How to Prime Yourself for Maintaining Great Health Habits

Written by Liz Withyman
September 8, 2023

Why Health Habits?

You could apply any of what follows to any objective, but throughout this blog I’m going to apply it to the example of health, because as the old Indian proverb says, “a healthy person has a thousand wishes, but a sick person only has one”.

Great health has to be the bedrock of any other goals you might have in life because whatever you create in terms of wealth, success, or even beautiful relationships, without your health, they’ll be no good to you. Whereas if you have amazing energy, the sky’s the limit.

You’re already brilliant at habit formation

Whether you have a habit of unwinding with a glass of wine and a couple of bags of crisps late into the evening or you give your gut a good break overnight to recover from the day; OR, the first thing you do every morning is check your social media versus getting up and moving in natural daylight, think of it this way: you’re already brilliant at habit formation! But your habits may be unintentional, and they might not be habits that serve you.

Whatever we do habitually becomes automatic

We get better at whatever it is we’re doing habitually, because we create neural pathways in our brains and the behaviour becomes automatic. And our BODIES as well as our minds become habituated to certain habits, so for example, if you snack on and off all day, your body will expect food at regular intervals; versus if you’re an Intermittent Faster your body will be primed to find stored energy.

Both your body and mind form habits.

How does intentional habit shaping work?

So how does intentional habit shaping work? In other words, consciously forming habits you DO want in your life.

Cue, Craving, Response, Reward

James Clear in his book Atomic Habits talks about how habits follow a certain pattern, namely cue, craving, response and reward. There is a cue – a trigger that happens before you do the habit – this causes a craving – which produces a response and then you’re rewarded for the behaviour.

Obvious, Attractive, Easy, Satisfying

For people wanting to introduce some new, perhaps healthier habits James came up with 4 Laws of Behaviour Change. His laws for changing a habit are to meet the cue, craving, response and reward with a 4 step process, Make it Obvious, Make it Attractive, Make it Easy and Make it Satisfying.

His idea is to bring automatic behaviours (aka habits) from your unconscious mind into your conscious mind by making it obvious; create an intention to change them, set that up so it’s easy and attractive to do as you adjust your identity to match the new habit, and then be sure to reward yourself to reinforce it.

So, what are some ways to prime yourself for maintaining new habits?

Harnessing the right physiology will help

Firstly, we’re going to look at your physiology.

Sleep

James’s is a helpful structure for thinking about habit change, and taking a step further back, there are some scientifically proven physiological ways of supporting yourself to consciously maintain new habits. For example, studies show that when you’re tired (which in the studies means when you’ve had less than 6 hours of sleep a night) any willpower challenge is more difficult, including for example exercise or making healthy food choices. Sleeping for at least 7 hours will help you to DO the habits you’ve decided you want to do, and NOT do those things you know are bad for you.

Meditation

Likewise with meditation – if you meditate for as little as 10 minutes a day you’ll be priming yourself for maintaining all the habits you want to be doing. The reason for this is that meditation, like sufficient sleep, increases the size and connectivity of your pre-frontal cortex (the rational part of your brain) and enables it to do its job properly – control impulses, find motivation, remember core values and long term goals; and weakens your reptilian brain, which is responsible for impulsive behaviour, which is going to undermine your best laid plans.

Exercise & avoiding insulin spikes

Regular exercise has a similar effect to sufficient sleep and meditation; and so does avoiding insulin spikes, and by the way one of the best ways to do that is to do Intermittent Fasting.

So if you can find enough inspiration, motivation and will-power to start ANY of these habits – it doesn’t have to be all of them – then they’ll soon give you much more will-power than they require to keep doing them.

The right mindset is essential

The next place to look after physiology is your mindset.

Self-compassion

The first point here is about self-compassion. When you fall off the wagon, which you almost certainly will, because you’re human, you might think that feeling bad – whether that’s regret, guilt or shame – would be helpful in leveraging yourself to improve, but science shows that the opposite is true. It turns out that it’s better to forgive yourself for your mistakes and wipe the slate clean to prevent future relapses. A study of dieters who were taught to recognise that they felt guilty when they didn’t stick to their plan, put it into perspective and then let themselves off the hook – versus a control group – showed that the harder you are on yourself when you fail to keep up your desired habit, the more likely you are to have the same failure again and the bigger it will be if you do. So not beating yourself up when you’ve make a mistake is not being soft, it’s being smart.

Your Future Self

Then there’s the concept of Future Self. In my coached Intermittent Fasting program 7 Habits for a Vibrant Life, I use a Future Self exercise in which I invite you to summon up in your mind’s eye yourself in 20 or 30 years time; the idea is to make the Future Self more real, and identify with them more, because studies show that if you feel closer to your Future Self, you’ll take actions now to take care of them. This is the case whether you imagine them in either positive or negative realities, but it may surprise you to know that it’s more powerful if you imagine them in a negative scenario. By vividly imagining the future if you DON’T change the habits, you’ll be even more likely to succeed.

Anticipate obstacles

The next strategy is in a similar vein: anticipate obstacles. Women in a study who were asked about the biggest obstacle to their exercise goal, when and where that was likely to occur, what they could do in advance to prevent it and what they would do to get back on the wagon afterwards were almost twice as successful in maintaining their exercise habit compared to the ones who were simply asked about the goal and to look at the positives.

Surfing the urge

One final technique, which is particularly apt for an Intermittent Fasting habit, is known as ‘surfing the urge’ – in the case of IF, the urge to eat in your fasting window. This involves a mindfulness technique in which, rather than giving in to an urge to eat, you give the urge your full attention, trust that you can tolerate these sensations, breathe, imagine the craving as a wave and wait with patience until it passes. The findings suggest that this technique changes your response to the urge and make resisting temptation easier.

Start small

So, is there a small habit you can put into your routine today to get you closer to where you want to be?

Liz Withyman

Liz Withyman is an ICF-registered ACC (Associate Certified Coach) who trained with the Coaches Training Institute, the most rigorous and respected coach training in the industry. She runs her online Coached Intermittent Fasting Program 7 Habits for a Vibrant Life several times a year. 

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