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Small Habits to Change Your Life

Learn how small steps toward larger health goals can form habits that stick.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

You know when it’s time to make a change in your life. You might see outward signs, like low energy, acne breakouts, or jeans that no longer fit. Or you may just know it, intrinsically. But a huge overhaul in your lifestyle can seem insurmountable, which may make you want to throw in the towel before you even start.

Realize you can do it. Change is good, and change is possible. The trick is not to focus on the end goal, which can be overwhelming, but to work toward big change by taking small steps. And of course, celebrating each success along the way.

“Think of the children’s rhyme, “Little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the mighty land.” Sounds simple, but it actually illustrates the major impact small changes can have on your life,” says Patricia Farrell, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. “The little things do count,” she says.

Depending on your end goal, be it weight loss, a vegetarian diet, or clean living, small, positive habits not only add to success, they give your body a needed boost in a positive direction. Plus, as you adopt these habits and really focus on them in a mindful way, you may find they bring joy in and of themselves.

“Our daily habits and routines contribute to loftier personal goals and aspirations; they take us closer to our pursuit of purpose and meaning in life,” says Kate Judd, MRC, LAADC, Program Director at Shoreline Recovery Center.

Here’s how to incorporate small habits that will help move you closer to larger goals:

Stop and reflect on each habit. Focus on how you benefit from each small change you adopt along the way. If you started walking for 30 minutes to lose 10 pounds for an upcoming wedding, instead of focusing on how great you’ll look in your dress, think, “When I walk, I have more energy. I’m going to energize myself by walking a little more this week.” Or, remind yourself of all the health benefits of walking, separate from weight loss. Walking improves cardiovascular health and fitness, reduces stress, helps you relax, and sets the stage for adding other healthful habits into your routine.

Do what you love. It sounds so simple, but many of us fail to do it. When we spend time on habits we don’t enjoy, we create negative self-feedback. Think of running on a treadmill. If you hate it, you’ll dread doing it, time will slow down, and you’ll hop off in a worse mental state than you were in before your workout began. Instead, try a run or walk in the park with a good friend. You’ll immerse yourself in natural surroundings and good conversation, and the next thing you know, you’ll be done. And you’ll look forward to doing it again the next time. The best kinds of healthy habits are the ones you enjoy, and therefore, actually do.

Make good habits automatic. “The key to productivity and happiness is feeling safe in your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS),” says Patricia Ashley, PhD, LPC, psychotherapist in Boulder, Colorado and author of Letters to Freedom.  The ANS controls your bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, and breathing, unconsciously. Each small habit helps support your ANS and gives you knee-jerk positive coping tools, Dr. Ashley says. When you’re under stress, your body goes into fight or flight, your mind doesn’t think as clearly, and you’re more likely to make poor choices. Once you’ve solidified a healthful daily habit, you can more easily access that habit and make better decisions for yourself, both in and out of times of stress. Keep in mind, it takes an average of 66 days (a little over two months) for a habit to become automatic and a regular part of your day.

Stop the bad before starting the good. Taking certain things out of your routine and adding new things at the same time can be daunting. Instead, slowly eliminate lifestyle factors you know are not good for you. For example, if you down a daily diet soda, take it away for a week. Once you’ve broken that habit, replace it with something better, like a flavored seltzer or kombucha.

Tie a new habit to an old one. Let’s say you want to incorporate daily meditation to boost your immunity, support your mental health, and reap some of its many other health perks. “Start by meditating for five minutes after you drink a cup of morning coffee or tea,” Judd says. “To really connect the two, enjoy that morning cup of coffee in the same chair you plan to sit in for meditation, so you’re ready to go,” she says. 

Get rid of the martyr mindset. We tend to resist doing things we feel coerced to do. Instead of telling yourself you have to adopt a new healthy habit, like eating at least five fruits and vegetables per day, tell yourself you want to do it. Remind yourself of all the benefits you’ll gain from upping your produce intake. A diet high in fruits in vegetables will help you lose weight, lower blood pressure, and prevent some diseases, including digestive problems and certain cancer types.

Small habits are crucial to general well-being because they are the living embodiment of what we value, what we desire, and what we hope for.  As you adopt small habits on the way to larger health goals, be patient. Turning lifestyle changes into real habits that stick takes diligence and time. Also be nice to yourself. Self-compassion will help you overcome failure and get up, dust yourself off, and try again as you incorporate new habits into your life.

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