We all have that vision in our head of who we'd love to be. Fit, active, free from pain and chronic health conditions, surrounded by supportive and loving people, and engaged in rewarding and purposeful work. But getting from here to there is tough, and you may feel like you've tried just about everything to get there with no results.
You're not alone. Americans spend almost $10 billion per year on self-improvement books and products. But even with all the money we're throwing down and the effort we're spending, too many people don't see much improvement in their health and wellbeing.
What is going on?
There are so many reasons why your success may be hampered. Perhaps you're tackling too much at once, being overly hard on yourself, or just not ready or sure of how to take that first step. You may have given up on your health goals too soon or simply not had a well-developed plan of how to commit to healthy habits.
Getting healthy takes planning, effort and, above all, patience.
Luckily, there is a way to cut through the noise and create a plan that works. Here are 7 strategies to make those healthy habits stick.
1. Start with cognitive goals
When people set out to improve their health, they often think about action. Eat better, meditate, run more. But the truth is that getting healthy starts in your head.
If you don't feel ready to take an action step forward, don't worry. Just focus on "cognitive goals", where you gather information, think about your options, consider the benefits of change versus staying the same, and map out how you might best integrate new healthy behaviors in your life. In due time, you'll feel ready to take an action step forward, and the cognitive work you've done will pay off.
2. Shift your focus to the long-term
Short-term solutions, like seven-day cleanses or 21-day fitness crazes, are designed to jumpstart healthy living and produce rapid results. But they're often not feasible for the long-term.
The key to getting healthy isn't having a taste of your ideal self for a few weeks then reverting back to old ways. It's about creating sustainable change. Consider behaviors you can adopt that you'll be more likely to stick with over time. This way, your efforts won't be lost, and you'll feel the true benefits of change.
3. Realize that small steps make for big victories
Contrary to everything you might hear in flashy advertisements, slow and steady wins the race. Small, incremental steps are the best way to move towards your goals with success.
If you're trying to get more physically active, start with a 10-minute walk around your block a few times a week. If you want to reduce stress, trying meditating for 5 minutes once a week. You may think this sounds too easy, but that's the point. Over time, you can increase your efforts and enjoy the benefit of these healthy activities without feeling that the journey was such a struggle.
4. Pick actions that matter
Every effort to get healthy is meaningful, but some actions help pave the way to better health more directly. Take the example of parking farther away from the grocery store. Your intent may be to increase the amount you walk per day, but at some point, the benefit plateaus (as you can only park so far away and shop so often).
An alternative strategy is to identify a long-term goal that you want to work toward, such as spending 1 hour at the gym 5 times a week. Then develop steps that you can build upon to reach that goal. A first step may be to join the gym, then add on working out at the gym for 10 minutes once a week, then 15 minutes twice a week, and so on. These first action steps aren't just throw-aways. They are building blocks to get you closer to your larger goal.
5. Don't rely on your motivation
Motivation is essential when trying to build healthy habits, but we also know that it can wax and wane. You can't always depend on it because some of that initial motivation will wear off and you'll need other systems in place to keep you on track.
The key to weathering the storm of low motivation is to anticipate and set up strategies in advance to help you cope. Post reminders, ask for social support and create backup plans. And, of course, remind yourself that motivation can plummet and that you just need to roll with it and keep going. The motivation will return, especially as you start to feel the benefits of your new behaviors.
6. Be accountable to yourself
People work harder when they feel accountable to someone. Whether it's a coach, mentor, friend, family member, or work buddy, having others to report to can provide that necessary push you need to get stuff done. But ultimately you are responsible for your behavior.
There is no more powerful accountability partner than yourself. Rather than relying only on others, set up a system whereby you regularly track your own progress. Ask yourself what helped you succeed versus what might have caused you to get off track. Reward yourself when things go well but don't beat yourself up when they don't. As time goes on, you'll notice patterns of what hinders your progress and what needs to be in place for you to make healthy choices. While it's helpful to have accountability partners, recognize that it is you who has the most knowledge and experience to set yourself up for success.
7. Find the joy
A healthy life shouldn't feel like so much damned work. If it does, then you'll likely not stick with your new behaviors for too long.
Rather than taking some generic route to health, figure out what you can do to support a healthy life that also fits your personality, and empowers and excites you. When you design your life around things you love to do - activities that are uplifting and fun - it will stop requiring so much effort. Once you find the joy in living healthy, that's when the lifestyle will stick.