Habits: The Good, The Bad, and the How Long

Habits. Does life even exist without them? Think about it, from the time we wake up until we’re back in bed we make a series of decisions and the majority of them are on autopilot. You get the coffee perking, you brush your teeth and make the bed, let the dog out, grab the paper, and brace…I mean gather yourself for the activities ahead. Humans take a lot of pride in efficiency. We like to do things well, and if possible, with minimal effort.

Our brains are wonderful systems. They group, categorize, label, etc., etc., all in the name of self-preservation and efficiency. And, just think about it: isn’t it great to not have to agonize over the mundane every single day? Having the ability to float through a good portion of the day on what “works” is a wonderful thing…until it’s no longer working.

Behavior, or for the purposes of this chat, health behavior includes the accumulation of actions related to or impacting our health and well-being. We all have schemata, or models, for what “healthy” looks like. However, as we come to make more commitments to ourselves by prioritizing self-care, we may find that several of our habits don’t quite add up to meeting the mark. So what are we gonna do?

Build New Health Habits and Behaviors!

Just imagine getting the news that you’re in the prediabetic range and you need to clean up your diet a bit and move a little more. Sounds easy peasy, right? Don’t eat dessert every night and go for a walk a few nights a week. Sounds good, maybe even fun, and surely, it’ll take minimal effort to make the recommended changes, right? Before you know it, it’s 7:30 in the evening and you’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of Judge Judy, enjoying a glass of wine (red is healthiest, right 😉 ), and you’re so darn exhausted from the stress of the day that going on a walk sounds akin to hellfire and brimstone.   

Stop! Breathe! Be empathetic with yourself [insert hug emoji]. Building new habits is intentional behavior. It requires action and mental effort on behalf of all parties involved. Your brain likes the easy, the expected, the run of the mill. It actively builds neural connections for what we do consistently and deconstructs those that are unneeded to reliably set us up to bank on the familiar. But changing those patterns and building new connections, IS doable. But it won’t come easy.

So how long does it really take to build a new habit?

Nope.  In contrast to popular belief, twenty-one days probably won’t cut it and it really varies from person to person. Current research suggests that it can take as a little as a couple weeks for some and the better part of a year for others. So, what does that mean for you? Be gracious and give yourself at least a few months to take on and solidly embrace new behaviors. In that process, be mindful that we are more likely to respond to small changes over time, as noted in this post about Tiny Habits , and things that align with our core values and current lifestyles.

For example, if you love to bake and dessert is a part of your life, it’s highly unlikely (and unnecessary even) to stive to give up all sugar. You certainly can if you want, but there are other changes that can be made such as limiting added sugars in other capacities, baking less often, and simply sharing your creations that can yield the sought after results.  Think moderation as opposed to sugar starvation.

On the other hand, if you hate rigorous activity but need to move more, instead of registering for a marathon, a commitment to moderate exercise on most days of the week is more than enough for general heart health and to note improvement in your general health. By all means, do the marathon but, if and only if, it will make your heart sing.

All of us have something that we need to work on. And it’s human nature to strive to do things a little better over time. Altering our health behaviors can be challenging but we can handle it. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the mountain before you, bite off and chew bits at a time for sustainable and long-lasting change.  Change, indeed, is the only constant, but do what you can to guide and steer your life in the directions you’d like to take. You are an active agent in your health, your life, and your joy. Choose wisely and act accordingly.

Peace and Blessings!


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