How to make your healthy habits stick

One-on-one with Shaun Francis | What if you focused on fewer things for more benefit?

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One of the key attitudes of high-achieving people in contemporary times is the belief we should try to do more—get more done, eat more vegetables, sleep more hours. This tendency can infect the way we think about New Year’s resolutions. For example, there’s the 18 for 2018 movement, which challenges people this year to make 18 improvements in their lives.

That would never work for me. Trying to improve a dozen and a half things at once just seems to set up a situation where one fails at all of it. Focus is important when it comes to setting up change that sticks. What I would suggest is that you use the convention of the New Year’s resolution to focus on improving a single thing about your life. To create a single good habit. Last year I worked hard to create the habit of exercising in the morning. If I didn’t get my exercise first thing, I found the day got away from me. I’d intend to get a workout in between meetings, but various work responsibilities would take priority and it’d be evening and I’d realize that the day had passed without me raising my heart rate. Making exercise the priority, first thing in the morning, helped me to get it in every day.

Now that I’ve successfully created that habit, I’m turning to something else. Like many, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by the cacophony of information that confronts us every day. Newspapers, social media, blogs and television, even the news crawl on the elevator at 150 York. I wonder whether it’s all creating shallow knowledge, where we know a little about a lot of different things, without any sense of context. To achieve and maintain deep understanding on my priority topics, I’m taking steps to manage my consumption of information. To focus.

So my resolution in 2018 is to read more books—something that’s appropriate, given that I have my own book, Eat, Move, Think coming out this May. Whenever I try to create a new habit I pattern my approach off the advice of Dr. David Macklin, Director of Weight Management at Medcan, and an expert in behavioural change. Repetition and reward are both important factors in the creation of new routines, Macklin says. So here’s my three-step process:

  1. Create a plan in advance. “Read more books” is a pretty vague resolution. So to ensure that it results in behavioral change, I tried to think about when and where it was most realistic for me to do that reading. I’d already reserved my mornings for exercise, and while I did read several newspapers before I began my workday, I didn’t foresee being able to stop and get into a book so early. So I decided to set aside the final 30 minutes of the evening to spend time with a single work of non-fiction or literature.
  2. Have a goal and track your progress. One thing I’ve taken from my conversations with Dr. Macklin is that a goal has to be achievable if it’s going to help build a habit. You want to think about what you’re doing, and feel good about it, not guilty about your inability to adopt it. If I’m out at some sort of an event, I may be too tired to last an entire half hour reading before I drop off to sleep. So my goal is to read for 30 minutes for five nights out of every seven.
  3. Reward the habit. One key to behavioural change is to ensure the brain associates the new habit with a reward. So in the moments that pass after I’ve set down my book, I concentrate on being mindful of my success—to feel good about the progress I’ve made toward meeting my short-term goal. If I’ve completed my reading early enough in the evening, and there’s enough time for me to get in my goal of seven hours sleep, I’ll reward myself with some Netflix.

Currently, my new habit has resulted in me being about two-thirds of the way through Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I’m really enjoying it. I find the quiet time before bed helps me unwind and sets me up to get a great night of sleep.

I don’t suggest that everyone out there share my exact resolution. But I do think you’ll benefit from limiting the number of resolutions you make. I also think you’ll be more likely to create a resolution that sticks if you employ the three-step approach of making a plan, having a goal and rewarding yourself when you carry through with your intention. Happy New Year!

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