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New year, same you? How to easily create new habits

Matthew Stanton

The beginning of a new year is a great time make some changes


New Year’s resolutions usually start out well enough. You stock the fridge with healthy food, put on your runners and head out for a daily workout. You’re feeling fabulous, but then life happens. Stress, life events or a tiring week can soon have us reverting back to the comfort of old habits – no matter how much they harm our health.

Working out why you want to introduce a new habit or give up an old one is the key to making long-term changes.

How to make (and keep) your New Year's resolution

According to Life Matters clinical psychologist Matthew Stanton, some people see the midnight clock turn over without any reflection at all, and just keep on doing what they’re doing.

That’s fine if you feel like you’re thriving and working well towards your goals, but most of us benefit from taking a big-picture look at our health and habits, and what we want to do or achieve during our time on the planet.

“The first thing is to take stock of your life and get a sense of yourself,” Matthew suggests.

Asking yourself what legacy you'd like to leave behind for your family or the world can help define what’s truly important to you and what your values are.

When you understand what you value, you stop engaging in things that are counter to that.

“When you understand what you value, you stop engaging in things that are counter to that,” Matthew says. “It helps you decide what you want to change or achieve going forward.”

If drinking too much alcohol too often is becoming a problem, for example, defining what’s important can provide the motivation to make some healthy changes.

A parent who defines their health and family as being important now has a greater reason to stop drinking so often, Matthew explains, because they realise their behaviour is compromising their values. Drinking to excess isn’t good for their health and it isn’t good for their family, the two things they most value.

“Understanding what you value connects with you at a deeper emotional level,” Matthew says.

Related: Is it time to rethink the amount of alcohol we drink?

What causes bad habits?

Understanding what matters most to you is a great first step, but it’s also important to figure out the root cause of any bad habits you’ve fallen into.

Unmet emotional needs or damage is what often leads to bad habits, Matthew says.

A woman who’s juggling the responsibilities of parenting, work, relationships and the needs of ageing parents, for example, can rely on unhelpful habits as a way to cope.

“Women tend to do a lot of self-sacrificing across their many roles and can’t see how they can engage in things that nurture them without guilt,” Matthew says. “They’re trying to manage feeling fragmented without the time to take care of themselves, and tend to go into non-active coping behaviours.”

Their mental and physical health can suffer as a result.

The new year is a perfect time for someone in this situation to reflect on their own emotional needs – and which new habits they can prioritise to meet them. A weekly fitness/dance/yoga class with others, an evening me-time walk, or regular meditation practice might be just the thing.

10 tips & tricks to make habits stick

Having tools and strategies up your sleeve can be a big help in helping new activities and behaviours become lasting habits.

1.    Make a plan

Some people like to make an all-or-nothing decision to make a change, while others like to start small and ease into a new way of doing things. Either way, creating a plan can make the process easier. Want to give up drinking or smoking? It may pay to avoid triggering environments for a time. Want to run a marathon? Write down weekly goals to build up your fitness.

2.    Seek out support

The emotional support of friends, family and professionals can mean the difference between failing and succeeding – don’t be afraid to lean on people for help.

3.   Visualise yourself succeeding

Remembering back to a time you were thriving, imagining yourself at your ideal weight, or visualising how you'll feel once you’ve mastered a new habit can be a powerful motivator.

4.    Make a vision board

Pinning up inspirational quotes, photos, words and numbers – and putting them somewhere
you can see them every day – can be a good reminder of why you want to reach your goals and how you’ll feel when you get there.

5.    Be consistent

“For lasting change you need consistency,” Matthew says. It’s as simple as that.

6.      Have an execution mentality

Instead of waiting until you feel like you have the energy and motivation to get off the couch, do it anyway. “You can still engage in a healthy behaviour even if you don’t feel like doing it,” Matthew says. “Look beyond the pain and how it’s going to be for you; say ‘I’m doing this and I don’t care how I feel’.” You won’t regret it.

You can still engage in a healthy behaviour even if you don’t feel like doing it.

7.    Look for opportunities

Struggling to find the time to exercise? Use the time you do have in new ways. Instead of sitting by the pool on your phone when the kids are at swimming lessons, do some laps yourself or walk up and down the stairs to tick off your workout for the day.

8.    Be realistic

“When you’re setting goals, make sure that they’re realistic and in the context of your life,” Matthew says. It may be difficult to hit the gym every day if you’re needed at home – mixing up home workouts, power walks around the block and weekend gym sessions might better set you up for success.

9.    Track your progress

Measuring how far you’ve come can be rewarding, but getting obsessive about it doesn’t
help. Instead of weighing yourself each day, doing so once a week can be a better idea. “Human beings love tracking themselves but daily tracking means they can’t always see the change and when people feel they’re plateauing, they can become unstuck,” Matthew says.

10.  Celebrate your wins

Adopting a new habit or giving up an unhealthy one isn’t easy but when you do make progress, celebrate it by doing something nice for yourself. And no, that doesn’t mean rewarding yourself with cake if you’re trying to lose weight!

Related: New Year, improved you: Health hacks to kick-start the New Year

Go easy on yourself

Taking setbacks in your stride – and getting back on track when they happen – is one of the real secrets to success if you’re committing to making a lasting change.

“It’s important to realise that progress isn’t linear,” Matthew says. “If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, improvements will show on the scales some weeks, but other weeks you may well plateau.”

Likewise, you may fall off the wagon and drink more than you should after weeks of doing well.

“Instead of a setback being an absolute reversion to a bad habit, or the whole week written off, instead try to understand what caused the relapse,” Matthew suggests. “Once you’ve changed a dysfunctional habit, the disposition to relapse is always going to be there.”

Understanding what triggers cause you to fall back into old habits can be helpful – family or work stress, for example, can throw the best intentions off course.

Support from a mental health professional can help you overcome those vulnerabilities and understand what’s behind them, Matthew says.

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Matthew Stanton

Matthew Stanton is the Clinical Director and Owner of Life Matters Psychologists. He has over 20 years of clinical experience, psychologically assessing and providing therapy to children, adolescents and adults with mild, moderate and severe mental health disorders.