A fresh start on the horizon is the perfect time to shed some bad habits and instill better ones in their place. However, it’s not always easy to see them through to success. Neuroscientist and author of The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life, Dr Tara Swart, explains how to make sure this year your resolutions hold firm.
Never start on a Monday
“It’s natural to pick a Monday but this could be procrastination in disguise. Don’t put off making changes now,” says Dr Swart. Research shows that Thursday is the optimum day to start a new habit as it’s usually the quietest day at work – without the deadlines, meetings and appointments that feature earlier on in the week – and so you have more time to focus on yourself.
Don’t try to do it all at once
Be realistic in your expectations. “Our brains cannot take on too much change at once,” says Dr Swart. “It’s easier to make changes incrementally; taking on fewer habits at a time is more sustainable.” Planning on cutting out caffeine? Try going caffeine-free one or two days a week, then slowly roll it out until you’re not drinking it at all. And don’t try quitting caffeine, sugar and dairy all at once – eliminate one every couple of months instead.
Focus on what you can have
The urge to avoid depriving ourselves of something is more than twice as strong as the conviction to cut something out in the first place, says Dr Swart. “Our brains are wired to avoid loss,” she explains. “You need to reframe it in your mind so that you are focusing on the endless list of things you can have rather than the one thing you can’t.” Obsessing over that piece of cake you’re avoiding is only going to make you want it more, and it’s not easy to stop thinking about what we shouldn’t have. Instead, think of all the delicious things you can enjoy in its place.
Don’t expect to get it right first time
No one is perfect, so why waste our time aiming for perfection? “When we inevitably fail to reach perfection, we convince ourselves that we should just give up,” says Dr Swart. “The stress of failure is likely unhealthier for us than the bad habit we’re trying to break.” The message here is: if you stumble, don’t beat yourself up. So what if you ate dessert last night when you’re attempting to cut out sugar? That was yesterday and established habits can take some time to break, so pick yourself up and start over straightaway.
Visualization is a fantastic tool for establishing new habits. Starting a new exercise regime? Keep a picture in view of a time when you were fitter, stronger and healthier. If you don’t have a picture of yourself, use one of someone who embodies the lifestyle you want to achieve. “Our brain filters out all the information we are bombarded with, so if we have a strong visual image of what we want to achieve, we are more likely to take notice of it,” explains Dr Swart. “A good technique is to connect visualization to a physical action.” So when you next see something relating to your goal (like the photograph), “click your fingers so that you send a double message – both visual and physical – to your brain. It will prompt you to seize any opportunity that could potentially help you realize your goal,” she says.
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