We’re coming up to the time of year when many people will overindulge during the festive holiday and then make ambitious resolutions about all the healthy behaviours they are going to undertake in the new year. Gym memberships tend to explode in January, but it is usually quiet again a couple of months later. The problem is we all have some unhealthy habits and replacing them with healthier habits is often very difficult.
A habit is by definition – “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up”. This is true for bad habits as well as good! However, developing a new habit requires thought and planned behaviour. So, what is going to help us to do this if we want to build some new healthy habits for the year ahead?
A model that I think helps here is the Health Action Process Approach (HAPA). This emphasises the importance of both initial motivation and the activity required to maintain your efforts when the going gets tough. Your motivation is affected by how effective you think you are going to be in performing the activity associated with your desired new habit, what outcomes you expect to achieve and how risky you think the activity is. For example, if you decide you want to start work early three times a week, you will be influenced by how good you think you are at getting out of bed, how you think you will feel as a result of being early for work, and whether you think doing this will be a risky activity. These factors impact how likely it is you will start on the path that you hope will become habitual, but as many people find – this is the easy bit! The hard part is sustaining the new behaviour.
The HAPA model suggests that what becomes important is a combination of action planning and coping with setbacks. Action planning means you must have a structured approach to undertaking your desired new activity regularly. That means finding a time and place that will work in a specific but realistic way. Scheduling your activity and sticking to your plan as closely as possible. This is very important in the early stages of trying to acquire a new habit. Later, when the behaviour is fully ingrained, you will usually find a way of doing it without the need for such careful or detailed planning.
It is also important to plan for setbacks. This may sound somewhat strange as you don’t know what setbacks you are going to experience. However, it would be very unusual to smoothly develop a new habit without experiencing some setbacks along the way. You may, for example, build a habit of regularly exercising during your lunch break, convince a colleague or someone you live with to join you, only for them to decide they don’t want to continue after a couple of sessions. What additional support could you draw on to help you to continue this exercise?
Positively reinforcing success along the way is also likely to help to maintain behaviour until it becomes habitual. Obviously, the type of reward you choose should be consistent with the target habit. So perhaps, not a large slice of cake every time you do some exercise at lunch! Interestingly the fear of losing something that matters to you can also reinforce and sustain a change in behaviour. For example, if you believe you will incur a financial penalty if you do not improve your health this can be a motivator.
When you are trying to change your behaviour then you will need to learn how to manage negative, or mischievous, self-talk. The psychiatrist Steve Peters talks about our inner chimp – the part of us that works emotionally, wants immediate gratification, no pain, and likes to create trouble for our rational mind! I’ve heard him give an example where you may be trying to build a habit of running regularly. You open the blinds in the morning, look out and there is a steady drizzle. Your chimp says, “let’s not bother, we can run twice as far tomorrow…” Going with this way of thinking is a recipe for staying in your comfort zone and not doing what you need to do for a successful behavioural change. As Peters highlights, you don’t get rid of the chimp, you learn to manage them.
In sum, what does psychology suggest is important for establishing a new healthy habit?
Gordon is a very experienced occupational psychologist (Chartered and Registered) and works on a freelance basis (GT Work Psychology). Gordon has broad cross-sector and multi-level experience. He has worked extensively with the Police Service, in Defence, with the NHS, in Financial Services and with science and engineering companies, as well as a wide range of other businesses.
Gordon’s work is often focused on helping managers and leaders maximise the wellbeing, psychological resilience and performance of their teams. As well as his Masters level qualification in occupational psychology he has an MBA from Warwick Business School. He has recently co-authored a book with Professor Sir Cary Cooper on mid-level role pressures and development (The Outstanding Middle Manager).
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