The Trick To Starting And Keeping Healthy Habits

How To Start (And Keep) Healthy Habits

Photography by Koji Arboleda

With the New Year soon upon us, there’s lots of conversations around the “New Year, New Me” adage and pressure to commit to resolutions. And while the intent may be positive, the approach can cause unnecessary spirals of fear, guilt or doubt.

We’ve tapped mental health experts for advice on how to start a healthy habit — and more importantly — how to integrate it successfully into your everyday life. Luckily, they had plenty of easy-to-follow advice to share.

Reaching our goals and improving our lives is about using mindfulness to create new healthy habits and see them through. It’s an approach that’s gentle yet effective — and can be used whether we’re trying to keep our New Year’s resolutions, ignite our love lives, stop drinking too much coffee, or start a skincare routine.

And best of all, these tips don’t require starting our lives totally anew.

What is a healthy habit?

A healthy habit is a repeated, consistent practice that’s done with the purpose of enhancing our wellbeing over time. “They’re the things we do routinely that nurture us mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally — not just in the short term, but also in the long term,” explains Byron Young, M.D., psychiatrist, mental health advisor, and scientific research board member at Selfmade.

In other words, a healthy habit isn’t just about receiving a quick dopamine hit, it’s about playing the long game in order to benefit your body, mind and soul. “This can be confusing because sometimes what feels good is bad for us, but what feels bad is actually good for us,” explains Anthony Townsend clinical psychologist and co-founder of EQNMT. “But ultimately, a healthy habit is defined by its ability to move you closer to what you personally value, not something that feels good in the moment.”

This is especially important to remember in this era of now, now, now and more, more, more. “We’re lured into believing that everything is supposed to give us instant gratification and we want the quick fix,” says psychodermatologist and somatic healing coach Keira Barr, M.D. “But healthy habits are about true nourishment and developing a practice or system that creates a sustainable lifestyle.”

Lean into what nurtures you

To that end, first we need to get clear on what true nourishment means to us personally. Barr recommends reflecting on the activities you already do that make you feel like the best version of you. Do you feel great after taking a bath and listening to guided meditations? Calling your mum on your way to work? Doing yoga with your bestie? Ask yourself “what actions give you sustained energy and support over the course of the day, weeks and months,” she advises. “Nourishing yourself is about supplying the food, sleep, movement and experiences that actually enable you to live life in the way that you desire to live it.”

If you’re not sure what those things are, that’s okay, too. Developing a healthy habit is about having an intention towards growth — and growth is often steeped in uncertainty, especially at first. “Sometimes we don’t have an understanding of what ‘healthy’ feels like or looks like because we haven’t had practice with it,” explains clinical psychologist Jeshana Johnson, PhD. If that’s the case, she says it’s helpful to consider what’s currently creating friction in your life. Maybe whenever you drink wine you become cranky and pick a fight with your partner. Or, whenever you eat a bagel for breakfast you feel super sluggish and can’t concentrate at work. “These are signs that your body doesn’t agree with those actions — and when our bodies don’t feel at ease, we know that those aren’t healthy habits.”

Mindset over matter

Once we have a sense of what nourishment means to us and what new habits we’d like to incorporate to enhance it, we can work on shifting our mindsets. “Change always starts with a desire for an experience outside of the one you are currently having,” explains manifestation coach Kathleen Cameron. “But to make lasting change we need to embrace a new self-concept or identity.”

This doesn’t mean we should reject who we are — it simply means we need to believe we are fully capable of achieving our goals and to tap into the best version of ourselves. “Our identity around our behaviour is critical,” Cameron explains. “What we believe shapes our feelings, and ultimately our realities.”

Embody the feeling you desire

One way to shift our mindset is to embody the positive emotions we know our new habit will evoke, like joy. “Because we all live in a constant trauma state, it can be scary to experience joy — we’re always wondering when it’s going to be taken away,” Johnson explains. “So, I ask my clients to close their eyes and imagine what joy feels like and where they feel it in their bodies.”

She says that this practice does two things: One, it expands our capacity to experience joy fully when it comes our way in real life; and two, it helps us notice when we don’t feel it. “It’s a reminder of what you want to gain more of, and recognising it in your body can be powerful enough for someone to say, ‘I need to change.’ ”

This can also help us stay motivated. As clinical psychologist and co-founder of EQNMT Brad Kallenbach says: “Having an emotionally compelling reason for building a habit is more important than trying to find the perfect strategy — the desired state guides your habitual behaviours.”

Make a plan for your plan

That said, once you’ve activated this desired state, you’ll definitely need to devise some sort of strategy — after all, as the famous saying goes, “a goal without a plan is just a wish.” Young recommends writing a “habit plan” somewhere really accessible, like in the Notes app on your phone. Then, you can make a detailed list of how you’ll incorporate your new healthy habit into your schedule and how you’ll cope when your plan inevitably goes sideways: “Ask yourself ‘what will I do when I feel the temptation to slide back on my habit? What is my contingency plan?’” he says.

For example, if you want to create the habit of eating more protein at breakfast because you want to feel more energised and fit, you should think about which groceries you’ll stock up on, how you’ll prepare them, what time you’ll eat them, and what you’ll do when you’re too frenzied to do any of the above. “Maybe you’ll research restaurants nearby ahead of time that offer nutritious options so you don’t default to the easy, unhealthy option,” he suggests. “I think that’s super important, because it’s often the little things that get people tripped up.”

The path of least resistance

To solidify the plan, you can also activate your procedural memory by taking a few minutes to visualise all the steps involved. “If you want to go to the gym more regularly, visualise putting on your trainers, packing your bag, driving to the gym, working out, coming home, and having a warm shower,” Townsend advises. “This primes the very same brain circuits needed to actually perform the habit, reducing internal resistance.”

Another way to activate our brain circuits is to implement habit stacking, which is essentially just doing the new habit at the same time you do an already-formed habit. “When you use a current habit, you already have a pathway for that action in your brain,” says Young. “By linking the new desired habit, it’s much easier to connect one pathway to another one. Then, together, they create a whole new pathway.” This allows your brain to work less hard and makes sticking to the new habit all the more effortless — it’s the path of least resistance, literally.

Get comfortable with discomfort

Speaking of resistance, here’s an inconvenient truth: Implementing a healthy habit might be more stomach-queasy than easy-peasy at first. “Starting something new can cause stress and anxiety,” Dr. Young says. “There’s a cortisol response.”

Therefore, it’s wise to remember that feeling awkward, frustrated or annoyed is totally normal — and totally temporary. The secret to getting past the unpleasantness? Embrace it. “If you’re not used to weathering discomfort, you may try to avoid it,” Dr. Young says. “But if you lean into it and breathe through it, you’ll feel a nice sense of relief when you get to the other side. The more you can do that, the less uncomfortable that physiological response will be.”

This is where the practice of mindfulness really comes in. “If you’re feeling discomfort because a new healthy habit feels foreign and it’s making you anxious, I would invite you to just feel your feet on the ground, feel the surface beneath you, and ask yourself what might you need in this moment to move past the icky feeling,” Barr advises. “When you add a pause between the stimulus and the response, it empowers you to make a choice.”

Remember the love

And, ultimately, that’s what forming healthy habits is all about: making the preferred choice as consistently as possible. That’s why it’s essential to treat yourself tenderly in the process. “There is no such thing as perfection,” Barr says. “Many people have the concern that there is a ‘right’ way to do something, and that they’re doing it wrong; that it’s too hard; it’s not happening fast enough. But it’s really about slowing down and reframing your new healthy habit as ‘new way of being.’”

Young says that this reframe is essential. “Mindfulness is rooted in the notion of being present and centred, but a big thing that people don’t talk about is that it’s also about being self-compassionate. When your mind wanders to whatever horrible future you imagine or reflects on a difficult past, training yourself to come back to the present moment allows you to make a compassionate reframe.”

It’s also where Kallenbach’s aforementioned “emotional compelling” motivation meets Cameron’s idea of shifting your mindset. As she puts it: “Is self-love or self-hate the driving force? If it’s self-love, then you want to do this new habit because you love yourself and desire the outcome this habit will give you.”

Give yourself some grace and proceed patiently. “Don’t be overzealous with it,” advises Johnson. “Being aggressive with a habit is not sustainable.” It will just lead to burnout — something that’s definitely not nourishing long-term. So, stay the course and keep Townsend’s words in mind: “The quality of our lives is defined by the quality of our habits. Most of our goals require regular effort over long periods of time, but small changes can have huge results.”

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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