If you’ve ever felt stuck in place despite dreaming big, writing out your goals, and making a vision board, this blog post is for you.
There’s one mundane lever that does not come up in most articles about goals and dreams: habits. I think about habits a lot (for reasons I’ll get into in a moment), and I hope this article invites you to consider them more.
Habits make up the bulk of our days, and steer our lives for better or worse. Habits are decisions that are already made (doesn’t that sound amazing?). They free your mind so you no longer have to exert effort to decide.
Habits happen millions of times every day of your life. They shape your life powerfully both here and now and into the future.
A Simple Example
Here’s a simple example: you want the habit of eating at least 5 fruits and vegetables a day.
The rules of creating a new habit include:
- make it as simple as possible,
- make it as convenient as possible,
- and link it to something else you are already doing.
If you eat oatmeal every morning (link it to something else you already do), buy frozen fruit or pre-chopped fruit, or chop your fruit the moment you come home from the market. (Make it convenient). Make a sticky note reminder to tack onto the rolled oats if you need to (for the first week of this new habit). It will take less than 30 seconds to add the chopped or frozen fruit to your meal daily. (Make it simple).
With that, you are at least 20% closer to 5 servings a day.
Or maybe you know you could benefit from more protein. Swap fruit for protein powder and follow the same plan above.
Once that new habit is engrained, you can apply the “rules” (simplicity, convenience, linking) to help integrate the next serving of fruits and veggies in a way that works for you: maybe it involves Sunday meal prep, meeting lunch dates exclusively at the salad shop, or some smoothie that makes you excited for the mid-afternoon slump where you normally would have opted for caffeine (not that there’s anything wrong with caffeine!).
Skip the Dread
If the example above doesn’t apply to you, consider some other aspect of your day that you would love to be more streamlined.
For me, I hated the feeling of dental floss digging into my fingers. I would dread it and “forget” to floss sometimes. Since I bought a waterpik, I have not missed a day of flossing. With that $30 purchase, I made flossing more simple, more convenient, and it already was linked with a daily activity (brushing my teeth). I even took the device on vacation with me.
I no longer dread this basic act of self care.
Health is an area where habits have an outsized influence.
As you may know from follow up stories about people who got in the best shape of their life only to falter back to baseline later: goals do not make the foundation of our health. Even “hard work” does not make the foundation of health. Our habits do.
My obsession with habits started in the busiest time of my career when I was a new physical therapist. I had taught yoga for over a decade, and was not willing to give up my classes. Hence why I was working full time and teaching far too many yoga classes in the evenings and on weekends.
I needed to dial in my habits for the sake of my own sanity.
I also saw in those first months of offering patient care how a tiny lifestyle or habit shift could have a massive, potentially lifelong beneficial effect on my patients. This positive effect could snowball better than any set of “home exercises”.
Discussing things like sleep quality or quantity, protein, or simply walking and standing throughout the day is one of the ways that my practice is truly integrative, functional, “lifestyle medicine” physical therapy.
When I began to see my role more expansively — as someone who helped others to dial in their habits, not just fixed what temporarily seemed “broken” — patients started getting better faster, frequently arriving to their next session enthusiastic about a big aha moment.
No ache and pain is an island.
There is plenty of evidence to back up this lifestyle / habit approach even in the treatment of musculoskeletal injuries. The emerging research on pain science, mostly published since I completed my doctorate shows that pain lasting longer than a few days or a week (the primary reason a patient comes to see me) is always multifactorial: related to stress levels, social connection, and so many daily contributing habitual factors other than pure biomechanics.
Even within biomechanics, we have habits: always leaning to the same side on the couch or office chair, or standing with the weight more on one foot than the other. Naming these activities as “habits” empowers us to create a roadmap to change them: keep it simple, convenient, and trigger with an activity that you already do.
Defeated no more.
Many people in pain can feel defeated.
Many of us who dream big and have massive goals can feel defeated when these dreams don’t “manifest”.
But the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. I hope you take a moment to consider where your daily habits may not be matching your dreams. Then jot down ideas to integrate simple, sustainable shifts, and hone your days to align with your biggest, most beautiful goals.
If this article inspires you, please check out the following two books, which formed the foundation of my thoughts on this subject:
Atomic Habits by James Clear
Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg
If you have other resources, ideas or examples on habits and habit formation, please comment below!
(This blog post may contain affiliate links).