It's that time of year again, the festive season is over and everyone's attention is focused on their goals for the year ahead.
New Year's resolutions are a great way to break out of a rut and motivate yourself to make positive changes in your life. You may have written a two-page list of goals but just remember that changing habits takes work and determination. After all, how many times have we decided to give up chocolate or that daily muffin, only to fall at the first hurdle and then find ourselves on a guilt trip?
Rather than jump headfirst into making changes in 2016, it can be useful to understand the psychology of habit. Habits are formed through repetition. You're likely acting on autopilot in the morning when you brush your teeth or have a shower, but remember how long it takes to reinforce these practices in children.
Other habits, such as smoking, overeating or drinking alcohol, trigger our brain's reward centre to release dopamine, a natural feel-good chemical. Each time you repeat the habit you get a hit of dopamine, reinforcing the desire to keep doing it. When you stop the habit, you get dopamine cravings, making it harder to break the cycle. This is why it can be challenging and takes motivation to kick certain habits.
The popular 'beat your habit in 21 days" mantra doesn't appear to have any real grounding in science. The general rule is that it takes four to six weeks, sometimes longer, to convert new practices into a part of our daily routine but remember we're all different.
Setting positive goals for the new year is a fantastic way to commit to living a healthier and happier life, and they're more effective if you take a slow and steady approach, says Dr Mandy Deeks, Jean Hailes psychologist. 'Be kind to yourself as you set your goals," says Dr Deeks. 'Think about starting a few in the first few months of the year and then perhaps roll out another few in the second half of the year. Don't be hard on yourself if you stumble, no one is perfect. Accept that we all make mistakes and stay focused on continuing with your good work."
There are various ways to help you stay motivated and on track:
Set some achievable, easy goals and reward yourself when you reach them
Quick and easy wins will make you feel good about yourself and encourage you to stay focused on the big picture. Simple resolutions such as using the stairs instead of the lift, or drinking an extra glass of water each day are easy to do. Reward yourself with a healthy treat or time out when you reach a simple goal.
Find your happy zone
Create a music list of your favourite tunes. Listening to music you love will help distract you and boost your mood. Dancing, laughing and exercise trigger the release of endorphins, these feel-good hormones help you beat cravings and keep your mood elevated.
Enrol positive people to support you
Positive, optimistic friends or co-workers can help you stay happy and encourage you not to return to old habits.
Avoid situations or people that trigger your old habits
Situations such as going to your local bar, or having a coffee with a colleague can trigger cravings for old habits, you may find you want a cigarette the moment you have a coffee or a beer. Change your routine so you don't put yourself in a situation which may weaken your resolve. Take a walk while having a meeting, for instance, instead of sitting at a café.
Write it down or monitor
Keeping a food or exercise diary helps keep you moving forward. Making healthy changes to your diet or physical fitness are generally more successful if you write down or record what you eat and do. You can quickly see patterns in less-healthy choices and a record helps you stay accountable, even if it's just to yourself.
Read more about how to set goals and stick to an exercise plan on the Jean Hailes website.
Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women's Health
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