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Ready to make a healthy change? Here are 5 tricks to stay on track.
by Daniel Dinenberg
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Getting more sleep. Exercising regularly. Cutting back on alcohol. Most of us have at least one thing we want to start (or stop) doing for our health, even if, despite our best efforts, we can’t seem to make it happen. And it’s no wonder — breaking a bad habit or adopting a healthy one is notoriously difficult. Doing so requires our brain to lay down new neural pathways rather than continuing down those old, well-trodden ones.

Yet drawing on basic principles of behavioral psychology, the study of the connection between our minds and our actions, it’s possible to effectively alter your behavior — and improve your overall well-being. While making a positive behavior change stick takes patience and time, here are five tips to get you started and help you stay on track.

Define the change you want to make as a SMART goal.

Or, if you’ve ever set specific, quarterly goals at work, you probably already know something about SMART goals (whether you’re familiar with the term or not). The acronym, coined in the ’80s by the business consultant George T. Doran, refers to a simple framework for defining and managing objectives. And it happens to work really well for changing any behavior — including those related to health. A SMART goal is:

  • S: Specific. The more specific the better. Try reframing broader, more vague goals in more precise terms.
  • M: Measurable. Easy to quantify in a way that allows you to check progress along the way. Check-ins help motivate you to keep going, too.
  • A: Achievable. Think baby steps. When you’re successful with the smallest, attainable tasks, you’ll tend to have more success with an overarching change.
  • R: Relevant. It helps to clearly identify what results you can realistically achieve given the resources available to you at the outset.
  • T: Time-bound. People tend to be much more successful in achieving goals with a timeframe attached. Lay out an end date so you know not just what you want to accomplish, but also by when.

Say you’ve been skimping on sleep, and you want to change that behavior (since we all know how important rest is for your overall health!) “Get more sleep” might be your broad goal — and it’s a great jumping off point — but it may not be the SMART way to do it. The SMART version might be: “Go to bed 15 minutes earlier every day for one week.” It ticks all the boxes: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound.

Find your intrinsic motivation.

In addition to defining what your goal is, it’s also helpful to identify why you’re setting it. For instance, someone diagnosed with prediabetes might set a goal to lose weight. As a physician, I do a lot of testing and measuring. I might say, “Let’s get your A1C reading [a measurement of blood sugar levels used to diagnose diabetes] lower.” That type of technical, data-driven goal probably won’t resonate with the average person. Returning to the idea of setting a SMART goal, try making it more specific by adding the why: “I want to lose weight because it’s healthier for my cardiovascular system.”

Which is better, but perhaps still a little too vague to stick. I encourage patients to go even deeper, beyond what we both know is healthy, to what motivates them. A more concrete why, e.g. “I want to lose weight because I’m running a half marathon this July,” is going to be a much better motivator. Adding an emotional component — you want to lose weight because hiking Kilimanjaro with your partner is your lifelong goal — can be even more effective.

Practice healthy self-talk.

Inherent in this process of changing behavior is that old adage, “Two steps forward, one step back.” Trite as it sounds, moving forward, then backward, then forward — that’s how this all works. So on those days you do take a step back, the last thing you want to do is tell yourself you blew it.

Instead, imagine you’re your best friend. If you were giving your best friend advice, you’d say something like, “Oh, you had one bad day? That’s cool! Stick with it!” rather than letting negative self-talk (“Ugh! There I go again. I’m terrible.”) slip in. The latter could trigger an unhealthy cycle, where you, feeling not-so-great about yourself, fall right back into that behavior you were trying to change in the first place.

Partner up.

In that same way, enlisting an accountability partner — a friend, family member, partner, or even your doctor — who you check in with regularly on your progress really helps. Remember, we tend to do things for other people really well, often much better than we’d do for ourselves. That means a quick “How’s it going?” call, email, or text from your partner once a week can do wonders to keep you committed.

Celebrate wins.

Some studies suggest it takes 66 days on average for an action to become a habit. Bottom line is — here’s another old adage — it won’t happen overnight. It takes time. One thing you can do to stay motivated is pat yourself on the back for what you do accomplish along the way. Research has shown that positive reinforcement works, especially to activate a new behavior. So if you’d set a goal to lose 20 pounds by a certain date, and instead you lose 16, don’t shrug it off as a miss. Celebrate what you did achieve. Book a spa treatment, take yourself out to lunch, spend a day enjoying nature — whatever feels right to you. Then regroup, keep going, and hit that next-level goal.