Get Back on the Wellness Wagon
Kicking off a new healthy routine or picking an old one back up takes more than resolve. You also need this step-by-step plan.
Who among us has not vowed that, this year, visible abs are happening? That only lean proteins, fresh vegetables and whole grains will land on our plates? That eight hours of sleep will totally be the norm?
Then … February.
"Once that initial glow of following a wellness routine has diminished and reality sets in, it starts to feel like, 'Well, I don't need to do this' or 'I'll do it tomorrow', and the routine fizzles", says Sasha Heinz, PhD, a developmental psychologist and mindset coach who specialises in goal-setting and behaviour change. Researchers at the University of Scranton actually quantified this phenomenon in a landmark study of 200 people making New Year's resolutions: Only 19 percent actually stuck to their positive changes for at least two years. That's because most people did little to reinforce and support their new goals, so their good intentions fell by the wayside.
Whether you're in that 81 percent or your wellness routine recently went MIA, taking these steps can put you in a full-on sprint towards any healthy habit.
"Once that initial glow of following a wellness routine has diminished and reality sets in, it starts to feel like, 'Well, I don't need to do this' or 'I'll do it tomorrow', and the routine fizzles".
PhD, Developmental Psychologist
- Pinpoint what's driving you.
Nebulous goals do not work, says Nick Wignall, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the host of "Minds&Mics", a mental health and performance podcast. "Yes, eating healthier, getting in shape and improving your sleep are really good things to do", he says. "The problem is they're conceptual and vague; they don't have much motivating pull".
For a routine to really grab you, says Wignall, you need to get super-specific about why it matters. To do that, start asking questions. For example, if you want to get stronger, ask yourself why that's important to you. What immediate and long-term benefits will you get? How will your life look different if you stick to a strength-training routine? Answering these why, what and how queries takes you from "I want to be stronger" to "I want to lift weights because it makes me feel powerful and confident, and like I can tackle everyday challenges more easily". Now that's a goal with some gravity.
- Get—and stay—fired up.
A simple, effective way to feel compelled to follow through: Put a calendar on your desk or wall, and for each day you stick to your healthy routine—eating a vegetable with every meal, getting in bed by 10pm—draw a red X or any colour-symbol combo that speaks to you. Wignall calls this the big red X strategy (BRXS), and it has a trifecta of payoffs.
First, BRXS forces your routine front and centre. Now you have a clear, constant reminder, says Wignall. Second, making that X is rewarding, and that's a feeling you'll work to get again and again. "Immediacy matters much more than magnitude for a reward", says Wignall. "Immediately getting to use your big red marker to cross off a day is much more rewarding than saying, 'If I do 30 days of exercise, then I'm going to the spa'. That's so far off that it doesn't do anything for your brain".
Finally, seeing all of those beautiful red X's in a row reinforces all the awesome stuff you've done and makes you more likely to keep it up, says Wignall.
- Evolve how you talk to yourself.
When it comes to making changes, we often hear a voice in our head telling us how to feel, and it tends to take one of two tones. The first is "the drill sergeant", the tough, burly old guy who yells at recruits in war movies, says Wignall. The second is "the shamer", adds Heinz. This is the voice saying that you must get fit or eat better because otherwise you'll be unacceptable or unworthy.
While we may think these harsh, judgemental tones are how we force ourselves to psych up and stay on track, both are destructive. "When you are really hard on yourself, you create excess negative emotion, which just provides more friction between you and your goal", says Wignall. "Remove that burden, and it's amazing how much energy you can have to move towards what you want".
To find out how you talk to yourself, try saying aloud the wellness goal you're trying to hit. Now, listen to how the voice in your head instantly reacts. Is it telling you, "Yep, you've got this"? Or is it yelling and dictating, like the sergeant, or making you feel bad about yourself, like the shamer?
If the answer is one of the latter, reframe your self-talk to be kind, encouraging or even neutral. This can be as simple as replacing words like "must", "need" and "should" with more positive verbs like "can", "want" and "will". Then, says Wignall, see what happens next. "When, inevitably, you end up doing just fine, if not better, your brain will register that there's no benefit to putting yourself down", he says.
- Home in on the good stuff.
Say you're trying to run regularly. Sure, it might suck to set your alarm for sunrise—but it might also feel amazing each time you complete a workout. Heinz says to obsess over that second part. "Actively be attending to upsides", she says, and when your brain drifts to the ugh moments in your routine, purposely pull it back to the benefits. Yes, going to bed early is difficult, but you always feel refreshed in the morning. Yes, doing a warm-up takes time, but you haven't been injured in months. Still find yourself dwelling on the hard parts? Heinz recommends considering how much tougher life would be if you were blowing off your goal. This outlook can lead you to a "radical truth", she says: that these actions add up to a better quality of life.
Consistently focusing on these positives helps you see exactly what your healthy change is doing for you, says Heinz, and this can make you more pumped to keep the momentum going.
- Embrace imperfection.
The only people who don't fall off the wagon of a routine, says Wignall, are the ones who are too afraid to ever get on.
To prepare for the inevitable bumps in your journey, Wignall suggests following this go-to mantra from motivation expert James Clear: Never miss twice. In other words, if you forgot to stretch or stayed up half the night watching TV, tell yourself it won't happen again. "This urges ambition and working hard to keep up your routine", explains Wignall, "but it also includes self-compassion, an understanding that you can and will miss once in a while". There's a trick to sticking to this mantra without falling back on the drill sergeant or shamer voice, says Wignall. When a slip-up happens, treat yourself like you would a good friend. "You would probably acknowledge the miss but be largely encouraging and supportive—certainly not judgemental and critical", he says. Adopting this kind of attitude makes it way easier to shake off the dust of a fall and hop right back on the ride again.
What all of these tips have in common is they require making minor tweaks. But their collective payoff is major: You go from swearing this is the year you're going to make healthy happen to actually living it.
Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Davide Bonazzi