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Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

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The key to success is in the cues

As the year comes to a close, people often think about their goals for the year ahead. Eating more healthfully, getting more exercise, and losing weight are at the top of many New Year’s resolutions.[1]

A resolution is an intention, which is an important first step – but it must be followed by behaviors that change habits. Habits control all of our routine behaviors, including eating, exercise, and sleep patterns.[2],[3],[4]

The following abbreviated quote by the popular author Brendon Burchard neatly sums up the relationship between intentions and habits:[5]

First, it is an intention.

Then a behavior.

Then a habit.

Then a practice.

Then it is simply who you are.

Whether it’s a desire to eat more healthfully or to get more exercise, changing one’s habits may seem daunting; but as I discuss today, there are some tricks to make it easier.

People who have healthy habits do not rely on willpower.

Many people believe that the key lies in exerting self-control or willpower.  However, research shows that people who have healthy habits do not rely on willpower.[6],[7],[8],[9] Instead, they devise strategies to weaken undesirable habits and encourage desirable ones.[10],[11]

So, don’t rely on self-control as a force for change. Instead, arrange your daily activities to achieve your goals.[10] In this post I will outline how you can achieve the following in the New Year:

  • Eat more healthfully
  • Drink more water
  • Exercise more regularly
  • Get more high-quality sleep
  • Reduce stress

Eat more healthfully

“Eating more healthfully” means eating more fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, along with high-quality proteins.[12] Fruits and veggies provide high amounts of fiber, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients which are often lacking in American diets.[13]

Eating more healthfully is associated with a lower risk of nearly every disease known to humankind, including cancer and heart disease. High-fiber, nutrient-dense foods also improve the gut microbiota, reduce the risk of irritable bowel syndrome, and boost the immune system.

Research has shown that people who replace processed foods and sugar with healthy foods end up lowering their calorie intake, thereby reducing excess body weight.[14] But how can we make healthy eating a habit, when we are bombarded with cues to consume junk foods?

The most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place.

Studies in animal models and humans have shown that reward-driven brain pathways kick in when foods high in sugar and fat are within sight, making it difficult if not impossible to resist such foods.[15],[16] To change unhealthy eating habits, it is necessary to distance ourselves from unhealthy foods.[17],[18],[19]

As researcher Dr. Molly Crockett says, “Our research suggests that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place.”[20]

If there is unhealthy food in your home, such as ice cream in the freezer or cookies in the cupboard – throw it out and do not let it come into your house. The same is true for potato chips and salty snacks, which have the potential to be as addictive as candy.[21],[22]

Avoid the junk food aisles at the market, and head straight for the aisles where the produce and bulk foods reside. Stock up on fresh greens and whole fruits, sweet potatoes (which can be cut into sticks and oven roasted), unsalted walnuts, pecans, and almonds, oatmeal for breakfast, and unsweetened yogurt.

For dinner, consider fresh fish, chicken, and/or dishes made with organic tofu, hummus, lentils, and fresh vegetables. To increase fiber intake, swap out white rice for brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, teff, or buckwheat. There are thousands of recipes on the internet that are fun to try, including stir fry and curry dishes.

Again, the most critical decisions are made when you shop for groceries. Stock up on nutrient-rich foods, and – importantly – eliminate junk food from your cart and your cupboards.

Changing one’s eating habits doesn’t happen overnight. It may take several months of consistent practice to make healthy shopping and eating a new habit.[23] Eventually, eating healthfully will seem like second nature – meaning that you’ve succeeded in making healthy eating “simply who you are.”

Drink more water

Drinking water has been shown to boost weight loss in those who are overweight.

Our thirst mechanisms are not very efficient, and many people are walking around partially dehydrated.[24],[25] Dehydration takes its toll on the skin and internal organs, especially the kidneys and the gastrointestinal tract, which need water to eliminate waste products.[26] Insufficient water intake can also exacerbate fatigue and depression.[27]

We may intend to drink more water, but days can go by without any change in habits.

In this case, we need an external cue to help establish the new habit. I often counsel clients to set up their cell phone so that a gentle chime goes off hourly, from 9 am to 5 pm.  Make it a musical tone that you will enjoy hearing.

When the alarm goes off, drink a small glass of ice cold water or sparkling water. Research has shown that ice water is more satisfying than room-temperature water.[28]

A chime that goes off hourly becomes the cue our body needs to instill this new habit. If you do this throughout the day, you’ll end up drinking nine glasses of water daily. As an added bonus, drinking water has been shown to boost weight loss in those who are overweight.[29],[30]

Get more exercise

Walking at least 30 minutes per day is one of the best lifelong habits we can adopt.

When I moved into my new neighborhood, I noticed there was a man who walked every morning.  He was in his 30’s and was severely overweight. He moved slowly, but he kept going. Good for him, I thought: he’s probably trying to lose weight, and he realizes that walking will help. It’s been a year now, and he is still walking every day – and he has lost at least 75 pounds.

Walking at least 30 minutes per day is one of the best lifelong habits we can adopt. Walking keeps people youthful and improves their ability to thrive in the face stress, hormone changes, and aging in general.

Forming a new exercise habit requires creating an external cue for the new behavior.[31] First, plan to exercise at the same time of day – preferably in the morning. Second, create a cue that triggers the behavior by putting out everything you will need the night before.

Make a pile with your clothes, shoes, hat, keys, phone, and anything else you will need for your walk, and put the pile next to your bed. When you get up, the clothes will serve as a cue to get dressed, head out the door, and start the day out right. The cue will reduce inertia and make it easier to form the new habit.

Adopting an exercise habit can truly improve your quality of life.  Research has shown that exercise reduces food cravings and helps people lose weight.[32],[33],[34]

Additionally, physical activity improves sleep quality and reduces fatigue.[35],[36],[37],[38] As if that weren’t enough, regular exercise has been shown to improve mood, both in adults and adolescents.[39],[40]

Get more high-quality sleep

A frequent urge to snack may mean that you need more sleep rather than more food.

Many Americans do not get enough sleep. People can tolerate an acute sleep shortage for a short period of time, but insufficient sleep can compromise our physical and mental health over the long term.

A lack of sleep plays havoc with the appetite, such that people who are sleep-deprived are more inclined to snack and to gain weight.[41],[42] A frequent urge to snack may mean that you need more sleep rather than more food.

Aim for about seven hours of sleep each night.[43] Some people will require less sleep while others need more, but seven hours is a general guideline for adults.

To make sure you get enough sleep, work backwards from the time you need to get up in the morning. If you have to get up at 6 am, you need to be asleep by 11 pm. Turn off the TV, social media, and other sleep-disrupting electronic devices by around 10 pm.  (And don’t forget to set out your exercise clothes before you get into bed.)

Reduce stress

Chronic stress contributes to addictive behaviors, overeating, and obesity.

Most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly, and 56 percent say that doing so causes them stress.[44] Stories involving conflict, violence, or fear get more clicks and generate more advertising revenue for the media corporations – thus they often get top billing.[45],[46]

Over the last two years, many people’s stress levels have gone through the roof due to worries about the COVID-19 pandemic and the future.[47],[48],[49] The profound impact of the endless stream of news has been described as “Headline Stress Disorder.”[50],[51]

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. adults have experienced the health impacts of stress, including headaches, feeling overwhelmed, fatigue, and/or changes in sleeping habits.[49] Chronic stress contributes to addictive behaviors, overeating, and obesity.[52],[53],[54]

For our own mental and physical health, we need to keep screen time to a minimum and try to detach emotionally. Remember that most of the headlines, which may seem earth-shattering at the time, will turn out to be of minor consequence a year later. Stay centered and remember that “this too shall pass.”[55]

Summing up: How to form new habits

The way to form new habits is to:

  1. Plan ahead to avoid temptations;
  2. Create external cues for the new/desired behaviors; and
  3. Stay consistent until the new behaviors become second nature.

Here are some tips to improve your chances of success:

  • To eat more healthfully, eliminate junk food from your shopping cart, refrigerator and pantry. Stock up on nutrient-dense foods.
  • To drink more water, set up your phone so that a chime goes off hourly between 9 am and 5 pm. Drink a glass of ice water when the chime rings.
  • To exercise more regularly, make a pile next to your bed with your exercise clothes, shoes, and everything else you will need for your morning walk. When you get up, put on your clothes and go for a pleasant walk.  Repeat daily.
  • To get more high-quality sleep, turn off the TV, social media, and other sleep-disrupting electronic devices by 10 pm (or 8 hours before you need to get up.) Aim for at least seven hours of restful sleep nightly.
  • To reduce stress, monitor your exposure to news and social media. Try to detach emotionally from sensational headlines by remembering that “this too shall pass”.


If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in the following posts:

Stress and Psychological Resilience
Are You Getting Enough Sleep?
Craving Sweets? You Might Be Stressed!
Fitting Exercise into Your Day
Flipping the Script on Happiness

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The information provided is for educational purposes only. Consult your physician or healthcare provider if you have specific questions before instituting any changes in your daily lifestyle including changes in diet, exercise, and supplement use.

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