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This is an article I wrote that appeared in the recent issue of Healthy Aging Magazine.

“I know what to do to be healthy, but I don’t do it.”  As a Clinical Nutritionist and Wellness Coach I have heard that phrase many times, and may be guilty of saying the same thing myself!.  Have you ever uttered those words about your healthy eating, exercise, or stress management habits?

Why is adopting healthy habits so hard?  That question has prompted researchers and authors to study this problem.  The good news for us is that making healthy habits permanent can become a lot easier with a little bit of knowledge about what makes behavior change successful.  

One group of psychology experts, Prochaska and DiClemente, have  found the key to successful lifestyle change to be “ the appropriately timed use of a variety of coping skills” .  Failure to use these coping skills to develop the proper mindset for change results in….well, failure.  The author of “Atomic Habits”, James Clear, further states that success depends on “deciding the type of person you want to be and proving it to yourself with small wins”. 

Who do you want to be?

If the proverb is true that “without a vision, the people perish”,  then it’s time to find a vision where you are alive and living your best healthy life.  So wave your magic wand and think about what it would look like to be a better parent, partner and professional because of your new healthy habits.  What will you be doing 6 months from now that you are not currently doing?  

Are you ready to change?

Prochaska and DiClemente realized that most health programs fail because they don’t meet people where they are in terms of their readiness to make a change.  Whether it is losing weight, quitting tobacco, or just becoming a regular exerciser, the people who succeeded worked their way from being uninterested in making a healthy change to being ready to take action.  They accomplished this by using strategies such as reading about their issue, considering the cost of NOT making changes, recognizing the impact on their family/friends, and finding as many benefits as possible for making the healthy change.   

The bottom line is to implement new habits only when motivation is high.  Confidence must also be high and that is where starting with small steps and small wins brings success.   

Are you expecting perfection?

Perfectionism is probably the biggest issue I see for coaching clients who can’t stick with their new healthy habits.  “I failed today so why even try” is perfectionist thinking that keeps us stuck.  That is why the health coach’s mantra is “progress, not perfection”.  

The best way to make progress is to formulate SMART goals that state specifically what realistic, measurable action you will take in a short period of time.   I like people to pick something that feels easy to them, which is great for confidence building.  And to the person that wants to tell me that they failed in meeting their goal, I ask them what percent they feel they met their goal and this brings realism to their results.  Anything more than 0% is at least progress in the right direction.  I also ask if they rewarded themselves when they completed their goal activity.  Even a “Yay, me” is a reward that will keep the habit going.  

Have you mastered your environment?

Forty to ninety percent of what we do is automatic, habitual.  The ultimate purpose of habits is to let the brain spend less time and energy on solving the problems of life.  Have you ever driven to work and not even remembered how you got there?  That is your brain on autopilot.  When we focus in and become aware of a habit, then we can gain control.  

Our environment contains many triggers that result in us responding without even thinking about it.  First comes the cue, which then starts up a craving that promises a change in our current state, followed by a response/action, and finally reward (satisfaction and relief from the craving).  What happens when you see a commercial for chocolate?  Do you have an irresistible craving to run off to the kitchen to satisfy the craving that the chocolate cue created? 

To start a healthy habit it is helpful to make an obvious cue.  For example, some people tell me that they leave their workout clothes at the front door as a cue that they should immediately exercise after work.  It also helps to make the new habit attractive.  For instance, will watching a favorite program make your time on the treadmill more fun?  It also helps to make the new habit easy as those who have brought their treadmill in from the garage can attest.  And finally comes the reward.  

To stop a bad habit is just the opposite.  Make the cue invisible (hide that candy), make it unattractive (“My stomach hurts when I eat candy”), make it difficult (Don’t keep candy in the house), and make it unsatisfying (“I’m not the person I want to be when I eat candy”).  

It may seem like some people possess great willpower, but research shows that the people most (600)  successful at losing bad habits actually were best at avoiding situations (cues) that required willpower or self-control.  Personally, I like to talk about WANT power, which brings us back to developing motivation and knowing the person you want to be.  With practice we can improve at using our rational brain to make decisions that fit what we really want for ourselves.  

Keep it up

Speaking of practice, a habit is a behavior that has been repeated enough times to become automatic.  James Clear warns that you can “miss once, but never miss twice as that is the beginning of a new habit”.  Another word of warning is that bad habits never go away and the old cues can trigger the same old behavior.  One must always be alert and aware of the old habit popping up.  

Now you know some strategies for ‘knowing what to do AND doing it’.  What new habit will you work on?  Congratulations on taking one step toward becoming the person you want to be!

Abby Kurth, M.S. Nutrition, Clinical Nutritionist + Wellness Coach is the author of “Sick and Tired, to Healthy and Inspired: 9 Steps to Prevent Lifestyle Related Diseases”, which is a workbook that provides easy steps to gain motivation, improve mindset for change and develop habits for healthy eating, regular activity, stress management, and more.  Available on Amazon or at