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Change – it’s just getting into a good habit


Change – it’s just getting into a good habit

If your New Year resolutions have already gone out the window, take some solace from knowing that you are far from alone. KAILAS ROBERTS explains why, generally, less than one in 10 of us manage to stick to big plans.

Why are our new year resolution success rates so woeful? Well, I suspect one key issue is that resolutions generally involve change and effort, and these are things that humans do not like.

Our very physiology is designed to keep doing the same thing – it likes automation, and it pushes back against things that force us out of our routine.

It likes the familiar and the predictable; anything else carries with it the inherent threat of the unknown.

We are also hard-wired to conserve energy and our bodies become more efficient – expend less energy – once they have done the same thing many times. It makes sense then that we are more inclined to stick with the same old approach to life.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If you have led a life full of healthful behaviours, then it will be easier for you to stick with them rather than develop harmful behaviours.

The converse is also true of course, and it can take some time to undo behaviours that do not serve us well.

Let’s return to my usual topic, brain health, for an example. I have written (hopefully not ad nauseam yet) about the dangers of a poor diet. It is likely to be inflammatory and may adversely affect our metabolic and vascular health.

We all know this, but it can be difficult to give up unhealthy food if it’s been a staple of our diet for a long time.

This isn’t helped of course by the fact that key elements of these foods – fat, sugar and salt – taste so good.

Exercise is another example. If you’ve never really taken it seriously, it can be hard to get going.

Either way, it requires effort to make healthful changes in your life.

Add to this the fact that the perceived benefits – at least as far as dementia is concerned – are potentially decades away, and it is doubly problematic.

We are naturally inclined to prioritise the immediate over the future, a phenomenon known as delay discounting.

So, what’s the answer? I personally think a critical ingredient of success is habit.

Once a behaviour or approach to life becomes habitual, it becomes much harder to shake. Our bodies (and brains) have adapted to this new routine and would prefer not to change back.

Habits are less effort. Once consolidated, they just happen automatically, and we don’t have to waste precious energy thinking about them.

Here are five tips for developing good habits:

  1. Change your environment to provide the right signals. For example, don’t have unhealthy food within easy reach, or keep your gym clothes next to your bed so there’s no effort putting them on in the morning.
  2. Do things incrementally. Keep goals small and manageable and build on them.
  3. Reward yourself as you progress. We all appreciate a little self-love.
  4. Make yourself accountable. Have someone you care about know what you are doing.
  5. Setting specific goals can be helpful. For example, aim to be walking 5kms a day within two months. Recording your progress can also be very motivating.

In truth, there are countless strategies you can employ to develop enduring healthy habits. There may be a little effort involved in the beginning, but the pay-off is potentially huge.

Kailas Roberts is a psychogeriatrician and author of Mind your brain The Essential Australian Guide to Dementia now available at all good bookstores and online.
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