Summer holidays are a great time to zoom out from your everyday life and assess your quality of life. Is it what you want it to be? On a scale of 1-10, how would you score your quality of life, your health?

Why habits matter for your health & How to make habits stick

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Prompted by this time to reflect, many of us then use September as a month to start something new that will improve our quality of life. It’s a bit like New Year’s in that respect. A study from 2016 published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that roughly 55% of New Year’s resolutions were health-related. Research also shows that only 8% manage to follow through and embed the new habit or learning.

We all know that eating more healthily, doing more exercise and stressing less, is good for our health. So why is it so hard? What’s the secret ingredient?

The answer is: Habits!

Why habits are important

Habits form a huge part of our everyday. A study found that habits account 40% of our daily activities. Whether it’s washing your hands, brushing your teeth or even which side of the bed you sleep on, habits are involved.  

Habits are a way of automating a behaviour. Imagine how much time and energy it would consume thinking through everything from scratch every single day! With habits, we can run on auto-pilot, saving precious energy.    

Think of Steve Jobs’ signature black top and jeans. By wearing the same clothes every day, he saved both time and thinking energy. Another example is always leaving your keys in the same place, saving time and energy every morning, not stressing out about where you left them.

Because habits play such a big role, they directly affect your ability to achieve and maintain your health goals and feel better (or not as the case may be).

Which habits are harmful to health?

If you habitually eat mostly rainbow-coloured food, are physically active most days, spend time in nature and regularly connect with friends and family, chances are your health and quality of life are reasonably good.   

If, however, you’re mostly eating processed food, get little exercise, go for days without connecting with others, smoke and drink too much, chances are these habits have a detrimental impact on your health. But you know that, right? And we’ll talk about how to address that later. First, we want to draw your attention to another kind of habits that are detrimental to your health. 

Any habit that keeps you in stress for more than a short time (like a run or a presentation) is potentially harmful to your health. This kind of habit is costing you energy (stress is incredibly energy-intensive, think of it as a high-interest-overdraft) and reduces your body’s ability to do maintenance e.g. kidney function and repair work like healing that bruise you got the other day (more in this blog).

Health inhibiting habits

Here are some (very) common examples of habits that inhibit your health because of the low-level chronic stress they create:

  • Saying yes to something when you’ve not got the time nor inclination to do it 
  • Expecting yourself to do three hours worth of activities in 30 minutes
  • Not asking for help when you need it 

When we work with people struggling with fatigue, we often discover that these types of health inhibiting habits take a far greater toll on people’s health than they ever realised. 

Sherlocking can help you figure out why you have certain unhelpful habits in the first place.
Sherlocking can help you figure out why you have certain unhelpful habits in the first place

Harmful habits make our inner critics more vocal

However, the harmful effects of health inhibiting habits don’t just impact us on a physical level. Take, for example, people who eat too much sugar; they know their habit is having an impact on their health. As a result, their inner critic is often more vocal, giving them a hard time for having this habit. So not only do they have the harmful effect of the habit itself, but also the harmful effect of the self-talk – a double whammy!

This kind of self-talk means you are being critical, rather than curious. So, you might be thinking, I need to stop eating so much sugar, it’s bad for my health, but I can’t. I’m useless. This then stops you in your tracks and doesn’t give you an insight into what’s actually going on. A more helpful approach is to get curious about the reasons why you eat so much sugar. Get your sherlock on and look for the clues that will lead you to what’s genuinely most helpful to you. 

Get your Sherlock on

So let’s get curious about your sugar intake. It could be because you are overwhelmed at work and feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day. Eating something sweet provides you with some short-term energy and a temporary, chemical feel-good boost. But this doesn’t address the underlying issue. The gift of overwhelm is to let you know that you’ve cracked your Time – Tasks – Resources triangle (a concept we introduced in this blog).  Figuring out how to address the underlying reason for the overwhelm is a more helpful approach than simply alleviating it short term. 

When we are critical about ourselves, we usually end up with no change and, therefore, no progress. By getting curious and asking “is it helpful?” and using the ABC First Aid for Feelings technique (or Awareness – Breath and body – Choice), you sherlock more helpful alternatives. Check out the free meditation called: Understanding the gift of overwhelm.

So instead of reaching for your sugar of choice, you might instead decide to say no to delivering a task by tomorrow and negotiate that you’ll deliver it in three days time.

Is sugar the most helpful thing to reach for? What could be more helpful?
Is sugar the most helpful thing to reach for? What could be more helpful?

Five hacks to help break unhelpful habits and help new habits stick

1. Choose one habit you want to change to be more helpful

Try to change too many things at once and you end up changing nothing. Change things one at a time and your chance of success are greatly increased. When you successfully change something, it builds your change-making skills and strengths meaning that subsequent changes become easier. Start small and then work up to a bigger change.  

2. What does this habit do for you?

All habits were formed for a reason. They served a purpose which is either to make our lives easier or help us feel better, even if only for a moment. The thing is, the habit is not not delivering the benefit anymore and it’s likely that you can look after that purpose or reason with a healthier habit.

3. How does this habit affect you physically, mentally and socially?

By identifying how the habit impacts you across the three dimensions of physical, mental and social health, you develop the understanding of the impact it’s having on you. What’s the true cost of this habit on you and your health?

4. What might be a more helpful habit to have?

Now that you’ve got this information, get curious about how you can look after this need or purpose in a more helpful way. Get ideas from people around you. Experiment with what brings you joy or satisfaction, this means you’re more likely to follow through. If you don’t like weightlifting, try rowing instead. See what works.

5. Why bother with this new habit?

This comes down to your reason for making this change. What is it that you’d like to achieve or experience as a result of this new habit? Why bother putting in effort to make this change? Changing something because it’s ‘good for you’ means you’re using willpower to force yourself. This rarely works. It’s much more effective to sherlock what’s in it for you.

These five hacks together create a powerful force to move your new habit forward and make it stick. You can learn more about how to build habits that last here and why you might struggle to find the time to do so here.  

The first wealth is health – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our invitation to you…

Our invitation to you today is to think of one unhelpful habit you’ve got (and yes, we’ve all got at least one). Then, get curious about this habit using the five hacks we’ve talked about. Then check to see if there’s been an increase your ‘quality of life’ score that you did at the beginning of this blog.

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor