How to retain your healthy habits over the holidays

Holidays are great, but they can also pose a challenge if you want to maintain some of your healthier habits. Let’s look at how to you can avoid going backwards over the festive season.

Routine

Routine plays a big role in habits. During the course of a normal year your days tend to take on a familiar feel—you get up around the same time, get dressed and ready for work in the same sequence, travel to the same place and by the same means, spend time in your familiar workplace before returning home and winding down. All these routines become the tapestry around which habits form.

You might exercise after getting up and before you shower. You might eat a healthy breakfast based on your regular grocery shopping habits. You might have a no-drink policy during the week that you stick to.

 

But then you go on holidays.

You get up late and skip the gym. You go out for breakfast with friends. You find yourself drinking every night. Discover shallow habits“It is the holidays, after all”, you think.

How sticky is your habit?

The secret to maintaining healthy habits over the holidays is knowing how deep-seated your habits are. In other words, are they sticky?

While sticky habits are robust and you take them wherever you go, others are tenuous and tied to the home environment or routine. As soon as you are away from routine, the habit falls away. I call these “shallow habits”.

A sticky habit is one where:

  • You do it wherever you are;

  • It feels weird not to do it; and

  • You don’t think about doing it, but you think about it if you haven’t done it. 

For most of us, brushing our teeth is a sticky habit.

A shallow habit is one where:

  • You still have to think about doing it;

  • You might not notice if you don’t do it;

  • If you do notice, you are quick to rationalise why you didn’t need to do it; and

  • You find yourself forgetting about it or dropping it when you are travelling or out of routine. 

For me meditation remains a shallow habit. I can do it for periods at a time but I can just as easily stop. I am having better luck with flossing, and it is on the cusp of moving from shallow to sticky.

It’s worth noting that shallow habits are not really habits at all because they have not yet become automated. However, they are behaviours that you are on the path to habituating so for our purposes we want to include them in our habit family.

Supporting shallow habits

When it comes to the holidays, you probably don’t need to worry about your sticky habits because you will either do them regardless, or resume after a short break because you miss them too much.

Shallow habits are the ones you need to protect. For that, you need to out wit yourself and can try the following four techniques. 

1. Manage your environment

Your environment will have a large bearing on how well you support your shallow habits. Having an exercise habit that relies on a gym, for example, means if you are away from that gym or it is closed, you won’t exercise. In that case you can do two things:

  • Look for similar environments – choose a hotel with a gym, for example; or

  • Migrate the context of your habit – leading up to the holidays, intersperse gym-based exercise with outdoor workouts or activities in the home. 

2. Select transportable triggers

One of the traps when establishing a habit is choosing a trigger that is heavily context dependent. For instance, trying to establish a habit to drink a glass of water when I turn on my computer at the start of the day is okay while I’m at work, but will fall away as soon as I am on holiday. Better would be for me to drink a glass of water as soon as I wake up because I’m going to do that everyday of my life. When it comes to habit triggers, try to think of things that you do or that happen to you wherever you happen to be.

3. Set implementation intentions

It sounds dull but anticipating what you will do in particular circumstances and making an implementation intention plan can be very helpful. In effect, write down what you’ll do if something happens. For example: “If my friends ask me to breakfast, I will order the muesli without looking at the other options”. Or: “If I am invited to drinks during the week I will order a refreshing soda and lime straight away so I don’t get tempted”. By planning your reaction you reduce the chances of acting impulsively in the moment.

4. Commit your future self

You will be most susceptible to making poor choices when you are tired—the end of day, the end of week, and yes, the end of year. That means planning ahead while you have the energy, and committing your future self to more virtuous behaviour. For example, if you know you tend to eat poorly on Friday nights, freeze left-overs from a healthier mid-week meal to make it easier to reheat than order fast-food.

Bri Williams not only deletes all buying hesitation and maximises every dollar of your marketing spend by applying behavioural economics to the patterns of buying behaviour, she also helps people take control of their habits to maximise their personal effectiveness. This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Smart Company.  

Bri Williams

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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