Making and sustaining changes
Te mahi panonitanga me te whakaū
There’s not a lot of benefit in focusing on the things that you can’t change, like circumstances and luck. Let’s focus on something you can control though: habits. This section focuses on some small, focused ideas that can help you take steps on your journey to making and sustaining changes.
Deciding to change
Focus on one simple thing at a time
It’s all too easy to get fired up by a New Year’s resolution, or a milestone birthday, or a scare from a life event and decide it’s time for wholesale change. Out with the old, in with everything new. Use that energy, but focus it. Pick one simple attainable change and build that habit. A gradual build-up of 1% changes that you can maintain is more likely to build meaningful change long term than attempting sweeping changes overnight.
Focus on things you have control over
“Have fewer stressful life events” would be great, but isn’t really something you can control. Instead, practice a stress management technique. Create a regular exercise pattern. Build a mindfulness routine. Whatever you pick, look for steps that you can take that are under your control that let you make positive change.
Don’t wait to take action until you feel like it
Many of us know the things we need to do to improve our health and wellbeing. The key is unlocking the ability to take action, despite your feelings. Mel Robbins suggests committing yourself to taking action in five-second windows — to push forward with the action you know will help you within five seconds… before competing thoughts and feelings start to pull you back from taking action.
Mel Robbins | One of the Best Talks Ever on Self-Motivation
Get the benefit from domino effects
If you want to improve your wellbeing, but are not sure where to start, consider looking for any activity you’re tried in the past that has a positive domino effect into the rest of your life. Some people find that when they get out and do some exercise at the start of the day, it has a positive effect on their energy and focus for the whole morning. Or that maybe it has been hard to regularly practice mindfulness, but when they do they feel a greater sense of clarity and creativity in the work they do afterwards. Or maybe you’ve noticed substantial benefits the following day when you’ve disciplined yourself to get to bed earlier, such as finding it easier to stay calm with your kids and also to make healthy eating choices as well.
If there is something where one choice has positive flow-on effects in other areas of your life, that is a great focus to set a small, specific plan. When you consistently build that one behaviour into your life, you get all the other benefits too, for free.
Building new habits and patterns
Decide what you’re going to do. Specify the when, where and how. Think it through with enough detail like you’re writing a script that someone else could follow. When you’re specific enough to be clear what you intend to do, it’s more likely that you’ll follow through on it.
Replace the previous reward
All habits have some reward associated with them — whether we label them ‘good habits’ or ‘bad habits’. Part of changing a bad habit is recognising the benefits that you were getting from it, even if overall you don’t want to be doing that thing any longer. If you’re wanting to cut down on smoking when you’re feeling anxious, find something new that might replace that calming benefit if that was what it was giving you — like trying a mindfulness app like Smiling Mind. (And also check out the many great supports at Quitline.)
If you’re trying to cut down on comfort eating when you’re down, look for another thing you can do at those times — like lining up a good friend who agrees they are happy for you to call for a quick chat every time you feel like this. When you give yourself a new way to get the benefit without the bad habit, it becomes far easier to eliminate the unwanted habit itself.
Build habits into your life
When something is integrated into the flow and rhythm of your life, it no longer requires the same effort to keep engaging in the habit. If walking to work is how you get to work, rain or shine, you have naturally built exercise into most of your days. Making the environmental changes necessary to build habits into your life sometimes requires rethinking things e.g., shifting to within walking distance of where you work — but can make a major difference to sustaining the change you want to make.
Be accountable to someone
Rather than flying solo it’s much better to have a wingmate when you’re setting out on the journey to make changes. Recruiting someone else who also wants to make similar change can be a great way to generate motivation, and you can be really helped by being accountable to each other.
Tell them what you plan to do, and ask them to check back with you whether you’ve done it. You may end up doing it at the last minute ‘just so you can tell them that you did’. That’s succeeding, not failing. Keep it up.
Don’t make the mistake of making public declarations of your goals, however. Some research suggests that the reward we get from making a public announcement about what we’re going to do can actually reduce the likelihood you’ll follow through. Save any public celebrations for milestones you’ve actually reached, not your future goals.
Make changes in community
Even better support is available when you commit to change as part of a wider family/whānau/group of people, who work together towards a shared wellbeing goal, supporting, motivating, and enabling each other. There’s nothing like having a whole team on your side, and you on theirs. This isn’t just about accountability in a wider group. It’s a whole family or team working together to decide what is important collectively, and how you can all work together to change your shared patterns, your shared environment, and to provide support for each other in making changes for everyone’s benefit. It’s powerful.
Active Families - Sport Wellington
Atomic Habits: How to get 1% Better Every Day - James Clear
Make a start
Intrinsic motivation kicks in after you’ve starting to make change, not before. That means the motivation needed to start a behaviour is much higher than what is required to continue the behaviour. In a way, that’s kind of encouraging. Knowing that all you have to do is get started, and that once things are rolling they will be easier, actually can take some of the pressure off.
Make a habit of the first two minutes
Don’t focus on the whole thing, just focus on the first two minutes. If you have a daily goal, count the goal as achieved if you do the first two minutes of what you want to do. If the long-term plan you’re working on for your wellness is “to be a runner”, then make your daily goal to put your running shoes on, step out the door, and lock the door. It might seem like you’re setting your sights too low, but lots of experience shows this is helpful. Even if half the time you just walked right back in the door again, you’re still going running every second day. And often, once you’ve overcome the hurdle of getting going, you’ll do much more of course. James Clear talks more about this approach in Atomic Habits.
Put cues around you
One of the most powerful ways to affect your own behaviour is to design your environment to make good behaviours easier to do. If there’s something that tends to trigger a behaviour you’re trying to reduce, can you remove that cue? If you really only want to get out the biscuits when you have a visitor, how about putting the biscuit tin in the garage, on a shelf that needs a ladder? Meanwhile, make obvious cues to the behaviours that you want to see yourself doing. If you want to eat less, serve your meals on a smaller plate. If you want to be giving more positive feedback to work colleagues, you could buy a ‘Thank You’ note pad and keep it with a pen, right on your desk. Cues are powerful, and you can control them. Use them to prompt the things you want in your life.
Be clear on your Why
Whether in your behaviour, your health, or your work, change is in reach when your decisions are consistent with your why. Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, focuses on how to motivate people to identify their reasons for doing things in order to unlock their inspiration and passion. Often we identify a problem in some specific behaviour with “I should…” or “I should not…” That’s talking about the what. “I want to be the best Dad I can be” or “I want to have the energy to be a fun grandparent” takes us to the why of why we might want to take steps to improve our health and wellbeing. When we can dig down to know the why, we unlock the core motivation to take the whatever steps will move us towards that higher outcome. Read more about understanding your Why here.
You can find more tips about healthy habits and how to stick to them here.
The Origin of the WHY
Make it part of your story
In the end, ingraining new habits is also about allowing our changed behaviour to create a new understanding of who we are. Instead of feeling guilty or down about a bad habit, e.g., “I eat too much junk” you start to see yourself in terms of a new identity: “I’m someone who eats well, so I’m always providing premium fuel for my engine”. Instead of going for a run “because I need to get fit”, you go for a run “because I’m a runner”. In the end, it’s this change in how we see ourselves that fully embeds and sustains the change we wanted to see in our lives. The desired habit just becomes something that flows naturally from that identity.
Make connections to people and places
One of the ways that you can build health and wellbeing change into your story and identity is to link your efforts to people that matter to you, and places that are significant to you, to your origins, or to your family/whānau. Weave your current change into the larger story of the efforts you — and your family/whānau/team — are making, as part of the wider story of where you’ve come from, what matters to people who matter to you, and how it all ties to your deeper roots. When you see your own journeys as part of this wider narrative, you can unlock additional supports to carry though positive change.
Atomic Habits by James Clear.