal ganglia) takes over and gets you ready for work and into your car. As your usual morning drive through spot shows up on your right, the habit center of the brain pilots you through the pick up window and emerges with your regular order: biscuits and sausage gravy with a large Coke.
You know that this is not the healthiest breakfast, but you weren’t really asked your opinion. You’ve made that drive through order every day for the past three months, and it hasn’t been a thoughtful decision for weeks.
The value of habits
This is a good thing your brain does for you. Without this system of habits, you’d have a hard time making it to work without getting lost, and sometimes you would forget your pants.
But if you have a goal to lose weight or eat healthier, your biscuits and Coke breakfast habit will make it very hard to reach that goal.
That’s why it makes sense to focus on healthy habits instead of goals: the power of your habits can easily outweigh your motivation to reach your goals.
It takes some attention to develop a new habit, but once it’s in place, it will make life easier.
Developing a new habit
We’re not talking about giving up a bad habit. It’s easier to replace it with a good habit. Start by noticing the cue: what causes the basal ganglia to set off the habit loop that leads you to the drive in window?
Maybe it’s the sight of your phone on the nightstand. You grab it, start checking social media, and jump into your getting-ready-for-work routine. That carries you all the way to the office and your good morning conversations. Your mind is on other things till you dive into your email, at which point you’re through with the biscuits and well into that soda.
Break the loop by putting your phone next to your blender instead. Put a handful of spinach and half a banana into a plastic bag in the fridge next to a bottle of juice. Grab your phone and mix up a morning smoothie while you check Instagram and Tik-Tok. Or make yourself an oatmeal station with a phone rest and cook the oats while you get ready.
However you replace the cue, you’ll give yourself a chance to break the habit. As you pull up to the drive-through, you’ll have a smoothie in your hand or breakfast in your belly, and your higher thinking center will remind you that you don’t want to continue with that bad breakfast habit.
Establishing the good habit
It may take a while for your good habit to get the upper hand, and it will certainly take some effort to make the change. But once you have the new habit in place, it will be easy to keep it up.
Once it is easy, you can take up your next healthy habit. You could set your morning alarm half an hour early and put your sneakers by your bed ad a cue to start your day with a walk.
You could develop five or ten healthy habits over the course of a year. Each one could lead to the loss of a few pounds. Or you could set a goal of losing weight and at the end of next year look back and feel disappointed in yourself because you’re still starting your days at the drive through.
You might have a completely different health goal. Connect it with a healthy habit and follow the process described. You might be amazed by your results.
Healthy habits to go with health goals: