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‘Willpower is not the key’: Seven steps to creating good habits that last

You may have a list of resolutions as long as your arm, or have spent 'Twixtmas' daydreaming about the perfect version of yourself, acing 2020 without a bad habit in sight. But what do you actually need to do to turn those big hopes into good new habits that will last past the end of January? Behaviour change specialist Dr Heather McKee shares her best advice with Woman’s Hour…

1. Understand the difference between a resolution and a habit

“Most people’s resolutions fail after a month,” Dr Heather McKee tells Woman’s Hour. “But how many people failed to brush their teeth this morning?

“It's not like you woke up and were debating the pros and cons of dental hygiene, or were worrying about if you were in the right mood to brush your teeth - or if you were a teeth-brushing kind of person! You just did it. And that's the power of habits. [If] you do the same thing in the same circumstances enough times, it becomes a habit.”

2. Start with your ‘why?’

“We frequently let the outcome - the number on the scales, our pay cheque, the steps on our activity tracker - be the sole indicator of our success. These types of performance-centred goals are sources of extrinsic motivation and research shows they are unsustainable long term.

“Instead [try and make] goals that mean something to you, that reflect who you are and what you wish to represent as a person. These ‘intrinsic goals’ are much stickier as they are linked to your higher values - the things that matter most - and are internally motivating,” says Heather.

“Focus on the reward – so how the habit sets you up for the day or that you will have more energy – and you're much more likely to actually engage in that habit in the first place. Ask ‘what am I going to gain by engaging in this behaviour?’, rather than ‘what am I missing out on or going to lose?’.”

3. Willpower is not the key to your success

“Relying on your willpower ultimately makes you less likely to achieve your goals and yet it’s exactly what we do when we are trying to form new habits,” says Heather.

“Willpower is a limited resource, so as soon as we're in a bad mood, as soon as we're hungry, as soon as we've had an argument with our spouse, that willpower goes out of the window. Ultimately willpower is like a muscle. If I trained my right bicep every day in the gym for a week, by the end of the week I couldn't pick up a cup of tea. But if I use it an adequate amount, with proper rest and recovery, it will get stronger over time.”

4. Start small

“On day one we become really motivated, we promise to go to the gym every day, cut down sugar, cigarettes… the list goes on. [But] pursuing all of these goals at once tends to put us under unnecessary pressure… [it] dilutes your effectiveness and makes it less likely you will succeed at any of them,” says Heather.

“Adopting healthy habits needs to be a gradual process in order for it to be sustainable, achieved through consistent, small, but positive changes in your lifestyle. Research shows smaller, simpler actions become habitual more quickly. Plan a healthy snack at 4pm to avoid the biscuit slump, switch to a smaller sized coffee, take the stairs in work up until lunchtime.

"These microchanges may seem insignificantly small but can have a big impact on your long-term success. They don’t feel too punishing or restrictive and each time you accomplish a microchange you get a sense of satisfaction from the process and this spurs on your motivation to stick with your goals.”

5. Make it relevant to your life

“You've got to work within the constraints of your life… it's got to be relevant,” says Heather.

“The media has an obsession at the moment with ‘the perfect morning routine’. If you're not a morning person at all, don't work on setting up a morning routine. If you hate kale salads but that's something you think you have to do to be healthy, don't eat kale.

“The problem is people feel like they ‘should’ do things. But how do you make it easiest for yourself to pick up that habit? What do you enjoy? What's the time of the day you're most motivated? Rather than feeling like you have to do something in the morning because everyone else does, work out when it’s going to be easiest for you to engage with a habit and start there.”

6. It’s a marathon not a sprint

“There is a myth that it takes 21 days to change a habit - research now tells us it can take anything from 66 to 122 days to make or break a habit depending on how complex it is,” says Heather.

“Success in habit change is determined by the journey rather than the destination. It’s about what you do each day to work towards your goal. Consistency is the key. The good news is, as time goes on, it gets easier rather than harder. Research shows that once a habit is formed it can then become automatic, so it no longer uses up your willpower and then you don't have to even think about it.”

7. Banish the shame

“We change more from a place of growth than a place of shame,” says Heather – citing another reason why we should think about what we can gain from adopting a new habit, instead of what we can lose.

“There's this myth that if we're kind to ourselves, show ourselves self-compassion and let go of shame we're just going to sit at home in our PJs watching Netflix all day. But ultimately if we're more compassionate we're more likely to stick to our goals long term. We're less likely to procrastinate, we're more likely to be healthy eaters, we're more likely to exercise more. It’s about giving yourself space for failure and that's a huge part of habit change - actually accepting that failure is part of your success.”

Listen to the Woman’s Hour phone-in on Habits for more advice from Dr Heather McKee or you can look at her website. Catch up with every episode of Woman's Hour on BBC Sounds.