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5 Reasons We Fail When Creating Healthier Habits

Why do we fall short of those life-changing goals? An expert answers—and shares actionable steps that will help you succeed.

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healthier habits

Do you want this year to be the year you actually achieve better and healthier habits?

“It’s the ultimate personal challenge,” says Leigh Stringer, author of The Healthy Workplace. “It takes guts and determination to make and keep those life-changing commitments in our lives, but it can be done.” Stringer offers up 5 major reasons we fail and how to stay on track:

Get Serious: We need a strong reason to overcome our natural lack of motivation.

Becoming healthier is a really good idea. But to get us to change our behavior—to actually change the way we eat, move, sleep and manage our stress on an ongoing basis—requires a really powerful motivator. We need a reason that makes it “absolutely essential” for us to do something differently, and think of ourselves differently. Our lame excuses need to be trumped by a greater calling. We need a real sense of urgency and a stronger “why.”

Deciding to be healthy has to be more than just a cool thing to do or a “nice to have.” Making the firm decision to change lifelong habits for the better requires steely resolve and a strong, unquestionable purpose. It has to be bullet-proof.

Take Action:

  • Think. What would incentivize you to make a firm decision and commit to it?
  • Write down what motivates you and post it where you will see it several times a day. This is your “why.” A strong ‘why’ can navigate when the how is not so clear.

Choose Friends Wisely: You can influence your own behavior by hanging out with healthy people.

Social influence and peer pressure positively impact our exercise behavior, awareness of our intent to exercise and produce results, and the attitude maintained during the exercise experience. You are more likely to stay on an exercise program if you have a friend (either an individual or group) who works out with you. Connecting with other people is critical. We are hard-wired to want to impress and relate to our friends. In addition, if you commit to being at the gym every day, you will feel good and will achieve your goals by keeping your promise to yourself.

Take Action:

  • Find a friend you like to exercise with and set up meetings on your calendar to do so. Make friends with people you meet at the health club.
  • Surround yourself with people who are healthy and have already adopted the behaviors you are trying to achieve. Decide to be around them often. It will help nudge you to make better decisions and achieve your goals.

Be Accountable: Get a partner to help you stay that way.

If you are accountable for the commitments you make, you are much more likely to achieve your goals and succeed. One great way to keep honest is to find an accountability partner—someone you trust and who will check in with you on a regular basis (daily, weekly or whatever is needed) to see how you are doing, give you positive reinforcement, track how well you are doing and encourage you to stick with your commitments.

Take Action:

  • Find someone you trust to be your accountability partner.
  • Talk to them about your goals and specific objectives.
  • Get specific with them about actions you will want to take as well as rewards and consequences for taking or not taking them
  • Set up regular check-in times. This can be a text message, a periodic but regular encounter, or a phone call; whatever makes sense.
  • Review your progress and your goals and objectives honestly to track your performance, and modify your targets. Keep your goals ambitious but attainable.

Make It A Game: Sticking to your goals and resolutions isn’t very fun, but technology can help make it fun.

Do your best to make getting healthy fun. You can turn your journey into a game and adorn your arms and body with wearable devices that help motivate, engage and prompt you to make better decisions. Apply video game-thinking and game dynamics to engage yourself and change your behavior. The technology is available and has really evolved. You can turn any goal or objective you want into a game-like activity that will become ever more desirable and highly addictive. Gaming is now understood as a significant way to encourage people to adopt more healthy behavior. Two of the most powerful elements are competition and progressive reinforcement, where a player gets a challenge, meets that challenge and then receives an immediate reward for its accomplishment. Retained engagement is known to produce 90% improvements on start to finish challenges.

Take Action:

Here are a few more apps you can try

  • Pact, funded by the founder of Guitar Hero, helps you make pacts with yourself to regularly exercise and eat healthily—and you are paid in real dollars to do so.
  • LifeTick is a goal-tracking app that asks you establish your core values, then follow the S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-specific) goal-setting method to create tasks or steps that are required to achieve your goal.
  • Habit List helps you track your “streaks”—how many times in a row you completed a habit, and will send you reminders to keep you on track.
  • allows you to choose your goals and then select the type of coaching you require: advice, motivation, and/or prompting from the community.
  • StickK, developed by Yale University economists, requires you to sign a commitment contract which binds you to a goal. It will cost you real money if you fail to reach it.

Pay Attention To Your Environment: It may be working against you.

Your environment greatly influences the decisions you make about your health. To the maximum extent possible, take a careful look around, and if necessary, change what you see, hear, smell, taste and feel. Choose to keep your personal space clean of the enticements that will destroy your ability to achieve your goals. Clean your kitchen and your will be 44 percent less likely to snack than if your kitchen is messy. You will eat less if your kitchen is stocked with smaller vs. bigger plates (ideal is 8-10 inches in diameter).

Take Action:

  • Pay attention to how your environment can sabotage your goals and objectives. Don’t set yourself up for failure by keeping potato chips in an easy-to-reach cabinet. Move them or get rid of them and place them on the forbidden list. Look at your home and work settings with fresh eyes and put away (or throw away) anything that you are to giving up.
  • Strategically place healthy snacks, running shoes or other prompts in prominent places to encourage you to make good on your commitments.

Choosing one of these strategies is probably not enough. You will most likely keep commitments if you employ “multiple interventions,” including strategies that intrinsically and extrinsically motivate your behavior.

About the Author: Leigh Stringer, LEED AP, is a workplace strategy expert and researcher. She works for EYP, an architecture, engineering and building technology firm. She is the author of the bestselling book, The Green Workplace: Sustainable Strategies that Benefit Employees, the Environment and the Bottom Line and The Healthy Workplace:  How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line. She is a regular contributor to Susan Cain’s Quiet Revolution Blog and Work Design Magazine. Leigh regularly speaks at U.S. Green Building Council, CoreNet Global, the International Facilities Management Association and American Institute of Architecture events and writes for a number of workplace and real estate magazines and journals, along with her blog,