Eating healthy, getting enough exercise, making sure to switch off our laptops at a reasonable time, and trying to make more time to go for long walks with our good friends – we all know what it’s like to set goals for healthier routines we’d like to adopt. OpenUp psychologist, Jasmijn, is here to explain why we sometimes find it so hard to make these changes, and give us some tips that will help us to stand a better chance.
This is a question that comes up all the time in therapy: Why is it so hard to keep doing things when you know that they’re good for you? Now, this question has multiple answers – usually there isn’t just one reason why you’re struggling to integrate good habits into your life.
But something that holds true for many people is that we want too much, too fast. This means that when we decide we want to change things, we tend to set extreme goals for ourselves – for example, we decide we want to eat healthy all the time or exercise four times a week. We then expect ourselves to succeed immediately in meeting these extreme goals. In itself, that isn’t really a bad thing: It means that we have this tremendous motivation to change our lives. The only issue is that it often doesn’t work out well for us.
If you’re looking to make a lasting change, whether you want to lose weight or go to bed earlier, it all comes down to balance and taking small steps. And trying to eat only healthy foods or immediately exercise four times a week – that’s just not the right approach. What would be better is if you cut back to only eating one piece of candy per day, or started going for a walk once a week.
Short Term vs. a Long Term Mindset to a Healthy Lifestyle
As well as setting our goals too high, there are also certain negative beliefs that can get in the way when you’re trying to pursue a healthier lifestyle. Let’s use the example of a smoking addiction. The long-term benefits of quitting are very clear to all smokers. You reduce your risk of developing serious diseases, your overall fitness improves, you feel healthier, you smell fresher, and your skin looks better.
The hard part is that, in the short term, you are of course likely to experience withdrawal, including possible withdrawal symptoms. Additionally, you might be worried that you’ll miss the feeling of relaxation you get when you smoke, the social side of smoking, or the general effect that nicotine has on your body and mind. This might lead you to believe that quitting will cause you a great deal of stress and leave you with a sense of loss; that the short-term consequences outweigh the long-term benefits of quitting. As a result, you might decide not to try.
9 Tips for Maintaining Lifestyle Changes
Setting an intension to live a healthier lifestyle is always a good thing, but we aren’t always so great at following through. Along with our tendency to want to change too much at once, and to prioritize short-term effects over long-term benefits, we can also fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others (and feeling disappointed with ourselves as a result) or we fall into a pattern of all-or-nothing thinking. This means that making structural changes to live a healthier lifestyle is definitely a challenge. That being said, it’s certainly not impossible. These nine tips can help you to succeed:
1. Set a clear and realistic goal
Remember that the keyword is balance here: if it’s too unpleasant to do, you won’t keep it up. Make sure that your goal is concrete. Decide exactly what you’re going to do, where you’re going to do it, how often you’re going to do it, and who you’re going to do it with. Then ask yourself how achievable this goal is for you. If you think you’ve got about an 80% chance of achieving it, then that means your goal is challenging but realistic: That’s what you want! (It’s a good idea to use something like the SMART method.)
2. Write down your plan and record your progress
Keep yourself motivated by using a diary to write out a plan for meeting your goal. You can also use this same diary to keep track of your progress, maybe scoring your efforts out of ten each day, for example. This will allow you to see exactly how much you’re improving – and that’s very motivating.
3. Identify any obstacles
Try to be honest with yourself about which short-term effects are preventing you from maintaining your healthy habits. For example: Maybe you’re afraid of becoming tense and stressed while you give up smoking. Ask yourself what’s stopping you from achieving your goal. Are you holding on to any limiting beliefs? And when do you start to notice things going wrong for you?
4. Make a plan to tackle these obstacles
OK: So, you’re afraid of becoming tense and stressed while you quit smoking. What are you going to do if you do in fact encounter this obstacle fairly early on? Come up with an if-then plan and be as specific as possible about what you’ll do if this obstacle comes your way. For example: If I feel stressed when I’m not smoking, I’ll first take a sip of water, then I’ll go for a walk and call a friend.
5. Focus on the positive
Write down what your motivations are for pursuing a healthier lifestyle and what you hope it will bring you in the long run. What pay-offs lie ahead and why are you looking forward to these?
6. Cultivate a growth mindset
A fixed mindset is a static way of thinking – subscribing to fixed beliefs. An example of a fixed mindset is, “I can’t do this”. A growth mindset centers around a flexible way of thinking, meaning it’s based on the idea that you’re always capable of growth. An example of a growth mindset is: “I can’t do this yet“. It’s possible to cultivate a growth mindset and this is really useful when you’re trying to adopt a new lifestyle. Look back on all the times you thought you couldn’t do something, but then you went ahead and learned it anyway. This is proof that you’re capable of growth.
7. Share your plan with others
Social support and engagement are great for holding you accountable. Tell your friends and family that you’ve set yourself a goal and explain how you’re planning to achieve it. Do you know anybody who’d like to join you? You’ll find that really inspiring.
8. Don’t be too hard on yourself
Maybe it didn’t work out first time. That’s not the end of the world. Tomorrow is a new day. Don’t be too hard on yourself or punish yourself the second you let things slide. Be kind to yourself and steer clear of all-or-nothing thinking.
9. Celebrate when you reach your goals!
So, you went a whole week without snaking as much? You managed two weeks of proper exercise? You haven’t smoked in a month? Treat yourself! Whether it’s lovely massage, a good book or a big bunch of flowers; giving yourself a reward when you manage to achieve your goals offers a great incentive to keep up your healthy lifestyle.
Would you like to talk to someone personally about maintaining a healthy lifestyle? 💬 Book a free introduction with one of our certified psychologists