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How to turn your new year's resolutions into habits

“Think of it as the opposite of being hard on yourself.”

How many times have you said to yourself, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time...’?

If you stop for a minute and think about any bad habits you might have that you would like to change, have you ever wondered why you still do it even though you know it’s bad?

I remember being in a queue for a barbecue buffet in a hotel in Egypt many years ago. I got chatting to a guy called Tom behind me. He was smoking a cigarette and he said, “This is so stupid. One part of my brain really wants to smoke this fag, but the other part knows it’s killing me... what the heck is going on, doc?”

What he was referring to was his ‘monkey brain’. We all have this primitive part of our brain (namely the prefrontal cortex and limbic system) which is powerful, impulsive, reactionary and emotional. We need to acknowledge our monkey brain, but also stop it from controlling or hijacking us.

Have you ever felt bad because you snapped at a friend? Or reached for a packet of doughnuts and eaten all of them in one go? Or felt road rage? Don’t worry – most of us have. That’s our monkey brain at work. All of these things give us a quick hit or fix of something ‘without thought’. Often, the actions we take make us feel emotionally or physically terrible, or racked with guilt afterwards.

Luckily, I have developed a framework called IDEAL, which is a really easy way to start changing your habits.

IDENTIFY what you would like to do (e.g. taking up running; or stopping smoking).

DEFINE one or two small changes you can make (e.g. running to work instead of walking; deciding to leave the house without cigarettes).

ENGAGE by preparing and controlling your environment to make change easy (e.g. set out your running kit the night before; make sure you have no cigarettes in the house).

ACTIVATE yourself by sticking your new habit(s) on to an existing one, or use them to replace a bad one. We’ll explore this in more detail below.

LOOK BACK at yourself in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, you did it. Well done.’

The last one might sound silly. You don’t actually need to look in the mirror, but you should pat yourself on the back each time you perform the new habit. It’s important to acknowledge your efforts. Think of it as the opposite of being hard on yourself.

By now, I hope this is all beginning to resonate with you as something that is relevant to your health but also doable. Soon, you will be able to change your habits for the better.

One key factor, championed by B. J. Fogg, is to add a new habit or behaviour to an existing one. This is what I call ‘activate’ in the IDEAL framework, and the idea is for the new and old habits to feed and encourage each other. New habits are far more likely to ‘stick’ this way, rather than falling by the wayside after a few weeks, like all those New Year’s resolutions.

For instance, if you decide you want to do two press-ups a day or learn a new fact each morning, why not do it straight after something that you already do every single day, like brushing your teeth? Or, if you want to start a weekly outdoor habit, like going for a run, how about doing it just after you put the bins out? After a while, it will become a familiar association: we are familiar with coffee and cake or milk and cookies but how about brushing your teeth and press-ups?

Now imagine the difference between you and your imaginary twin, who has been doing two daily press-ups and learning a new fact every day for ten years. Your twin would be stronger (and better at Christmas quizzes, most likely). But in all seriousness, the point is that even small regular habits and behaviours can give huge rewards if they are carried out regularly and continued.

Condensed and extracted from The Health Fix by Dr Ayan Panja (Octopus Books, 2023).

As published on the GLAMOUR UK website

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