The arrival of fall means swapping swimsuits for sweaters and getting back into a routine. Whether you want to start going to bed earlier or pack a healthy lunch each day, now’s the perfect time to press the reset button and create those healthy habits (much better than waiting until January, right?!)
But as anyone who’s ever made a New Year’s resolution knows, making healthy changes that last is easier said than done. The reason? “Healthy habits go against our caveman brain, which is hard-wired to avoid change, seek pleasure, and do things that take the least amount of effort,” says Dayna Lee-Baggley, Ph.D., a registered clinical psychologist and author of Healthy Habits Suck.
The good news is, it’s possible to override those caveman instincts by making some simple tweaks to your mindset. Here’s how to retrain your brain so you can make healthy changes that stick this season.
The Strategy: Look for long-term motivators
“Most people use some kind of short-term distress, like bad health news or pants that no longer fit, to motivate healthy changes,” says Lee-Baggley. “The problem is, eventually that distress lessens and you lose the motivation that got you started.” Rather than rely on short-term inspiration, focus on long-term motivators that will encourage you over time.
Try it: If your goal is to lose weight this fall, think about how doing so will benefit you down the road (i.e. you’ll live longer or be better able to run around with your kids). Focusing on the lasting benefit will make you more likely to stick to the habit.
The Strategy: Link healthy habits to your values
What’s really important to you? What kind of person do you want to be? “When you link a healthy habit to your values, like being a more patient parent or becoming a top-performing employee, you’re likely to stick with it because that kind of personal value doesn’t go away,” explains Lee-Baggley.
Try It: Let’s say your goal is to start meditating daily. Instead of doing it because you heard “it’s good for you,” make it part of your routine because it will help with something that matters to you—like being able to focus more at work or being more present with your children.
The Strategy: Set smaller goals
“A big mistake people make is setting goals that are too big,” says Lee-Baggley. For example: Exercising every day or going to bed at 10pm every night. Instead, she suggests setting goals you’re 90 percent sure you can achieve. “You’re more likely to succeed because you picked something that’s doable,” she explains. “And when we succeed, we want to keep going. It’s inherently reinforcing.”
Try It: Instead of telling yourself you’ll bring your lunch to work every day, aim to pack it two or three days a week. That way, you’re more likely to achieve your goal and keep making those healthy grain bowls.
The Strategy: Focus on what you can do
When it comes to forming healthy habits, people tend to set “don’t do” goals like “I’m not going to eat carbs.” The problem is, this leads to the “thought suppression effect” where you actually think about the thing you’re not supposed to more, which often leads you to do that thing, says Lee-Baggley.
Try it: If your goal is to stop drinking sugary drinks like soda, think about what you could do instead. Maybe the healthy habit you employ is to drink a glass of water before you allow yourself a coke (chances are, you may not even want the coke after you’ve had water). “When you do this, healthy behaviors start to crowd out the unhealthy ones,” says Lee-Baggley. “It also decreases your sense of deprivation, which ultimately will help you be more successful.”