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Eating The Elephant: Forming Healthy Habits To Nail Big Goals

When we’re talking about achieving goals, whether they’re large or small – completing an Ironman vs losing five kilograms, for example – what we really should be thinking about are habits; the daily behaviours that, when we perform them consistently, can help us reach the goals we set.

A habit may be defined as “automated or routinised behaviour which is repeated regular and doesn’t rely on conscious input or willpower” – like brushing your teeth, making a cup of coffee at 8am, or feeding the cat. These are things you do without thinking about them. Habits are powerful because they are part of a reliable, continuous process that holds up even when there are distractions or competing priorities, or you’re just busy or tired. And they are important because we tend to overestimate our ability to exercise self-control and rely on motivation to achieve goals. Habits can persist even when motivation wanes.

And the keyword here is ‘process’: think less about the outcome, or goal, than about the process-driven set of actions you need to take – habits you need to form – to achieve the outcome. Remember that getting to your goal might not just be about creating new habits but letting go of ones that don’t feed the process.

If your goal is to get better quality sleep, you may need to let go of behaviours like scrolling on your phone in bed, drinking more than one glass of wine in the evening, and eating dinner at 8pm. The new habits you form might include a herbal tea or 10 minutes of meditation at bedtime, or a dose of melatonin. Focus on establishing a nightly process, or routine, and take it one night at a time until it’s as natural as brushing your teeth.

Often in discussion of healthy habits a couple of bigger words come up – willpower and self-discipline. We tend to confuse the definition of these words and how each plays into forming and maintaining habits that can lead to achieving our goals. We’ve all said, or heard someone say, “I can do it – I just need more willpower.”

But we might have the wrong end of the stick. One definition of willpower is “a rather sudden and momentary burst of focused energy,” and conversely, self-discipline has been defined as “structured, well thought out, and consistent. . . the power of self-discipline dwarfs that of willpower.”

In other words, if you’ve set a weight loss goal, willpower will help you forgo the extra treat or go for an after-dinner walk once, but self-discipline is what will help you do those things consistently, cementing habits that will lead you to your goal and help you maintain it when you get there.

If you’ve ever earned a qualification – or perhaps that’s a goal – think of willpower as like cramming for the exam the night before, where self-discipline is scheduling and sticking to consistent study time throughout the semester. Only one of those behaviours can be relied upon to get you across the finish line, and set you up with internal tools and practices that you can apply in all other areas of your life.

But don’t take my word for it – do what some of the toughest military people do when faced with a big goal. In an article for Forbes outlining nine ways to cultivate “extreme self-discipline”, the author Brent Gleeson named step five as creating new habits and rituals, and suggested that to avoid feeling overwhelmed or daunted, simplify the process – don’t try to change everything at once: “Break your goal into small doable steps . . . focus on doing one thing consistently”. In this respect, perhaps we could all have something in common with the Navy SEAL teams, masters of resilience and self-discipline. Gleeson notes they like to say, “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.”

If you’re wondering about the easiest way to apply this framework to your life, a final piece of advice I’d like to pass on is to examine what’s already there. Tara Parker-Pope wrote for The New York Times that you should stack your habits, adding the healthy habit in with one that you already reliably have. For example, the time it takes for the kettle to boil for your morning cuppa is time enough to practise diaphragmatic breathing. Engage with this tiny exercise consistently to make it habitual, and the benefits of this will compound.

So, how will you begin?

By Keren Cook, NatureBee

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